The Bullpen

Are sex scandals the only scandals Americans care about anymore?

The press loves sexy stories of Bubba, Weiner, and Ensign — but largely ignores rather stiff tales of official malfeasance

Matt K. Lewis

Last week, The New York Times called for Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) to "at least temporarily" relinquish his position as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee over lingering ethics questions.

This is a big deal. Menendez faces scrutiny for his failure to properly report plane trips to the Dominican Republican provided by a donor (who happens to be under investigation for Medicare fraud) — as well as allegations that the senator inappropriately used his position to help secure a port security contract (worth hundreds of millions) for that same donor.

Further, it's interesting to note that the concerns listed by the Times appear to have nothing to do with the juicy allegations that Menendez also frequented underage prostitutes. As The Washington Post's Dana Milbank observed, "Menendez deserves opprobrium, some would argue, because he has acted like a prostitute himself."

This may be true. But here's my question: If the sexual allegations hadn't been made public in the first place, would we even be talking about the more mundane ethics concerns today? Are sex scandals the only scandals we really care about these days?

In the 1920s, the nation was rocked by the Teapot Dome scandal, which basically involved President Harding's secretary of the Interior receiving kickbacks for leasing oil fields.

Today, I suspect such allegations would be met with a collective yawn by the press corps since the scandal was devoid of, say, a congressman tweeting a nearly nude photo of himself.

Heck, one gets the feeling that Watergate might not even play today — unless there was a sex scandal attached to it. 

Don't believe me? Bill Clinton, you'll recall, skated for years on boring accusations regarding Whitewater and cattle futures, among other things. It was only a sordid relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky that got the press salivating. 

Sex sells. And if your scandal has a sexual component, you can bet the press will dig deeper than they otherwise would. 

This is sort of what Charles Krauthammer implied when he argued that Gen. David Petreaus' cheating scandal would force the media to cover Benghazi. 

"Now that the story is attached to a sex scandal," Krauthammer predicted on Fox News, "it will become a story that will be pursued by the media."

"Given the nature of our journalism," Krauthammer continued, "it will now become the hottest story around, and you can be sure that even the mainstream papers which did not show any interest whatsoever in this story up to and into the election are going to get on it now."

Things didn't necessarily pan out the way Krauthammer thought, but he was correct about a larger trend involving the tabloidization of the press.

Still, we're left with an interesting theory: Before the press will dig into a substantive corruption story these days, there has to be a sexy hook to get their attention — a possible pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

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