Doing our Morning Splash post this morning, I was confronted with one of those journalistic quandaries that comes up whenever a story presents itself you know the public is ready, willing, and able to devour like seven-layer chocolate cake, but which seems to have negligible value in terms of adding to the public discourse.
In the daily digest of news that Morning Splash is, where to rank the report that former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has admitted fathering an out-of-wedlock child with someone from his household staff? As of this writing, CNN and ABC have given it top-story status on its web page, MSNBC puts it at No. 2, and Fox and CBS are giving it prominent play. Even BBC News puts it just below the fold. As for the web site of the nation's paper of record, the New York Times, the story is front and center, anchored by a large photo of Schwarzenegger and wife Maria Shriver, from whom he is now separated. Only Al Jazeera English seems to have missed the boat on what -- let's face it -- is an item that is probably going to drive a lot of web traffic. (The L.A. Times, the paper that broke the story, occupies two out of the top 10 spots on Google Trends right now, probably because nobody knows how to spell Arnold's name.) Al Jazeera has deemed the defection of the Libyan Oil Minister of much greater importance.
I hate to engage in what some might consider journalistic navel-gazing. And "coverage of the coverage" is certainly a way for media to have its cake and eat it too. But since this comes up time and again, I think it's worth looking at without any implicit condemnation. Factors arguing against the kind of treatment this story is getting today:
- Schwarzenegger is no longer governor or a public office holder of any stripe.
- The event in question occurred before he was in office.
- Schwarzenegger did not govern as a cultural conservative. He was not the type of politician who made "family values" a part of his agenda or the narrative he pushed in citing his leadership qualifications. Meaning that, cultivating an image of personal morality and leveraging it as a sign of fitness for public office arguably makes one fair game to charges of hypocrisy when that edifice implodes. (Californians, by the way, dismissed as a disqualifier for office allegations of a much more serious matter against Schwarzenegger, the serial groping of women , back in 2003.)
And factors arguing for coverage?
- It's a helluva story! One that will spill over from water coolers and into cubicles, parking lots, and restrooms for days to come. My wife, for example, uttered this opener in our morning conversation: "Didja hear about Schwarzennegger?"
Uh, yes, I had. Because that is the first thing I clicked on today, with an urgency usually reserved for viral videos involving kittens. I wanted to know.
But is my and the rest of America's desire to know a good enough reason to splash this story across the front pages of newspapers and web sites? And more provocatively, is this a story that should even be covered at all? Is the personal sexual morality of public figures a legitimate topic for any area of journalism outside of the gossip pages? Given the career-exploding escapades of such politicians as Mark Sanford and Eliott Spitzer, and the escalation of a marital transgression by the President of the United States into eventual impeachment proceedings, our society for the time being seems to have answered "yes."
As for my morning quandary of where to rank the Schwarzenegger story in a list of news you should know, I placed it fifth, between Oakland gang injunctions and the Giants making an "It Gets Better" video.
Reasonable people can disagree.
What's your take? Tell us in the comments section.