Herman Cain, infidelity, and electoral coverage

All along, the Herman Cain campaign–which Politico called “one of the most hapless and bumbling operations in modern presidential politics”–has been riveting but improbable. Yet whatever the ex-restaurant executive’s other gaffes, misdeeds and missteps, Cain’s bid seems finally to have crumbled because of extensive coverage of a woman’s allegations that she had a 13-year extramarital romance with him.

Some Cain supporters have cried foul: “Private, alleged consensual conduct between adults,” said his lawyer, Lin Wood, is “not a proper subject of inquiry by the media or the public.”

That’s a point worth examining. Why isn’t this private? How much should the news media care about a past amorous liaison? As Brad Hirschfield asked in his Washington Post column, “Does it matter if Herman Cain had an affair?”

The general argument for exposing personal misconduct is that it sheds light on the candidate’s fitness for office.

There’s trustworthiness: If he’s cheating in private, he’ll cheat in public.

There’s hypocrisy: The candidate is happily posing as a moral exemplar on the podium while texting his latest squeeze. The hypocrisy rationale is popular among news editors; a survey in the ‘90s found that while one-third would report a candidate’s infidelity on general principle, 94 percent would do so if the candidate had explicitly preached “family values.”

There’s recklessness, a word used in conversation by one of the Miami Herald reporters who revealed the brazen dalliance of Gary Hart, Democratic presidential frontrunner in 1987: What was he thinking? Has he no judgment?

And there’s “character.” Character describes moral worth, a supposedly seamless continuity between private and public selves. The candidate who is the “kind of person” who would deceive a spouse is unfit to serve, not because messing around reflects on dedication and competence, but because high office isn’t only a job, it’s an honor, which we confer on people not just because they’re capable, but because they’re deserving.

For its part, the public is conflicted. They don’t like dirty little secrets, but they don’t like the media to spend a lot of time ferreting them out. A 2009 Journal of Mass Media Ethics survey found 62 percent believed “it is important that we know about our public leaders’ private lives,” while 65 percent said the media dwelled on them too much.

Surveys in the ‘80s and ‘90s found majorities thought infidelity unrelated to presidential capacity and disapproved of media coverage of extramarital affairs.

But the JMME survey by Bartosz Wojdynski at Virginia Tech and Daniel Riffe at Chapel Hill found public tolerance of such coverage rose dramatically between 2001 and 2009. The percentage of people (a sample drawn from a single Southern state) who wanted no coverage of private lives fell from 59 to 36 percent, while those who believed it was the media’s job rose from 37 to 58 percent.

“The public expects, at least accepts, mainstream print and broadcast media to shed light on behaviors and issues that may be perceived as personal, even if this means coverage of tawdry affairs …,” the authors conclude.

So the audience is willing, which suggests market motives as well as moral ones for coverage.

But there is another side.

After all, it’s hard enough for the electoral process to do its minimum civic role, which is to illuminate public policy alternatives and select people who will handle official duties wisely and effectively, without policing private purity too.

The notion that private misconduct foretells public performance is appealing, but dubious. The roster of great leaders includes many who were abusive, philandering drunks at home and visionary statesmen at work. Exploring that paradox is what biographers do. Ignoring it is what voters do.

There’s a further problem. If the media accept that private sexual misconduct is deeply revealing of fitness for office, they would logically be obligated to do way more than give big-time play to such allegations if they cropped up.

Their duty would be to run hard after infidelity. This would be a front-burner concern. Coverage resources would have to be redeployed. Fairness would compel sexual scrutiny of other candidates. And that would mean a kind of keyhole-peeping, sheet-sniffing journalism well beyond any we’ve seen in this country, and encourage a redirection of the public gaze that would harm both culture and politics.

I hope we’re not going there. But I fear the lesson of the Cain campaign is to elevate infidelity as an electoral issue, and move coverage a big step farther from civic purpose and closer to celebrity-mad tabloid TV.

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11 thoughts on “Herman Cain, infidelity, and electoral coverage

  1. As usual, a fine delineation of the issues. But the “solution” seems problematic. Does Wasserman leave us with a situation wherein we roust the candidates who are outed but give the ones with less-known dalliances a pass? It’s OK to abuse your husband as long as he doesn’t tell? I totally agree that refocusing “news” coverage on personal issues would be a horrid disservice, but I’m not ready to be happy with where the alternative seems to leave us. If reporting personal misconduct before an election makes scandals in office less likely, I’m all for it.

    1. Great question, Ham, and I wish I had a good answer. Your reference to scandals in office is important, and we saw, with Bill Clinton, that the kind of sexual profligacy that was exposed before his election turned out to be far from irrelevant to his job performance, and resurfaced to immobilize his second term. So that’s a plausible refutation of my overall argument: There may well be a nexus between private misconduct and public duty. But as I recall those dalliances, they weren’t consensual affairs; they came perilously close to misuse of office. In that respect they were analogous to the John Edwards situation, where he was essentially corrupting his presidential campaign to enable and conceal his romance. Those situations are fair game for the media. My focus is on personal sexual matters, and here I think the argument that exposing them might influence votes isn’t persuasive enough to warrant the redirection of journalistic focus that covering them adequately would entail.

  2. “The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation,” a wise statesman once said. If it’s true, in an ideal world, the state cannot legislate morality, should the media act in loco parentis, as it were? Herman Cain probably deserved to drop out of the campaign. Not for his horndog ways, but because his policies were puerile and foolish. Holding up some form of moral litmus test by journalists is simply furthering the “TMZ-ization” of the media. It attracts eyeballs and it’s easier to do than serious policy analyses.

  3. That wise statesman was Pierre Trudeau, former PM of Canada – and his so called ‘wisdom’ has caused us lots and lots of problems. The only people who consider him wise are liberals – whose party support has dropped to historic lows.
    So much for ‘wisdom’.

  4. Ed – I was delighted to read this in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer — both because I agree with you (!) and because you’re the uncle of one of my favorite people in the world, my daughter-in-law Kathrine. So it’s been fun to find your blog. I read your piece on Murdoch as well – his name should go down in infamy – altho I must confess (somewhat guiltily, of course) that FOX TV News recently did a very good feature on my new book, Steps of Courage: My Parents’ Journey from Nazi Germany to America. Best to you and yours, Bettina

      1. I just read your piece on Cain’s Fidelity and should it matter. I believe, if now Mrs. Cain can no longer trust her husband in anything he says or does, why should I? I’m a Republican and the field just got smaller!
        Jim Tierney
        jrtierneyjr@gmail.com

      2. That’s a key point, and I alluded to it in the column. But if you think about it further, that suggests the reason we, as voters, should attach importance to this would depend on the degree to which the candidate’s infidelity wrongs his wife. Now suppose, for the sake of argument, the candidate’s wife knew and didn’t care, or accepted his infidelity as the regrettable downside to an otherwise OK marriage. I suspect that kind of begrudging acceptance is more common that we think. For the media, then, this would pose a problem. Logically, the reporter would have to determine what kinds of understandings govern that marriage before being able to proceed confidently with blowing the whistle on the infidelity. And that opens the door to journalistic intrusiveness that’s almost nightmarish, and ends up further harming the person who’s probably the least culpable in the whole affair, the spouse.

  5. Busted! Mr. Moran has correctly identified the late Canadian PM and Liberal Party leader, Pierre Trudeau as the one who remarked about the state and the bedrooms of the nation. While dismissing me as a marked Liberal may not be completely accurate, it is still possible, I hope, to quote someone without assuming that one is wholeheartedly endorsing the source of the quote. In fact, I never voted for Trudeau. But as a historical figure, there was much to admire about him compared to today’s milquetoast political culture. “Le style, c’est l’homme même…”

  6. Turn this around. Suppose you’re covering Herman Cain and you get a tip about his philandering. Clearly, this is something that matters to a significant chunk of voters–not a majority perhaps, but substantial numbers. How can you justify NOT following up and, if it checks out, publishing the story? What’s the rationale for WITHHOLDING information that is important to many voters? Is it up to reporters to decide which voter concerns are legitimate and which are not?

    1. It’s a problem, for sure. The question is whether there is private behavior that might well influence a voting decision but is still none of the voters’ business. At first blush, that seems inconceivable. But suppose our candidate and his missus like to dress up in bizarre outfits and play bedroom games. Or he keeps a private collection of erotic art. Or he meditates excessively (in the view of some people) or spends more time at prayer than more skeptical voters think is healthy. Or, as we saw with a succession of officeholders, he has same-sex paramours–consensual and discreet. I’m not prepared to go along with the idea that simply because some voters would disapprove, the news media necessarily have a duty, or even a right, to ferret out and expose such things. Like you, I’m uncomfortable with suppressing the information; that’s equivalent to saying to voters, “Sure, you might care, but we don’t think you should.” But at the same time, running the story constitutes an endorsement of a curiosity based on a highly problematic sense of informational entitlement and intrusiveness. And I don’t like being the instrument of that.

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