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Columns / GWEN'S TAKE

Under the Big Top

Washington Follies: June edition

photo of Gwen Ifill
June 10, 2011

This was a tough week to be a news snob.

I could blame Anthony Weiner, the New York congressman whose spectacular, Twitter-fueled political implosion was impossible to ignore.


I could blame the cable networks, who, absent the Weiner story, had little else to fill 24 hours with, aside from fires and the Casey Anthony trial.

Or I could blame the news cycle, which -- absent war and disaster -- can slow to an excruciating crawl.

Or I could blame no one. News is news. And we don’t simply stop covering it because we find it personally distasteful. If that were the case, most of us would close up shop indefinitely.

Instead, we have little choice but to take note of “The Story Everyone is Talking About,” and search for ways to find a larger lesson in it.

That lesson is not always immediately identifiable.

The tawdry Weiner scandal is certainly not our first experience covering the inexplicable or the squirm-inducing. And sadly, it is probably not the last time we will be forced to marvel at how apparently smart people do astoundingly dumb things.

The list is depressingly long, and pays no respect to party or religious affiliation. Eric Massa. Mark Foley. Chris Lee. John Ensign. Bill Clinton. David Vitter. Gary Hart. Robert Packwood. Eliot Spitzer. Jim McGreevey. Mark Sanford.

The details in each boom and bust varied, but it always came down to sex. And they all played out according to some painful and well-worn script. Denial, then apology -- usually but not always -- with a pained wife standing off to the side.

And always, it seems, men. Married men. (Do we even care when they are single?)

Just last week, we were reminded how much 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards risked to cover up evidence of an affair with a woman he met in a bar. And he ran for president -- twice.

Just weeks before that, we saw Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, tumble from office after he was accused of assaulting a hotel maid.

After a while, it becomes ridiculous to look away. So I keep hunting for that larger meaning. What is it about power that makes people act this way? Are women less likely to be risk-takers? If not, why are sex scandals involving powerful women so rare? Do we in the news media care about private actions because the people at the center of them are famous, or because they are holders of the public trust? Or simply because it is (or we are) salacious?

I wish I had big answers for you. And I haven’t yet given up on looking for a way to make this about more than scandal. I just haven’t come up with the answer yet.

Any ideas? Send them to me @pbsgwen on Twitter (no pictures please) or to I’ll post the best answers next week.

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