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Rachel Maddow, Political Sex Scandals and the State of Affairs By Robin Barnes

I’ve received more requests for media interviews concerning political sex scandals than all other topics combined.  My recent book OUTRAGEOUS INVASIONS, Celebrities’ Private Lives, Media and the Law (Oxford University Press) focuses upon the evolution of press rights, the legal and social consequences of characterizing celebrities as public figures, and how “entertainment news” deflects attention away from the right of privacy and its relationship to democracy and social order.

True to the mission, in 2011 I’ve blogged more about public media’s obsession with celebrities’ private lives than with the distribution of TARP funds to Wall Street Barons, their 20 plus million dollar executive bonuses, and the lack of public attention to the impact of mortgage-backed derivatives and federal investigatory findings related to the housing scandal. In 2009, 20 financial giants each received at least $283 billion of the TARP bailout, far more than half of the total committed to roughly 650 troubled firms. Months later, these same institutions handed out millions in executive bonuses.  On that very day, the public was treated to wall-to-wall coverage of Tiger Woods’ apology, with  full blown panels of ‘experts’ assembled to discuss his: sincerity, spiritual beliefs, mother’s disappointment, and wife’s absence.  Amid recent reports that some of these same banks effectively cheated taxpayers by presenting the Federal Housing Administration with false claims, the media obsessively focused upon former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sexual proclivities, forcing the public to endure non-stop coverage of the nuances of his marriage to Maria Shriver, while national unemployment rates continues to rise and 85% of recent grads are moving back home indefinitely.

Unlike the European Union, US public media allows little or no privacy for its politicians.  Similar to Tiger Woods, nothing about John Edwards, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Anthony Weiner could have remotely justified the non-stop media coverage that the information about them garnered.  Over-the-top characterizations and speculations about whether they pursued the supposed sins of their loins with the tacit consent of their partners is not and may never become a matter of public concern.   Only one major media personality, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, openly discussed and demonstrated requisite understanding of the invasive nature of the media frenzy around Tiger Woods by refusing to cover the story.  Maddow has recently been criticized by Frank Moraes for the way she ranked various politicians in her “Post-Bill Clinton Modern American Political Sex-Scandal-Consequence-O-Meter.”   I agree with some of his observations in relation to adultery and prostitution in general.  However, Maddow does attempt to balance competing interests when blatant hypocrisy, public manipulation, abuse of power and misuse of government funds present additional layers for which “creepiness and accountability” take on added dimensions.  The end of Frank’s post questioned the whole point of Maddow’s segment (except to bring up all the major sex scandals of the past few years), he disagrees with the content, is disappointed that she has presented a skewed view of the issues, and expressed his opinion that she “is better than this.” The question is why the whole nation isn’t better than that? 

There are profound consequences for continuing on with business as usual. Virginia Heffernan hit the nail on the head when noting the hypocrisy of our attitudinal norms.  In a post-911 world, where Islamic regimes railing against Western immorality have been viewed as barbaric, media portrayal of twenty-something year-old females has its own misogynistic code and tyrannical elements.   “[Y]oung-spirited women [are being stalked by a media operatives who] find ways to frame them by pointing cameras into their cars and up their skirts, in search of something unsavory to write about.  Lindsay Lohan, Kate Holmes and Angelina Jolie and members of their families bear the brunt of today’s vicious attacks.  Not long ago Britney Spears was hounded to such extremes that she was not given a reprieve from the hunt until she was strapped to a gurney and rushed to Cedar Sinai hospital.  In sum, the nonstop reporting and incessant door-stepping represents an unlawful invasion of privacy, defamation of character, and denial of equal protection. 

Media outlets permanently camped outside every possible entry and exit of the places frequented by celebs, politicians and those in their inner circle takes a toll on the entire family.   It’s doubtful that Edwards’ affair caused as much distress to his deceased wife as the media stalking about disturbing the solitude of her home and community life.  Combing through every detail of her life and marriage may have had as much if not more of an influence in hastening her death, forcing her to utilize precious energy and resources that she could have devoted to healing rather than worrying about her kids and how they would hold up under such pressure. For blowing the lid off of her life at its most vulnerable juncture, the National Enquirer believes it deserved a Pulitzer.  So the question, as far as I can tell, is not what happened to Rachel Maddow, but simply this:  when the public is bombarded with all the news unfit to print about the intimate details of another’s life, while Wall Street Barons ruin the nation’s financial stability and both own and run all media, what free speech values are served and what public interest is advanced in the entire state of affairs (pardon the pun)?