Sunday, October 01, 2006

Sex sells

As passionate as I am to defend the media sometimes, I am absolutely just as willing to point out when we screw up.

Check the Web sites of the three major cable news networks (CNN, FoxNews and MSNBC) and you’ll probably find the same lead political story on each of their home pages.

If you haven’t heard, Florida Republican Rep. Mark Foley has resigned over accusations that he sent sexually explicit e-mails to a teenage congressional page. My guess is that you’ve heard.

Lesson of the day: We Americans just love a political sex scandal.

Assuming the facts of the case have all been reported accurately, this is most definitely a disturbing example of a congressman violating the trust of his constituency. His resignation was most definitely in order and the alleged victim has every right to pursue legal prosecution.

But beyond that, I have trouble believing this particular news story warrants the type of 24-hour coverage CNN, Fox and MSNBC seem to think it deserves.

Look no further than the “smaller” stories on the same Web sites.

Apparently Brazil’s incumbent president nearly losing power, the U.S. Secretary of Defense reinforcing his commitment to the Iraq War and the chilling release of a video showing the men who committed the most horrific offense of terrorism on American soil laughing and joking are stories less “newsworthy” than the one of a corrupt politician with a thing for teenage male congressional pages.

Anyone else having flashbacks to the Clinton-Lewinsky “scandal?”

Does this latest example of political corruption warrant news coverage? Absolutely.

Is it relevant to upcoming elections? For sure.

Are readers and viewers likely to pay closer attention to this story than ones that actually have an effect on their lives? You bet.

But my guess is that the story of Foley’s apparent infatuation with teenage boys and his subsequent stupidity for acting on it is no more important than Clinton’s affinity for affection from female interns.

And we all know where that got (or failed to get) us.

Unfortunately, I fear that this latest example of America’s obsession with sex scandals will be inappropriately making headlines far further into the future than seems necessary at the moment.

You see, when media outlets of all forms (TV, newspapers, Internet, radio, etc.) make decisions on how to “play” stories, the goal is to communicate some sense of importance to readers and viewers.

The message behind a newspaper’s most prominent headline is simply that this particular story is the most important news of the day and should therefore be read (or viewed) by the most people.

Herein lies the problem of playing up a scandalous, sensationalized and overtly sexualized story, such as Foley’s.

In cases such as these, members of the media can be easily seduced by sexy headlines and the attention that such stories often produce.

But that doesn’t make it right.