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Post Mortem on Weiner Coverage: He Looked Bad, but So Did the Media

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ANTHONY WEINER
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What triggered this piece was opening a friend's email the other day and clicking on a link to a TV segment where Bill Maher and Jane Lynch do a verbatim reading of Anthony Weiner and one of his female contacts talking dirty to each other via Twitter.

I'd heard something about this already, and even though I was already Weiner-weary, since someone I knew and liked took the time to send it to me, I watched.

Maher states upfront that since he's on pay cable, he can virtually do and say anything, and he went on to prove it.

For those of you who haven't seen this segment (and 675,000 to date have on YouTube), the joke comes from Bill and Jane delivering this pathetic and yes -- totally filthy -- exchange completely straight, as if they were at a play audition.

The audience ate it up, howling and jeering throughout, and giving the performers a wild ovation at the end. I could see the humor, but after a while, I also felt intensely uncomfortable.

It's not because I'm a prude -- take my word that's not the case. It was a more complex reaction. What's that old saying? "I laughed but I wasn't happy about it."

On consideration I felt this routine was worse than tasteless -- I felt it was cruel. After all the public flogging this once proud public servant has undergone (and we saw it all firsthand), doesn't there come a point when enough is enough?

Not where most of today's media is concerned, it seems. For Anthony Weiner, harassment and humiliation weren't enough. We had to systematically turn him into a national laughing stock.

In doing so, the media saw its ratings soar, lots more newspapers were sold, and I'm sure some folks became rich fast off all those buttons and t-shirts playing off his funny last name.

Don't get me wrong: I'm no Weinerphile. I found both his lying to the American people and his mulish refusal to resign repellent and infuriating. Without question, his idiotic handling of the scandal only made things much worse for himself.

Yet again I believe his total lack of judgment in crisis management -- not to mention the sheer stupidity of the offending behavior itself -- indicates a man in emotional crisis.

But did the American media even take this into account? Not really. Instead they seized the opportunity to cash in on someone's messy public demise, and created a feeding frenzy.

Should this make us feel good to be Americans?

I guess that while I deplore Anthony Weiner's behavior, I'm also not proud of how the American media -- and by extension the vast audience they cater to -- has reacted to it.

Now we have former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich convicted of corruption and almost certainly going to jail, but there seems to be only the faintest ripple about this in the mainstream media.

Why, I wonder? Here's one theory: the Blagojevich scandal comes down to one fairly dense, greedy politician trying to use his office to enrich himself. It's pretty ho-hum, really.

The Weiner affair is that much juicier for including a single ingredient: sex. Yes-that old adage still holds: sex sells, and these days, the more salacious the better.

There are plenty out there who get a perverse, vicarious thrill by delving into every detail of Anthony Weiner's sad compulsion. Who's sicker: Weiner, or these folks?

Of course, I know I'm risking charges of reigniting a furor that has finally and mercifully died down. That's not my intent. I actually think that only when a truly wild episode like this is receding in our collective rear-view mirrors, are we best equipped to ask ourselves: "What just happened? And what does it mean?"

As some of you know, my normal beat is talking about great movies, and specifically, the best movies for home viewing. Part of doing that involves closely following popular culture as a whole.

What I'm seeing fundamentally in the movie business -- in terms of what gets made and what works best at the box office -- reflects some troubling trends, ones I've raised before in other pieces.

Importantly, these trends influence not just movies, but all media, new and old. And they helped turn the Weiner episode into the circus it became.

First -- the coarsening and "dumbing-down" of the content we consume, particularly entertainment content, is an issue of central concern, as our collective standards of what constitutes good and meaningful ever so gradually erode, fueled by a more fragmented landscape, with multiple devices diverting our attention.

At family dinners we gaze down at our cell phones, and increasingly we refuse to watch black and white movies, or movies with subtitles, because we want something easy, with not too much to pay attention to or think about. Thus our brains -- and spirits -- become flabby.

A related issue is the blurring line between news and entertainment today, a factor very much at play in the Weiner coverage. Hard news simply won't hold us anymore; we need plenty of party line editorializing built in to the programming we watch. Also prized is any gossip or dirt on public figures.

Married to this -- and another outgrowth of technology -- is that there are no more secrets, and very little, if any, privacy. Surely, more than anything else, the Weiner scandal teaches us that.

And with that scary new reality comes an even more sobering and disturbing result: those boundaries of taste and convention -- tangible and intangible -- that might have protected our kids in the past, and perhaps kept us all focused on more worthy and important topics, are fast disappearing.

How many children I wonder have been able to go on YouTube and watch that Maher segment without their parents' knowledge?

And how much worthwhile debate was sacrificed on MSNBC's Hardball when night after night, Chris Matthews led every show with the Weiner scandal, often repeating himself as he evinced a reassuring lack of understanding where cyber-sex was concerned.

Metaphorically speaking, it feels like a cesspool is getting filtered into our drinking water, and we are growing inured to the taste.

So, yes -- I do condemn Anthony Weiner's actions, particularly the hurt he's caused his wife and family, and the lies he told his constituents. But I also feel sorry for him, as I would for most any person with a severe mental or emotional illness.

And in considering just how the media covered his fall from grace, I cannot help but feel slightly ashamed and embarrassed for the rest of us.


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To see John's videos for WNET-Channel 13, go to www.reel13.org