Why John Ensign Matters and Tiger Woods Doesn't

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's a scenario as old as the proverbial hills. A powerful man cheats on his wife, denies it, truth comes out, man looks bad. Call it The Powerful Man is a Scumbag Syndrome, and boy do we love it. Former New York Governor Elliot Spitzer's high-priced call girls captivated our attention for awhile before South Carolina Governor Mark Stanford's Appalachian Trail hike became part of the public lexicon.

Now we've got Tiger Woods, a man who redefined his sport and may be the greatest golfer ever. Looks like the same old-same old; cheated on his wife, was found out, apologized. But a car accident and a reticence to explain it have turned the issue into nonstop coverage; from ESPN to Entertainment Tonight, from Huffington Post to the London Times, we're bombarded with one breathless Tiger update after another.

When a story like this surfaces my friends and I have a debate, one that I bet sounds familiar: one person says "who cares? It's his business." Another responds, "yes, but he came off as such a clean guy, it's a betrayal." Before someone else says, "I agree it shouldn't matter, but I just don't think I'll look at fill-in-the-blank (John Edwards, David Letterman, Newt Gingrich) the same way again." My own reaction to Tiger's story lies between reactions one and three. The golfer's problems are his own, heaven knows he's got plenty of them, but I admit that yes, next time I watch him play I'll have a different opinion of him than before.

For me that's the end of the Tiger story, and I really, really wish it was the end of it for the news coverage too, not only because I don't think the Tiger story matters but because there's another of these Powerful Man is a Scumbag stories that really should be getting this kind of scrutiny because it does matter. Because that one involves our laws and our money. At the center of the other story is a guy named John Ensign, Republican Senator from Nevada. The early arc of the story followed the same old track: big man cheats, denies, admits, looks bad. But that's where this story veered from a private concern to a public one. According to allegations, Senator Ensign may have been throwing federal taxpayer money around to keep his mistress happy, her son employed and her husband quiet. And if he did, he violated the law.

Nevadans definitely know all about the story. The Las Vegas Sun has been covering it extensively; in June they outlined how the family of Ensign's mistress benefited a whole heck of a lot from the affair (the mistress, already on the payroll as the treasurer of the Senator's action committee, saw her salary double during the time of the affair, her son landed a job with a GOP political committee chaired by Ensign, and her husband-also on Ensign's payroll-received an unexplained and extremely generous extra payment). In October The New York Times added more to the story, saying evidence showed that once the husband left his employ Ensign personally pushed to get him hired at a political consulting firm and then used his power as a senator to get him business, in violation of Senate ethics laws.

During a recent "who cares if he had an affair" discussion I brought up John Ensign. A number of my friends had never heard of him, never heard about these alleged payoffs using federal taxpayer money, never heard of the possible ethics violations. Ensign is counting on that ignorance: two days ago Ensign said despite the continuing and growing allegations he will never resign, because he "wants to defeat Harry Reid."

The only similarity I see between these two stories is the basic one: two public men cheated on their wives and were found out. But that's where the similarity ends. One involves mounting evidence suggesting a U.S. Senator used federal tax dollars -- that's your money and mine, folks -- to pay off his girlfriend, hurt the people he represents by weakening his influence and standing as their Senator, and may be hurting them more in days to come. And it will all just coast more tax-payer's dollars if and when he's charged with allegations of wrongdoing. Compare that to Tiger's story. So far evidence suggests Woods hasn't hurt anyone but himself and his family; what he's done may be immoral but as far as I know it's not illegal (unlike Michael Vick). And Tiger Woods holds no position of authority and wasn't elected to any office. Maybe, like Ensign, he's paying off a girlfriend. I don't know that, but I do know that if he is then those funds are coming from Tiger's private mountain of cash and not from my pocket. You could argue that Tiger may indeed be using some of my money, since I bought stuff with his name on it and spent money to see him play. But I have to pay taxes. I don't have to go to the U.S. Open.

These two stories should get coverage equal to the weight of their transgressions. John Ensign should be a big story on CNN. Tiger Woods should be a big story on The Golf Channel. When the next Powerful Man is a Scumbag story breaks (and you know there will be another), is it too much to hope that media coverage will be based on whether it matters or whether it doesn't?

Based on what I'm seeing now, I'm not very optimistic.