I’m not naïve. I get that sex sells. I know the Anthony Weiner saga is buzzy and great for ratings. But, in the end, it’s terrible for those of us who love covering politics, and for the institution of public service itself. Weiner cheapens the thing that we are trying to convince Americans (and in some cases our bosses at news organizations), is so valuable: the role of government in American life. At a time when trust in Washington is at an all-time low, Weiner – and guys like Elliot Spitzer and Bob Filner - are another reminder to Americans about of how incredibly dysfunctional and disconnected government is.
And, at some point, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If everyone thinks that politics is a freak show, then only the freaks will run. It’s already hard enough to get “good” people to run for office. Few normal people are willing to put their lives on hold and on display for the whole world to judge. Now, between a Congress that is in total paralysis and a growing perception that politics is only for the narcissistic and self-serving, the good ones have even less incentive to run.
The best job I ever had was covering House races for the Cook Political Report. A job now ably handled – or actually, I’d argue, more expertly performed - by David Wasserman. During an election year I would meet four or five candidates a week and spend an hour interviewing them. Many were neophytes. Some were legislative experts. Some were immediately impressive. Others were… um… interesting. But, all were convinced that they could win a seat in Congress, despite the fact that their odds of success were 50-50 at best. More important, despite all the cynicism and examples of broken government, they all believed that they could actually make a difference. Some wanted to do big things. But, many just wanted to be able to provide the things to their communities they found lacking. They came from all kinds of different backgrounds and experiences. Some had this path in mind for years others came upon it through tragedy or an unexpected turn in their life.
These candidates – most went on to lose on Election Day – helped insulate me from the pervasive contempt of all that is Washington. I got to meet them at their best, before some of them would be seduced by the sycophants and suck-ups. Before they got a chance to see just how hard it would be to do all those things – or be all those things – they promised themselves, their families and their constituents they would be. Mostly, however, these men and women simply became regular old public servants, who do their jobs well, without getting much attention, fanfare or notice.
At the end of the day, the best way to ensure we get more of the good people and fewer Anthony Weiners in office is to take away the one thing folks like Weiner need to survive: attention. Weiner would rather hold 100 humiliating press conferences than live the life of an anonymous New Yorker. Take away the cameras and you’ve taken away his oxygen.
Where the cameras and attention should be focused, however, is on Filner and the women he harassed and humiliated. This behavior festers in the dark. Daylight is the best disinfectant. The light can also serve as a beacon to those women around the country who may be struggling with their own lecherous – or worse – supervisors.
For political reporters, scandal is a double-edged sword: the very thing that gets you on the front page can ultimately come back to destroy you. It’s pretty hard to get editors or executive producers to pay attention to what goes on in Washington. Policy stories don’t get clicks. TV folks hate “process”. But, stories about dysfunctional people and institutions - whether it’s Weiner or hateful comments by a Member of Congress – are always winners. So much so that it’s now almost impossible to get any other story into the media bloodstream. The more we focus on Congress’ breakdown, the more irrelevant we make covering Washington in general. This doesn’t mean we should simply ignore bad behavior. Or, only cover deep policy discussions. It does mean, however, the more we belittle the process and the people who do this work, the harder it will be to convince regular people to care about their government and interact with it or try to change it. The more we cover Weiner, the more we write and produce ourselves out of business.