In the wake of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's admission of an affair with an Argentine woman, MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski complained of a "double standard" in the way affairs by politicians "are judged," insisting that Republicans are treated more harshly than Democrats. Brzezinski didn't explicitly say the media play a role in that alleged "double standard," but that's the only plausible interpretation of her comments -- surely she isn't accusing the American people of bias.
Now, if Brzezinski wants to say that the media should leave Sanford alone, I won't take issue with that. There is a pretty good argument to be made that Sanford's marriage is none of our business. (There is also a pretty strong argument to be made that you forfeit privacy in your own extramarital affairs when you tell others who they can and can't wed, and when you insist that other politicians caught in affairs should resign.)
But Brzezinski's claim of a double standard in which the media make a bigger deal out of the affairs of Republican politicians than Democrats is pure bunk and cannot be allowed to go undisputed.
Nobody would expect an affair involving a senator or governor or even a speaker of the House to garner as much attention as one involving a sitting president. But nobody who was paying attention in 1998 can plausibly claim that the media give Democrats a pass. The feeding frenzy set off by the Lewinsky story that January is simply unmatched in history. It was the dominant topic in newspapers, on evening news broadcasts, and on cable news every day for a year. Nothing has come close to the sustained level of wall-to-wall media coverage the Lewinksy story was given. Not the three presidential elections that have happened since, not the war in Iraq -- nothing. Media coverage of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 2000 recount arguably came close to that of Lewinsky in terms of intensity, but for a much shorter period of time.
On Day 2 of the Lewinsky story, The Washington Post and The New York Times combined to run 19 articles (five on their front pages) about the affair. The articles totaled more than 20,000 words and involved the work of 28 reporters who were given bylines or named as contributors. A month later, the papers combined for 12 articles, columns, and editorials, involving 17 reporters and columnists, as well as both editorial boards. At one point in 1998, Brent Bozell of the right-wing Media Research Center whined that the media had "stopped" covering the story. At the time, there were 500 news reports a day about the Lewinsky matter. Five hundred stories a day -- on a typical day -- and conservatives were complaining about a decrease in coverage.
Again: You obviously can't directly compare coverage of a president's affair with coverage of a senator's. I offer an illustration of the extent of media coverage of the Lewinsky affair not to compare it to coverage of, say, David Vitter, but simply because I can only assume that anyone who thinks the media take it easy on Democrats who have affairs must not have been paying attention in 1998.
But it isn't the relentless media coverage of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in 1998 that most convincingly debunks Brzezinski's claims of a pro-Democrat double standard. It is what has happened since.
Years after the events of 1998, the media have continued to obsess over Bill Clinton's affair. Take Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, during which she was subjected to The New York Times (figuratively) peering in her bedroom windows as the media attempted to tally the number of nights the Clintons spend together per month. When Clinton aides and supporters appeared on MSNBC's Hardball, host Chris Matthews grilled them about whether Bill Clinton would "behave" and whether he would be a "good boy" and warned that "he better watch it." Bill Clinton's affair -- which happened a decade earlier -- was treated by the media as a significant part of the campaign.
And Bill Clinton wasn't even running!
Meanwhile, the media all but ignored Rudy Giuliani's sordid past during his 2008 presidential campaign. Matthews (among others) was so concerned about whether Bill Clinton would "behave," but he never asked that question about Giuliani. Keep in mind: Giuliani's first marriage was to his second cousin; his second wife had to seek a court order to keep him from bringing his mistress into the mayor's mansion (Giuliani later moved out and told his wife he wanted a separation via press conference); and his own staff once wrote that his "personal life raises questions about a 'weirdness factor.' " But Giuliani's romantic misadventures weren't a significant topic in the media's coverage of his campaign.
The same is true of John McCain, who was quite married when he began dating his current wife. The New York Times didn't try to count up the number of nights John and Cindy McCain spend together; Matthews didn't badger aides about whether McCain would "behave" or if he would again stray. Such treatment was reserved for the candidacy of a Democrat -- a Democrat who wasn't even the one who had the affair.
This week brought more examples of the media's tendency to sweep Republican sex scandals under the rug as time passes. The Washington Post's website featured what it billed as "A History of Political Sex Scandals" -- a feature that mysteriously omitted both Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, who had an affair while using his position as speaker of the House to try to impeach Clinton over the Lewinsky scandal. MSNBC left Gingrich off its list, too. (MSNBC later added Gingrich in response to criticism, along with a dubious-at-best excuse for leaving him off in the first place. MSNBC claims it left him off because "because we were just looking at the past 10 years." That doesn't fly. It included Clinton, whose relationship with Lewinsky occurred more than 10 years ago, as did his admission of the relationship. Gingrich's most recent affair, on the other hand, did occur within the past 10 years, as did his admission of the affair. So MSNBC chose an arbitrary time frame and used it to include Clinton and exclude Gingrich -- even though Clinton actually falls outside the time frame, and Gingrich inside it.)
Gingrich left his first wife while she was in the hospital, married his second six months later, and then cheated on her with a member of his staff -- even as he was leading the charge to impeach a president for having an affair with a staffer. And the media pretend it never happened. They treat him respectfully and as a serious thinker. When was the last time you saw a mainstream media figure joke about Gingrich's indiscretions -- or even mention them?
And yet here's Mika Brzezinski claiming that Democrats are the beneficiaries of a double standard:
There's, you know, a track record, at least of Democrats, who have completely survived the ultimate in, um, well, cheating and behavior that is risky and ridiculous. And we can talk about the president of the United States, OK? And he was just fine. I mean, he ended up just fine. And people now go to his speeches, and he makes tons of money. There is such a double standard between Democrats and Republicans in how these situations are judged.
Does Brzezinski not remember the year of wall-to-wall coverage of Clinton's affair? The impeachment? The decade of ensuing mockery and focus on his affair that plagued a presidential campaign that wasn't even his? Is she completely oblivious of the Republicans who have "survived" affairs, like Vitter (who hired a prostitute) and Gingrich and Giuliani (both of whom also give speeches for money after behavior that made Clinton look like an altar boy) and McCain? Does she not remember Democrats like Eliot Spitzer and Jim McGreevey, both of whom immediately resigned their public offices (unlike Vitter and John Ensign and Larry Craig)? Did John Edwards benefit from a double standard? Was Bob Dole hurt by one? No -- The Washington Post, after having written about alleged Clinton affairs, spiked a story about a Dole affair while Dole was running against Clinton.
I mean, you could argue that [Clinton] ... risked, you know, things that were happening in the White House by his behavior. And this guy [Sanford] had an affair with someone it sounds like he is in love with.
Oh, wow. So, Clinton's behavior was risky because of the office he held, but Sanford is just a guy who is in love? Right.
Mark Sanford is governor of South Carolina. He sent emails to his mistress that ended up in the hands of reporters more than six months ago -- nobody knows how. If Brzezinski wants to play the "risky behavior" card, fine: Sanford exposed himself to blackmail. Who has had those emails for the past six months? Have they asked anything of Sanford in exchange for their silence? Sanford skipped town for Argentina, telling staff that he was hiking the Appalachian Trail and leaving nobody in charge of running the state -- nobody knew how to contact him; he ditched his security detail and fled the country. The lieutenant governor couldn't reach him. South Carolina didn't have a governor for several days while Sanford ran around Buenos Aires with his mistress.
Everything that you can say about Clinton in terms of the riskiness of conducting an affair while heading the executive branch of government, you can say about Sanford. Everything -- and a whole lot more. Clinton never disappeared for days on end leaving nobody in charge. But Brzezinski thinks Clinton was irresponsible, and people should leave Sanford alone because he is in love.
There's a double standard all right. Brzezinski has made that perfectly clear.