Peepshow: Media and Politics in an Age of Scandal

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9780742500105: Peepshow: Media and Politics in an Age of Scandal

The line dividing public life and private behavior in American politics is more blurred than ever. When it comes to questions about sex, substance abuse, and family life, anything goes on the political desk in many newsrooms, including uncorroborated hearsay disguised as news. Peepshow looks behind the scenes at news coverage of political scandals, analyzing what gets reported, what doesn't, and why. The authors talk with top news editors to get a fix on what will make the evening news and what we're likely to read about in the next campaign season.

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Review:

"Even presidents have private lives," declared Bill Clinton in August 1998, as he admitted his affair with Monica Lewinsky to a live television audience. Yet in recent years, a cursory examination of news coverage would suggest that almost nothing about politicians' lives is private. Most Americans--as well as journalists--would have it otherwise, write media experts Larry J. Sabato (of the University of Virginia), Mark Stencel (politics editor of the Washington Post's Web site), and S. Robert Lichter (of the Center for Media and Public Affairs). In Peepshow, they propose a few rules governing what should and should not be off-limits to the press. Acceptable areas of coverage, in their view, include financial information about candidates, health as it pertains to job performance, "any incident or charge that reaches the police blotters or a civil or criminal court," sexual activity that blurs private and public duties, debilitating behavior (such as drug use), and private behavior that involves public funds. Out of bounds are nonlegal matters involving a pol's family, discrete extramarital sex, sexual orientation, and past drug or alcohol abuse.

What makes Peepshow an engaging book is its string of up-to-the-minute anecdotes. The authors take real-life incidents that made it into the press and assess whether they should have been there in the first place. When Colin Powell's wife convinced her husband not to run for president, a few media outlets reported that she had been treated for depression. This, say the authors, is out of bounds. On the other hand, the story of a Republican member of Congress from North Carolina who allegedly caused a traffic accident, left the scene, and traded places with his wife in the passenger seat before returning is worth public examination. Sabato, Stencel, and Lichter relate dozens of similar examples, touching upon recent stories and rumors involving Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, Al Gore, Henry Hyde, and others. The book at times reads like a gossip column; even political junkies may find themselves saying, "I didn't know that!" about certain figures. But the point is not to titillate. The authors earnestly lay out a few principles that, if followed, will make the news business seem more dignified, even when it's covering indignity. --John J. Miller

About the Author:

Larry J. Sabato is director of the Center for Governmental Studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and author of numerous books including Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics.

Mark Stencel is politics editor for washingtonpost.com and coauthor with CNN's Larry King of On the Line: The New Road to the White House.

S. Robert Lichter is president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., and editor of the online magazine Newswatch. His books include The Media Elite and Good Intentions Make Bad News.

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