It seems that not a season goes by where there is not a major government sex scandal. The most immediate example is Anthony Weiner, but in very recent memory there have also been Arnold Schwarzenegger (had a child with his mistress), Elliot Spitzer (had a thing for high class hookers), Mark Sanford (eloped, leaving his family for a Brazilian woman), and notably Bill Clinton (no notes needed).
Interestingly, a pretty comprehensive list can be seen here (although it is missing some): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_federal_political_sex_scandals_in_the_United_States
These sex scandals, which are wildly promoted by news media outlets, seem to be a distinctly 21st century phenomenon and have increased exponentially in number and frequency each year. Looking at the WikiPedia link above, you can see there have been more sex scandals reported in the last 20 years than there have been since the beginning of the United States until 1990.
What has caused this increase in media coverage of sexual infidelity?
In my mind it’s unlikely that our government officials as a whole are behaving more immorally than ever before – but rather, this increased visibility of sex scandals is caused by an uptick in media attention. Conducting a quick pre/post analysis of the time periods around which the sex scandal phenomenon took off – it seems obvious that the internet had something to do with it.
Aside from transforming the way news is distributed, the internet also provides media companies instant feedback on which content their audience is viewing online. Based on Web Analytics, news companies can tailor their content to focus more on stories that people want to see – and voting with their eyeballs, people have been telling news companies that they want to see more sex scandals.
In 1961 the FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow gave a speech at the convention of the National Association of Broadcasters. In his speech, Minow reprimanded the broadcast media for producing nothing but formulaic comedies and violent dramas – all that amounted to a “vast wasteland” of unproductive content. The point of Minow’s speech was to appeal to the higher morals and encourage broadcasters to produce educational and otherwise intrinsically valuable content, rather than simply what would garner the highest ratings.
The rise of sex scandals in the media and the poor broadcast programming in the 1960’s were both caused by the same problem: given the choice, people will choose mindless entertainment over content of productive value.
Although, for the most part, the news media no longer has to rely on government owned air waves to broadcast their content – they must remember there is still a responsibility to provide content of value – above merely what will elicit the greatest viewer response. Sex scandals and exposing the weaknesses of public officials may give people a cheap feeling of superiority (which is why I think we like them so much), but it’s nothing but a temporary high which needs to be moderated by those who have a responsibility to tell us things that matter.