In 1991, the quality press and the three broadcast networks plus CNN still had a lock on editorial standards. Oh, a supermarket tabloid, a tell-all book, a syndicated talk show, or some other media outlier might move a Weiner-esque story into the mainstream, but even when that happened, the mainstream would find a way to temper and tame it. But websites make this traditional news and information control impossible, whether it's the Drudge Report shoving Newsweek 's Clinton-Lewinsky reporting into public view, various websites running celebrity home-porn videos, TMZ exposing Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic frenzy, the National Enquirer humiliating mad-impregnator John Edwards, Deadspin sharing the cellphone adventures of Brett Favre's little friend, or Big Government breaking Weinergate.
Prestigious newspapers can and still do ignore these stories, but they do so at the risk of becoming irrelevant to their readers. Cable news was once slave to the editorial agenda of the top newspapers, most notably the New York Times and the Washington Post. Today, the big dailies must follow not just the cable news but cable comedians like Stewart and Colbert, plus hundreds of websites, lest they appear less-well-informed about the seedy and the repugnant aspects of our culture than their readers.
The question of whether the mainstream press should chase stories like Weinergate may be a hot topic of debate at the Shorenstein Center and the Poynter Institute, but it's really been a settled issue for some time. A newspaper can't stay relevant by ignoring what its readers know and are interested in, and newspapers desperately need to be more relevant.
For those neocons, born-agains, and other busybodies who worry about sensationalism coarsening our culture, let me buy you a subscription to the National Enquirer to calm you down. If you had been reading it during the 2008 campaign instead of playing ostrich, John Edwards' indictment today wouldn't be such a surprise. In my experience, those who worry about the coarsening effects of sensationalism mostly worry about its effect on other people. Personally, they love to dish the latest dirt.
And never underestimate the power of the press to normalize that which once seemed outré. If Eugene Meyer were alive to view Irina Shayk wearing a string bikini on the cover of Sports Illustrated or read a story about Lady Gaga in his Washington Post, he'd probably have the common sense to rewrite his principles to read, "In matters that lend themselves to sensationalism, worry less about 'too much' coverage than 'not enough.' "
I pick on paterfamilias Eugene Meyer because he's the most coherent example of 19th-century morality dictating 21st-century standards. Send your coarse criticisms to email@example.com and make your life sensational by following my Twitter feed. (Email may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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Correction, June 4, 2011: This article originally misspelled Fanne Foxe's last name. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)