If it were 1991 and not 2011, the Columbia Journalism Review, America's editorial pages, Paul Harvey, the halls of academe, and other guardians of good taste and morals would be chastising the press for its coverage of the frothy "sex scandal" that has made Rep. Anthony Weiner and the Twitter crotch shot national punch lines. Imagine their tut-tuts:
Adds nothing to the national discussion.
A private matter.
A tasteless act—if the member of Congress indeed sent the picture—but not "news."
Back in those pre-Internet times, an elected official had to get arrested or do something completely loopy in public—like drive his car off a bridge at Chappaquiddick—before the press corps would go sensationalistic. Rep. Wilbur Mills, D-Ark., got the treatment after he crashed his car and his passenger, stripper Fanne Foxe, ran away from the scene and jumped into the Tidal Basin. * Reps. Dan Crane, R-Ill., and Gerry Studds, D-Mass., generated oceans of yellow coverage after getting busted for having sex with congressional pages (Crane with a female, Studds with a male). After Rep. Donald E. (Buz) Lukens, R-Ohio, was charged and convicted for having sex with a 16-year-old girl, the press could not get enough of the story.
In reporting these stories, the press corps would almost always feign distaste as they tore through court files to collect as many sordid details as they could for publication until the relevance window started to close.
The press corps' prudishness or self-censorship or conditional exploitation—or whatever you want to call it—had more to do with publishers' fears that they might offend big advertisers than it did with ethics debates inside the newsroom. If 100 subscribers canceled because they were offended by prurient coverage, the offending newspaper would survive. But if one or two big department stores withdrew their advertisements because they didn't like seeing their full-page ads next to congressional sex coverage, a newspaper's bottom line could unravel.
Of course many publishers believed in the wholesome presentation of news of the depraved, so their guidelines weren't complete fig leaves. One of the most Victorian set of editorial principles in print were composed by Washington Post owner Eugene Meyer in 1935 and published on the front page of the Washington Post. They remain on display in the Post lobby to this day.
Among the seven principles laid out by Meyer, these were designed to govern coverage of the salacious:
As a disseminator of news, the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman.
What it prints shall be fit reading for the young as well as the old.
As fusty as the principles may sound today, I can remember them being quoted in earnest over the phone by a Washington Post managing editor in the early 1990s (Hi, Bob!) who was answering my questions about Post coverage. I'm sure that "the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman" was easily interpreted in the 1930s. What it means today, I have no idea. A private gentleman does not ask impertinent questions. He does not compile dossiers on other citizens. He rarely attempts to find evidence that would get a senator or CEO thrown in jail. Post gentlemen and gentlewomen do this daily.
The second of the two principles—read in any decade, past or future—sounds paternalistic and patronizing because it is. But you can see the appeal. By promising to keep the Post and its readers out of the gutter, the Meyer principles short-leash those reporters and editors who might want to explore the territories where squalor and turpitude thrive. In practice, the Post and every other "quality" daily in the country evade Meyerian principles by writing in code when reporting stories about adultery, degeneracy, iniquity, vice, and the other human mainstays. If you know the code, you're exposed to the filth and the fury. A more honest version of Meyer's principle about the young and the old would read, "What the paper prints shall sate the prurient interests of the old without being comprehensible to the young who don't read newspapers anymore anyhow."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.)