The outburst reminded me of an essay by Brooklyn College professor Tanni Haas, published a few years ago, on the media's treatment of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Required reading for my media ethics students, the essay argues that journalists should consider whether a public official's extramarital affair "did or would negatively affect the official's ability to perform the public duties of his or her office."
Credibility with foreign heads of state, Congress, and the American public is important for a president, and hypocritical behavior threatens to undermine credibility. Put more succinctly: It's the hypocrisy, stupid, not the sex.
Gingrich was carrying on his extramarital affair while he was leading the House's campaign against President Bill Clinton over his extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky. For Gingrich now to bristle at questions about his past sexual adventures is, to say the least, ironic.
There is still more hypocrisy in Gingrich's complaint, starting with his silly assertion that the "elite media" are "protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans." The "attack" on Gingrich came from his ex-wife, in an interview with a reporter for ABC News.
Moreover, most of the criticism of Gingrich and his competitors during this primary campaign has arisen not from the "elite media," but from the candidates' own Supreme Court-sanctioned super-PAC ads. The media are the conduit rather than the source of the attacks. And because his own super-PAC has engaged in such attacks, Gingrich is actually reprimanding his own supporters as well as those of his GOP rivals.
The blame-the-media tactic is not new. In 2007, then-Sen. Larry Craig (R., Idaho) accused his hometown newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, of carrying out a witch hunt against him following reports that he had been arrested for lewd public behavior involving another man in an airport bathroom. Among the other politicians who have faced media scrutiny of their extramarital sexual conduct are former Democratic New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in 2008 following reports that he was a client of a prostitution service; Sen. David Vitter (R., La.), whose phone number showed up in the records of a Washington madam; and former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, who dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1987 following reports of an extramarital affair.
All these episodes had hypocritical aspects. Craig had a record of opposing gay rights. Vitter had championed family values. And Hart, responding to questions about an alleged extramarital affair, had dared reporters to follow him before he was found in the company of a woman who was not his wife.
Back then, the public was more forgiving. In a Gallup poll, 64 percent of respondents said the media had treated Hart unfairly, and 53 percent felt his behavior didn't have much to do with his ability to govern.
But the mood is different today, thanks partly to the fallout of the Lewinsky scandal. Gingrich played a significant role in stirring up the frenzy surrounding that episode, which helped establish a higher level of scrutiny when it comes to the sexual behavior of elected officials.
And that is the greatest hypocrisy of Gingrich's staged rage. In taking issue with the media's treatment of him, he is effectively arguing that his background does not deserve the scrutiny he applied to Clinton's.
Gingrich once argued that the character of a president matters. Now he is cooking in a stew that he helped concoct.
Steve Hallock is director of the School of Communication at Point Park University in Pittsburgh and the author of a forthcoming book on press coverage of post-World War II U.S. military interventions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.