(Illustration: Edel Rodriguez)
July 23 was the kind of day journalists who work for the brash New York tabloids—and their increasingly tough internet and cable TV competitors—live for.
Disgraced-congressman-turned-mayoral-frontrunner Anthony Weiner had called a late-afternoon news conference at a vacant office in Chelsea and confirmed reports that he had continued to send lewd photos of himself over the internet more than a year after he left Congress pledging to get help for that behavior.
He’d also crafted the name Carlos Danger for the self-destructive sexting, according to The Dirty, a gossip website that posted the new material and followed a few days later with XXX-rated photos it claimed show his private part.
What’s the difference between Weiner’s sexting, Giuliani’s indiscretions and Koch’s closet? Call it the Creep Factor.
It was a stunning setback for Weiner’s effort to assume the everyman mantle of former-Mayor Ed Koch and to convince New Yorkers he deserved a second chance at elected office after spending a year rehabilitating himself and repairing his family relationships.
A Jewish pol who invokes a mensch like Koch as a role model and who offers New Yorkers the story of a bad boy turned good had better have his act together. No shanda fur die goyim.
Say Hola to Carlos Danger, and it’s Adios redemption narrative.
Within hours, The Daily News, the city’s leading tabloid, dispatched a senior reporter to Indiana to find Weiner’s sexting partner, one of 10 women he later said he’s contacted. Editors prepared their call for him to withdraw from the race, and headline writers went to work on a new front page that would read: “THE NEWS SAYS: Enough of all the lies & salacious revelations. Weiner is not fit to lead America’s premier city. BEAT IT!”
Internet sites were ruthless. Gawker, a widely read blog based in the Big Apple, reported the story under banners that included: “Weiner Stays in, Dick Pics and All” and “Anthony Weiner Can’t Keep His Dick Out of the News.” Slate offered a “Carlos Danger Name Generator” designed to spit out sexting pseudonyms based on a user’s real name for those who wanted to get in on the fun.
Pundits predictably pronounced Weiner’s campaign dead and his political career finished.
But wait a minute.
This is New York, where real mayors survive political fallout from real affairs, not just this virtual stuff. Tawdry talk about the mayor’s sex life has been fodder for New York tabloids and part of the public record for decades.
Remember “America’s Mayor” Rudy Giuliani, the thrice-married Catholic who divorced his second cousin before his first campaign, then as mayor survived reports of two separate affairs on the same wife?
What about Koch, the lifelong bachelor whose sexual orientation became an issue in his first campaign against Mario Cuomo after placards and posters (disavowed by the Cuomo campaign) appeared with the slogan “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo”?
It takes so much to grab a New York tabloid headline these days that Council Speaker Christine Quinn, an unabashed lesbian and Weiner’s chief rival in the race, has had no significant fallout from either the media or voters for her sexual orientation. Coupled with the possibility of being New York’s first female mayor, Quinn would seem a shoo-in with progressive voters and urban liberals.
Quinn’s troubles stem from the perception that she’s a cozy council insider who has sacrificed her principles at key moments. She’s publicly praised Police Chief Raymond Kelly, whom many liberals blame for a racist implementation of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy. She also played a key role in helping Bloomberg circumvent the city’s term-limit law. The law was popular with New Yorkers across the ideological spectrum.
That’s partly what gave Weiner the opening to challenge her, and his skillfully crafted redemption narrative helped him take the lead without backing from neighborhood groups and professional associations that are the life blood of New York City politics.
Media everywhere, not just in New York, love a narrative, and Weiner’s story shows how fast one can change—in this case from redemption story to death watch.
It appeared for a moment that he would survive. According to a poll taken a day after the scandal broke, a fourth of the electorate remained undecided. But with his redemption narrative destroyed, Weiner’s last hope was something of an immaculate resurrection. And that was a tough sell for even a master manipulator.
Why? What’s the difference between Weiner’s sexting, Giuliani’s indiscretions and Koch’s closet?
Call it the Creep Factor.
“It’s just creepy,” said Rich Schapiro of The Daily News, the reporter who went to Indiana and tracked down the sexting partner. “What is so disturbing to people beyond anything is the fact that he just kept doing it.
“It’s just creepy.”
Joe Cutbirth directs the journalism program at Manhattan College and blogs about media practice and ethics for The Huffington Post.