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Weiner watch: Why sexting scandal hijacked an important election (+video)

It's not just media that are obsessed with Weiner's foibles. The public is hard-wired to focus on the salacious, the scandalous, the wrong. This helps in understanding character – a key concern of voters, experts say.

By Staff writer / August 7, 2013

New York mayoral candidate Bill Thompson (2nd from l.) reacts as fellow candidates George McDonald (l.) and Anthony Weiner, (2nd from r.) exchange words before their participation in AARP's town hall forum on Tuesday at Hunter College in New York.

Bebeto Matthews/AP

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NEW YORK

With six weeks to go until New York voters head to the polls for the mayoral primary, the relentless Weiner watch has turned the election into a chaotic sideshow, overshadowing other candidates’ ideas, as well as the critical issues facing the city, some observers say.

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The nation’s largest city, after all, an international hub of media and commerce, will elect its 109th mayor this fall – and its first new leader in 12 years. But is anyone looking beyond Sydney Leather’s emergence as a "sexpert"? Or former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s weary responses to daily questions about whether he’s a narcissist?

Most blame the candidate for continuing to stay in the race, thus keeping the frenzied sexting scandal alive. But others have raised questions about the role of reporters and a media ecosystem that seems to draw its lifeblood from salacious headlines and rib-poking smirks.

Indeed, political reporting has hit “rock bottom” with the Weiner scandal, some suggest. As Thomas Basile, a New York media strategist and conservative commentator wrote in Forbes: “This disgraced former congressman has effectively hijacked the press coverage of the mayoral campaign, leaving the nearly dozen other candidates to fight for whatever scraps of reporting the media will throw them about issues, ideas, endorsements and other more substantive topics.”

And it’s true. A cacophony of booms and mics and lights follow Weiner’s every move, while other candidates speak in front of a comparatively smaller glare. Even the scandal-plagued candidate himself has said what many believe: “You like the story, right? You guys like it,” Mr. Weiner told a reporter last week. “You guys like this story, I get that. I get embarrassing things in my background. I’m in the middle of an example of the politics of personal embarrassment. It isn’t easy.”

In another interview, after the first question posed, “Are you a narcissist?” Weiner chided the reporter’s question, suggesting instead, “Tell me a little more about how he’s going to make my life better with housing, with jobs and with education.”

Yet if the amorphous specter of “the media” serves as a handy trope for critics, those who study political behavior, as well as basic psychology, seek more fundamental explanations about the current circus of sex and politics.

“I'd say that there's a good side and a bad side to Weiner's hanging on,” says Bob Smither, psychology professor and dean at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. “Yes, the media focus on the scandal part distracts voters from important issues; but on the other hand, it allows a clearer focus on a candidate's character. Research shows that, in reality, people vote more on the basis of character than they do on issues, so maybe dragging it out is a good thing.”

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