Press and politics in the age of 'Flynting'

He is, depending on how you view him, either a cynical woman-hater whose bad taste knows no limits or a crusading defender of free speech, a hero of the First Amendment.

And though he has been in the pornography business for more than 20 years, his name has now become such an integral part of the modern-day discourse that it has become a verb: To be "Flynted," politicians such as retiring Rep. Robert Livingston (R) of Louisiana have discovered, is to have your sexual past "outed" by Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine.

As the nation prepares for its first presidential impeachment trial in 131 years, set to open on Wednesday, a deadline of a different sort looms. Mr. Flynt says he's about to announce the results of his $1 million offer for information on the sexual peccadilloes of members of Congress and other high-level government officials. He claims he's got the goods on a dozen people - 11 Republicans and one Democrat.

How has society gotten to this point, where a man whom many see as a bottom-feeding sleaze-monger can capture the attention of the mainstream media and cause top members of Congress to go weak in the knees?

Mr. Flynt is, say political and media observers, a product of the times, not a creator.

"When politics becomes pornographic, pornographers become pundits," says Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington.

By extensively investigating President Clinton's sex life, independent counsel Kenneth Starr and his supporters gave the media a green light to break down the locks of congressional closets, observes Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard University legal scholar in his new book, "Sexual McCarthyism."

But this trend began well before the Clinton era. It started with former Sen. Gary Hart, the Colorado Democrat whose presidential bid came to a crashing halt when a reporter asked if he'd ever committed adultery and Senator Hart said no, challenging the media to prove otherwise. They did. In a flash, the threshold for media coverage of the sex lives of politicians had been dramatically lowered.

No longer did a peccadillo have to be seen as directly affecting a politician's public duties. It only had to seem vaguely relevant, to the point where, arguably, any proven infidelity can make news on grounds that politicians who violate marital vows have shown they can't be trusted to keep an oath.

A politician who professes "family values," a GOP mantra, is now particularly vulnerable to "Flynting," which is why there are some nervous Republicans in Washington now.

"The media really go ballistic on matters of hypocrisy," says Everett Dennis, a journalism professor at Fordham University in New York. "If you can find somebody who is anti-gay who's himself gay, or someone who's a great moral leader who's a womanizer, it makes for better copy than someone who's regarded as a sleaze in the first place."

Still, most respected media outlets are reluctant to publish dirt on officials. But as more dirt is dished up by the tabloid press, Internet gossips, and a pornographer eager to become a Washington "player," as Flynt has said he is, it becomes harder and harder for mainstream media to ignore.

The broadcast media tend to be more literal and blunt, says Professor Dennis. The print media tend to be voyeurs once removed. The New York Times, for example, will take a story about sleaze and report on what the tabloids are saying. "They do it as a story about a story, but in effect the same information is transmitted," says Dennis.

In addition, it's difficult for the media to ignore a sleazy story when a politician reacts to it, either by confirming its content or by resigning. And so the media are trapped into rewarding the producers of the sleaze by giving them publicity.

Some respectable observers applaud Flynt's brand of journalism for its fearlessness. He's not worried about ruining his access to White House sources or Capitol Hill parties and so he pulls no punches, says Susan Fain, a law professor at American University here.

"I adore him," she says. "He couldn't care less what anybody thinks. At least he's his own person."

Others are less enamored. Todd Gitlin, a professor of culture, journalism, and society at New York University, wants the media to ignore Flynt's announcement, and thus dig a trench on the slippery slope the nation is sliding down.

Political observers, too, are calling for a moratorium on sleaze, for the sake of the nation. The more the national discourse centers on sex, the less anything else of true import is discussed - such as the future of Social Security and the nation's education system.

"It's disturbing, because it means less and less concentration on public-policy issues," says Stanley Rothman, director of the Center for the Study of Social and Political Change at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.

The result, says Democratic consultant Mark Mellman, could be a nation that is even more cynical about politics than it already is. And, he says, "it will make it more difficult to get people to run for office."

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