Weiner watch: Why sexting scandal hijacked an important election

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.

Bebeto Matthews/AP
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.

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.

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.”

Yet for many people, such scandals reconfirm notions that the American political system is broken, and then they choose to just withdraw – as voting participation and turnout rates indicate. They also help drive down the approval ratings and measures of trust for both politicians and journalists – the key players in the system.

But this doesn’t mean voters are clamoring for more substance, which is in plenty short supply in many media outlets. And the so-called “character issues” usually focus on the kinds of behaviors that just get people talking.

“We know voters always say, they want to talk about schools, they want to talk about jobs, they want to talk about housing,” says Christina Greer, professor of political science at Fordham University in New York. “But those aren’t very sexy topics, those aren't necessarily topics that sell magazines and newspapers, and those aren’t necessarily topics that are easily breached by citizens just talking amongst one another. It’s much easier to have a conversation about the salacious, as opposed to the substantive.”

Indeed, according to psychologists, human beings naturally focus on conversations about social relationships – in other words, gossip, and the salacious in particular. And depending on how the term is defined, research shows that nearly 80 percent of our conversations concern talk about other people.

And this is deeply ingrained in human beings, experts say. Human brains are hardwired to find predictable patterns in the environment – a basic survival skill that goes back to evolutionary origins, researchers say. And since knowing our environment kept us safe, change is potentially dangerous: It immediately draws our attention.

Today, this instinct, combined with a strong interest in sexuality, draws our attention to unusual social behaviors.

“A politician who has been sending photos of his genitals on Twitter and is still, somehow, trying to keep a political career alive is unusual,” says Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in Newport Beach, Calif.

“Couple that with the fact that politicians are largely boring. They work assiduously to never say anything provocative under the assumption that this allows them to appeal to the most people possible, and there is also the commonly held belief that it doesn't matter what they say, anyway. It's easy to see why Weiner gets all the political rubber-necking," she adds.

This tendency to gossip about unusual behaviors also serves to reinforce social mores and the kinds of behavior necessary for a cohesive society.

“It plays into this idea that we're very interested in other people in general,” says Mathew Feinberg, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University who studies the social role of morality in human culture. “And we’re really interested to get a sense of whether other people are doing what’s right or wrong, whether we should be able to trust them or not, and also we learn from what we hear about other people, we learn about how we should behave as well.”

“And I think that also plays a role for the political process,” continues Mr. Feinberg. “And the media capitalizes on that tendency for humans to be so interested in other people's reputations. And that’s really why people are so obsessed with the story, and the reputation about Anthony Weiner, or whoever the focus is.”

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