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Larry Flynt and the Barers of Bad News

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  • By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, December 20, 1998; Page F01

    When Larry Flynt can use sexual disclosures to bring down the incoming House speaker on the day the president is impeached for lying about sex, something has obviously changed in the media and political culture.

    The stunning announcement by Speaker-elect Bob Livingston that he will resign, just 40 hours after admitting to extramarital affairs uncovered by the Hustler publisher, shows that even an eccentric pornographer can use cash and trash to topple an elected leader. A year that began with saturation coverage of President Clinton's affair with a young intern is ending, to widespread public disgust, with a series of media outings of the sex lives of Republican lawmakers.

    Asked about Livingston's resignation yesterday, Flynt said: "I'm happy if my efforts had anything to do with it. I think right-wing radical bullies like him are more of a threat to our unique form of democracy than anything else."

    While Flynt told CNN he believes sex "should be a private matter," he added: "Desperate times deserve desperate actions. Look at what they were doing to the president."

    Flynt's role in offering up to $1 million for sexual dirt on members of Congress "reduces this whole thing to the theater of the absurd and a lowest common denominator that even the scoundrels among us don't want to achieve," said Marlin Fitzwater, who was White House spokesman for Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

    "There's virtually no zone of privacy left for any public official," said Sanford Ungar, dean of American University's School of Communication. "And there are many co-conspirators in creating that situation -- politicians themselves, the media, the Internet. . . . This town has gone nuts."

    Bizarre as Flynt's involvement seems, Hustler is merely the latest media outlet to scrutinize the private lives of public officials. From the Miami Herald to the National Enquirer, from Newsweek to Matt Drudge, from the Indianapolis Star to Salon, the old limits on what was deemed fair game for aggressive journalists have been all but obliterated. There are simply too many pathways -- front door, back door, basement drainpipes -- for sleaze to drip its way into the mainstream media.

    No news organization says it is delving into sexual matters simply for salacious effect, or to sell newspapers or grab ratings share. The investigations are generally attributed to the importance of some larger value, such as character, dishonesty or hypocrisy. This, of course, has been the mantra of prosecutors, Republicans and many journalists in probing Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky -- the notion that it's not about sex, it's about perjury. But that in turn has emboldened some journalists to ask whether those judging the president have sexual skeletons in their own closets.

    "Even Larry Flynt, while he's doing it for publicity, in his own twisted way has a history of using embarrassment and sexuality to expose what he sees as hypocrisy," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. In today's hyperactive media world, he said, "there are no gatekeepers anymore. These things are no longer vetted by the press. They're vetted by the public."

    The spate of sexual outings in the last four months have all been framed as a reaction to Republican criticism of Clinton and Lewinsky. That was the rationale offered by the Indianapolis Star and News in reporting that Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) had fathered a son out of wedlock, and by the Idaho Statesman in disclosing that Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) had had a relationship with a married man. Salon, the left-leaning online magazine, declared flatly that "ugly times require ugly tactics" in unearthing a 30-year-old affair by Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.).

    Livingston, like his GOP colleagues, preempted the Hustler disclosure late Thursday by acknowledging the affairs -- giving the mainstream press a license to report them without having to wrestle with Flynt's credibility. Other politicians may face the same dilemma, for Flynt says his big-bucks offer has produced information on infidelities by up to a dozen members of Congress and senior officials.

    For the press, which was uninterested in sexual high jinks as recently as John Kennedy's administration, change came slowly. It was a rare event in 1976 when The Washington Post reported that then-representative Wayne Hays was having an affair with a staffer, Elizabeth Ray, who famously declared she could not type. Hays decided not to seek reelection three months later, citing "the harassment my family and I have taken from The Washington Post."

    In 1987, when five Miami Herald reporters staked out Gary Hart's Washington town house, the resulting story about Hart and Donna Rice knocked him out of the presidential campaign. But five years later, candidate Bill Clinton survived the allegations of a long-term affair by a onetime lounge singer named Gennifer Flowers. In a harbinger of the new mercenary culture, Flowers sold her story to the supermarket tabloid Star, whose article quickly ricocheted into the mainstream media.

    In the summer of 1992, a footnote in a book quoting a dead ambassador alleged that President Bush had had an affair with a longtime aide. The flimsy charge quickly made the front page of the New York Post, and a CNN reporter asked Bush about it at a news conference, prompting the president to denounce the network for its "sleazy questions."

    "I don't think you can ask the press to ignore the fools and idiots in our society," Fitzwater said. "Everyone knew from the beginning that the press would find a way to get it on the record and make it public."

    By contrast, Fitzwater praised The Washington Post for deciding not to publish a 1996 article about a 28-year-old affair by GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole. The Post mentioned the affair in a larger story as the National Enquirer ran an interview with the woman, but most of the press decided it was too old to be relevant to the campaign.

    If there are clear guidelines on how to handle such sensitive stories, on the distinctions between news and gossip, few have been able to articulate them. After Paula Jones accused Clinton of sexual harassment in 1994, it took nearly three months for The Post to become the first major newspaper to feature her charges, in a front-page story by Michael Isikoff. And Jones's lawsuit inexorably led to Clinton's deposition last January, in which he denied having had an affair with Lewinsky.

    Even that story, fueled by an independent counsel's investigation, needed a push from an unexpected source. When Newsweek, having hired Isikoff, held his story about Lewinsky, the Drudge Report sent the key details hurtling across cyberspace. Three days later, the story broke in The Post, the Los Angeles Times and on ABC, sparking a yearlong frenzy that has turned off much of the public, even as it led to yesterday's impeachment.

    Into this crazy-quilt environment stepped a man who makes his living publishing pictures of naked women. Many people snickered in October when Flynt announced his sexual sweepstakes; now they're wondering whether Livingston is only his first victim.

    "I assure you, there are many others to come . . . . We intend to take this to the mat, all the way," Flynt said. At the same time, he said it wasn't necessary for Livingston to resign because "having an extramarital affair in itself has nothing to do with your leadership ability, your ability to function as a legislator."

    One outcome of such personal investigations could be "just a blind anti-journalism hatred," said Charlie Peters, editor of the Washington Monthly. ". . . It's just terrifying to go into public life today and know there's going to be all this inquiry into your private life."

    American University's Ungar says the public is certain to blame the media for this chaotic era of sexual investigations. "The only question is, how many times will the messenger get shot and what will the weapon be? Will it be a mere handgun or a bazooka?"

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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