Hooray for Larry Flynt?
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 25, 1999; Page C1
In ordinary times, one might expect the public to take a dim view of a flamboyant pornographer paying six-figure sums for sexual dirt on prominent politicians.
These are clearly not ordinary times.
In a Washington Post survey, four in 10 of those questioned said they approved of what Larry Flynt is doing in revealing extramarital affairs by Republicans. Fifty-seven percent said they disapproved of the Hustler publisher's efforts.
As for the role of the press, nearly half -- 46 percent -- said that news organizations should report the names of members of Congress who are found by Flynt to have had affairs. Fifty-two percent said they should not.
The findings are striking because many Americans often accuse the press of unfairly invading the privacy of public officials, and are often suspicious of those who pay for salacious information. But the Clinton scandal has been so polarizing that the usual knee-jerk responses appear to be scrambled by feelings about the impeachment process.
Respondents were told that Flynt "has revealed the names of some Republicans in Congress who have had extramarital affairs, saying they deserve such scrutiny because of their investigation of President Clinton's conduct in the Lewinsky matter. Do you approve or disapprove of what Flynt is doing?"
The demographic breakdown is interesting. Women disapproved of Flynt's conduct by an almost 2-to-1 margin, 64 percent to 34 percent. But men were almost evenly split, with 48 percent approving and 50 percent disapproving. Age is also a factor; seven in 10 of those over 50 were disapproving of Flynt's campaign.
More predictably, those surveyed divided along partisan lines. Democrats narrowly approved of Flynt's approach, 51 percent to 46 percent. Republicans disapproved by a whopping 76 percent to 22 percent. Similarly, 56 percent of the Democrats said the press should publish the names of those accused of adultery, while 65 percent of the Republicans disagreed. (The survey of 1,010 people was conducted Jan. 15-19, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.)
Some of those rooting for Flynt are passionately in his corner, if a recent stream of letters and e-mails to a Post reporter is any indication.
"Hooray for him!! I am so glad he is exposing the hypocrisy of the Republicans!" wrote a Woodland, Calif., woman.
"He is doing the job the mainstream media should be doing -- exposing the hypocrisy of elected officials. . . . Thank God for Larry Flynt," said Leeor Bar-Haim of Washington.
"Without his tactics we may not know about the antics of the arrogant congressmen passing judgment on others," said Bob Cosby of Fort Worth.
"As Larry Flynt has just proven, who amongst us is clean enough to cast stones or judge the color of a rival party's laundry?" said Guillermo Ruggiero of North Providence, R.I.
Republican National Committee spokesman Clifford May called the poll findings "disturbing," saying that Flynt "is trying to intimidate members of Congress, to get them to change their vote on an investigation, by threatening to embarrass them if they speak their mind." He accused journalists of "a striking deterioration in standards from the time the press didn't want to cover the Gennifer Flowers story because it was published in a tabloid newspaper."
At the very least, Flynt has seized the limelight. In a Pew Research Center poll, 48 percent could name Flynt as the publisher paying for information on infidelities by members of Congress -- compared with 19 percent who could name Chief Justice William Rehnquist as the man presiding over the Senate impeachment trial.
We would never dream of being so insensitive as to write that the networks are looking for "blonde babes to talk dirty about the president. Long legs, short skirts, low necklines preferred. . . . The easiest babes to book are conservatives. . . . They sell sex by condemning it."
The author of this assault on "these modern-day bunnies" is liberal pundit Susan Estrich, herself a frequent talking head. On American Lawyer Media's Web site, Estrich recalled going up against one conservative commentator, "her blouse open almost down to her navel, and no bra in sight."
After ticking off her own professional qualifications, Estrich said: "I don't kid myself. That's not why I'm there. I used to have brown hair and wear a size 12. Now I have blond hair and wear a size 6."
Estrich's fusillade drew a stiletto-like response from Ann Coulter, one of the blond conservatives mentioned in the piece.
Upon reading Estrich's "hysterical screech" against the "Clinton-bashing peroxide pundits," Coulter concluded that "only the feminists can get away with talking like pre-feminist male-chauvinist pigs. . . . This is Larry Flynt without the gallantry. It's hard to know how to deal with such a shameless attack."
Coulter noted in her American Lawyer article that Estrich had said merely that she "ran a presidential campaign," but didn't mention that her candidate was Michael Dukakis. "At least none of us has to live down an embarrassment like that," Coulter wrote.
We would certainly never dream of saying that "the media loves a catfight." But that's what Coulter told Estrich in an e-mail message after the scratching was over. Estrich replied with a conciliatory note. "Catfights are entertaining, and I'm happy to be part of the circus once in awhile," Estrich says now, "but I do believe, in all seriousness, that sexism remains a very significant problem on television."
It was a delicious moment for James Carville. On Thurdsay night, after knocking down a bogus Internet story that he had been arrested for firing a gun and assaulting his wife, Mary Matalin, there was a knock at the door of their remote Shenandoah County farmhouse. It was a National Enquirer reporter, asking if the charges were true.
Carville cackled, invited the man in and introduced him to his competition -- Adam Nagourney of the New York Times. (It should be noted that Nagourney was there on an unrelated political story.)
The phony report prompted an unsolicited statement by Bob Dole, who worked with Matalin in Dole's '96 presidential campaign. The "journalistic hoax," Dole said, "is an example of the 'politics of personal destruction' that needs to be condemned in the strongest possible terms. I was saddened to learn that one or more minor news outlets reported this totally fictitious story as fact, thereby adding to the pain, concern and confusion already inflicted upon James, Mary [and] their children. . . .
"This act of cowardice should serve as a lesson to all. No person or political party is immune to this type of attack." Dole may have a future in media criticism.
When Nation Editor Katrina van den Heuvel saw the cover of last weekend's New York Times Magazine, she did a double take.
The blurry image of Bill Clinton looked remarkably like the blurry image her magazine had splashed on its cover last September, using the same presidential photo. The subject -- Clinton's legacy -- was also the same. So she sent a copy over to Times Magazine Editor Adam Moss.
"I hate to say this, but neither I nor anyone on the staff had seen that cover," Moss explained. "I certainly was not happy when Katrina sent me the cover. We just were playing around with Clinton's image on a computer, trying to come up with an image that we hadn't seen before. We all looked at it and said, 'That's it, that's the cover.' "
Said van den Heuvel: "We're flattered. We did the first draft, the Times did the second draft."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company