What triggered this piece was opening a friend's email the other day and clicking on a link to a TV segment where Bill Maher and Jane Lynch do a verbatim reading of Anthony Weiner and one of his female contacts talking dirty to each other via Twitter.
I'd heard something about this already, and even though I was already Weiner-weary, since someone I knew and liked took the time to send it to me, I watched.
Maher states upfront that since he’s on pay cable, he can virtually do and say anything, and he went on to prove it.
For those of you who haven’t seen this segment (and 675,000 to date have, on YouTube), the joke comes from Bill and Jane delivering this pathetic and yes- totally filthy- exchange completely straight, as if they were at a play audition.
The audience ate it up, howling and jeering throughout, and giving the performers a wild ovation at the end. I could see the humor, but after a while, I also felt intensely uncomfortable.
It’s not because I’m a prude-take my word that’s not the case. It was a more complex reaction. What’s that old saying? “I laughed but I wasn’t happy about it.”
I felt this little routine was worse than tasteless- I felt it was cruel. After all the public flogging this once proud public servant has undergone, and we’ve seen it all firsthand, doesn’t there come a point where enough is enough?
Not where today’s media is concerned, it seems. Where Weiner is concerned, harassment and humiliation weren’t enough. We had to turn this emotionally ill person, who has actually done a lot of good in his career, into a national laughing stock.
In doing so, the media has seen its ratings soar, lots more newspapers have been sold, and I’m sure plenty of folks have become rich fast off all that Weiner-related merchandise.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m no Weiner-phile. I heartily condemn both his lying to the American people (and it was pretty easy to discern he was doing so from the outset), and also his mulish refusal to resign. Without question, his idiotic handling of the scandal only made things much harder on himself.
Yet again I believe his total lack of judgment in crisis management- not to mention the idiocy of the offending behavior itself- indicates a man in emotional crisis.
But does the American media even take this into account? Not really. Instead they see the opportunity to cash in on someone’s inevitably messy public demise, and they create a feeding frenzy. They turn this man’s very public humiliation into a circus; make him the butt of endless late-night comedy routines, and use his funny last name to sell newspapers and t-shirts.
Should this phenomenon make us feel good to be Americans? I don’t think so. I guess that while I deplore Anthony Weiner’s actions, I’m also not proud of how the American media- and by extension the vast audience they cater to- has reacted to it.
Now we have former governor Rod Blagoyevich convicted of corruption and going to jail, but there seems to be only the faintest ripple in the mainstream media.
Why, I wonder? Here’s one theory: the Blagoyevich scandal comes down to one fairly dense, greedy politician trying to use his office to enrich himself. It’s pretty ho-hum, really.
The Weiner scandal is that much juicier for including a single ingredient: sex. Yes-that old adage still holds: sex sells, and these days, the more salacious the better.
There are plenty out there who get a perverse, vicarious thrill by delving into every detail of Anthony Weiner’s sad compulsion. Who’s sicker: Weiner, or these folks?
Of course, I know I’m risking charges of reigniting a furor that has finally and mercifully died down. That is not my intent. I actually think that only when a truly wild episode like this is receding in our collective rear-view mirrors, are we best-equipped to ask ourselves: “What just happened? And what does it mean?”
As some of you know, my normal beat is talking about great movies, the best movies for home viewing, old and new. In doing that to the best of my ability, I need to keep a handle on trends in the popular culture.
The trends I see in the movie business- primarily what gets made, and more tellingly, what works at the box office- reflect underlying societal trends that trouble me, ones I’ve raised before in the Huffington Post. These affect not just movies, but all media, new and old.
The dumbing-down of the content we consume, particularly entertainment content, is an issue of central concern, as our collective standards of what constitutes good and meaningful ever so gradually erode, due to an ever more distractible world, with multiple devices diverting our attention.
At family dinners we gaze down at our cell phones, and we refuse to watch black and white movies or movies with subtitles because we want something easy, with not too much to pay attention to or think about. Thus our brains- and spirits- become flabby.
A related issue is the blurring lines between news and entertainment today, a factor very much at play in the Weiner coverage. Hard news won’t hold us anymore; we need entertainment and plenty of party line editorializing and jousting built in to the programming we watch. Imperceptibly we are moving towards “National Enquirer” territory, and in some instances, we are already there.
Married to this- and another outgrowth of technology- is that there are no more secrets, and very little if any privacy. Surely, more than anything the Weiner scandal teaches us that.
And with that scary new reality comes an even more sobering and disturbing result: those tangible or intangible boundaries of taste and convention that might have protected our kids in the past, and perhaps kept us all focused on more elevated and important topics, are fast disappearing.
How many children I wonder have been able to go on YouTube and watch that Maher segment without their parents’ knowledge?
And how much worthwhile debate was sacrificed on MSNBC’s “Hardball” when night after night, Chris Matthews led every show with the Weiner scandal, often repeating himself as he evinced a reassuring lack of understanding where cyber-sex was concerned.
Metaphorically speaking, a cesspool is getting filtered into our drinking water, and we are growing inured to the taste.
So, yes- I do find Anthony Weiner’s actions deplorable, particularly the hurt he’s caused his wife and family, and the lies he told his constituents. But I also feel sorry for him, as I would for most any person with a severe mental or emotional illness.
Unsure what to rent on Netflix? For over 2,300 of the best movies on DVD, visit www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com
To see John’s videos for WNET-Channel 13, go to www.reel13.org