Is the Petraeus scandal really widening, or is it just an excuse for ‘screwed’ and ‘balls’?

Today's tabloids, Nov. 14, 2012. ()
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Each day, the New York tabloids vie to sell readers at the newsstands on outrageous headlines, dramatic photography, and, occasionally, great reporting. Who is today's winner?

THE SCANDAL OF INFINITESIMALISM: There is absolutely nothing new in the Petraeus sex scandal today. And yesterday, the New York Post gave the matter a half page, which made me think the tabloids might be ramping down on the story. But I think the half page was not because of waning interest in the former C.I.A. director and his friends so much as frenzied interest in the story of Kevin Clash, who it was revealed had taken a leave of absence from his job at Sesame Workshop as the voice of the popular "Sesame Street" Muppet, Elmo, after a young man accused him of statutory rape.

Of course, since yesterday's editions, the accuser has recanted, and professed that while there was a sexual relationship, he was of age when it happened and it was consensual. That update is found on page 18 of the Post today.

While I stop short of saying that corrections and hairpin turns in stories where a person's reputation is at stake must be in one place or another in the paper, or even as prominent as the initial story that sullied the person's name, it is telling that the Post believes it is more interesting to hear that a beloved children's entertainer has committed a sex crime than to hear that he has not.

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But returning to the Petraeus case, which today once again gets the entire front page of both New York tabloids. Here is what has changed since yesterday's front pages:

- An unnamed "U.S. official" told Fox News that emails from John Allen, commanding officer in Afghanistan, to Jill Kelley, the friend of Petraeus who kicked off the investigation into his affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell, were not just flirtatious but the "equivalent of phone sex over email." The Wall Street Journal cited an unnamed source with knowledge of the emails who said words like "dear" and "sweetheart" were in them.

- Republican congressman Mac Thornberry and Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein have expressed some frustration with Petraeus.

- Broadwell was spotted by reporters yesterday near Washington, D.C., for the first time since the scandal broke Nov. 9. (Nobody has yet interviewed her though.)

Yep, that's it. Everything else you read in the tabloids is old news, reported yesterday or earlier elsewhere.

So why continue with this? Because today is the day the fundamentals of the story, already known, are rewritten by the tabloids with a take. That is, today the tabloids tried to move the story from being a sex scandal (and without any details about the sex involved it hasn't been much of one) to a political scandal. Concern-trolling the White House, they worry that it is an embarrassment to the Obama administration, even a stain on our reputation around the world.

To the New York Post, the story is evidence that Petraeus was not sufficiently attuned to the situation in Benghazi in the weeks after the American diplomatic mission there was overrun on Sept. 11, resulting in the deaths of four American members of the mission. Because he took the time to write a letter on behalf of Jill Kelley's sister, Natalie Khawam, who is in a battle over the custody of her young son.

"BRASS BALLS" reads the main hed in giant white letters. On the left, a "FIRST PHOTO" of Broadwell; on the lower right, a photo of Petraeus and Allen. "Generals' insult to Benghazi," reads the dek.

I really do wonder if the families of those killed in the diplomatic mission believe that Petraeus wasted valuable time he could have been focusing on the Benghazi attack investigation by writing this letter. In fact over the two weeks immediately following the attacks, I bet an audit of Petraeus' calendar might show that once or twice he ate a meal more elaborate and time-consuming to prepare and eat than a peanut-butter sandwich. He may have slept, too, or spent a little longer in the shower once or twice because the water felt good.

For what it's worth, politicians have gotten in trouble before for seeming in their personal lives to be insufficiently accommodating to the urgencies their jobs create. For instance by going on a golf outing. But I have never yet heard of someone who was so accused for writing a letter to a court on behalf of a family friend. Maybe if he were getting a massage while he wrote it and we had pictures?

But pictures are just what this story lacks--pictures and words. The Daily News is keeping the thing alive with a sort of vague notion that the Petraeus scandal is an affront to America. "We're all being screwed!" reads the type beneath a photomontage splicing together photos of Petraeus, Allen and President Barack Obama. "Sex-scandal makes mockery of the U.S." If you say so!

Four pages of coverage follow in which the News continues to try to impress upon us the importance and proportions of the "widening" scandal. I would just like to point out that since his announcement Friday, the letter on behalf of Natalie Khawam is the only new thing we have learned Petraeus himself actually did. Everything else is stuff that happened afterward to trigger the investigation, and had to do with the investigation.

It's not like we have discovered that he had an affair with Kelley, or with more women. It's not like we now know how he managed to make his assignations with Broadwell, or where the affair took place.

So not only is he not alleged to have done anything he hasn't himself already told us about. We have not discovered anything new on our own about the actual affair that is our reason for inquiring. It isn't, absent information that papers don't have or aren't telling us, a widening scandal, but a scandal that is spiraling in on itself, like the water in a toilet bowl. It's spinning into control.

For the News, furthermore, the completely unrelated fact that Kelley appears to have been in lots of debt actually takes up more than half of the story space. (Are we being screwed there? Mocked? By Jill Kelley's debts?)

Consequently I am finding it difficult to call a winner today. It's not just that I believe it shouldn't be a story for public-interest reasons—this column (luckily, more often than not, for the Post) is supposed to render judgment amorally.

It's that I do not believe they are correct in their assessment of the actual public interest in the story. Outside of some comedian monologues and Fox News on television, and a few media types who love a big story, who is living in the bubble where any of this matters?

So here, a testament to amorality: The Post has a pretty woman on the cover and the News doesn't, and the risqué use of the word "screwed!" on the News is not as much fun as the Post's "BALLS." (I can't quite believe I just wrote that sentence.) I believe they're now 5-0 on the News on the Petraeus story, with today's entry.

WINNER: New York Post.