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Media, stop stoking Petraeus sex saga

By Howard Kurtz, Special to CNN
updated 4:02 PM EST, Wed November 28, 2012
Gen. David Petraeus, now-former head of the CIA, poses with his biographer Paula Broadwell.
Gen. David Petraeus, now-former head of the CIA, poses with his biographer Paula Broadwell.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Howard Kurtz: Journalists happy Petraeus affair knocked "fiscal cliff" off front page
  • Kurtz: Media quick to report salacious details that proved to be not so dramatic
  • People eat story up because it involves a well-respected general, he says
  • Kurtz: Media has jumped the shark beyond the story's newsworthiness

Editor's note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and is Newsweek's Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.

(CNN) -- Are the media reveling in the David Petraeus scandal just a bit too much?

The question sort of answers itself.

Journalists are secretly grateful to the former four-star general for rescuing us from six weeks of sober coverage about the fiscal cliff. Not that anyone wants to plunge over the cliff, but daily reports on White House negotiations with John Boehner are no one's idea of a wild time.

Howard Kurtz
Howard Kurtz

So let's face it: We are wallowing in the tawdriness of this tale. But are the media losing perspective -- and rushing to judgment?

Let's concede up front that the story is inherently fascinating. A general with a walk-on-water reputation abruptly quits the CIA and admits an extramarital affair. His mistress turns out to be his admiring biographer, who hawked her book all over television.

Watch: An orgy of media advice on getting away with an affair

Then we learn that she triggered an FBI probe by sending what were perceived as harassing e-mails to a military volunteer in Tampa -- and that a friendly FBI agent allegedly sent that woman shirtless photos. All of which was a prelude to the reports that Gen. John Allen, who in his spare time is running the war in Afghanistan, exchanged up to 30,000 e-mails with said Tampa woman.

Jillette: Human beings really like sex
Gen. David Petraeus, now-former head of the CIA, poses with his biographer Paula Broadwell.

See? It's hard to keep up. The military sex saga has all the earmarks of a sizzling soap opera.

But let's take a step back. A couple of steps, in fact.

Those 30,000 e-mails initially described by sources as "flirtatious"? Unnamed defense officials put out the word the next day that there were far fewer -- maybe a few hundred, one told The Washington Post -- and that there was "no affair" between Allen and Jill Kelley, the Tampa activist. Or perhaps they were "overly flirtatious," anonymous Pentagon officials told The New York Times, and there were 30,000 pages but some just contained a single sentence. And Allen may have called Kelley "sweetheart" in the e-mails, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Watch: Media mistakes murky in Petraeus sex scandal

As for the e-mails from Paula Broadwell, Petraeus' biographer, to Kelley, I've seen them described as everything from threatening to harassing to chastising Kelley for acting like a "seductress" toward Petraeus. Again, we don't really know.

What about the notion that Broadwell was terribly indiscreet in her relationship with Petraeus? Her ghostwriter, the Post's Vernon Loeb, says he was "clueless" about any affair.

There is, to be sure, a practical problem here. The principals aren't talking much. New information and insinuations tend to trickle out through friends, associates and officials-speaking-on-background, which leaves a sizable void that has sometimes been filled by speculation.

Nor have journalists covered themselves with glory by staking out the women's homes. Kelley has called local police asking for "diplomatic protection" against the media mob that has camped out near her residence, according to the Fox station in Tampa Bay. What, exactly, did she do to warrant this treatment?

Watch: Businessweek retreats from piece on B-schools with hottest women

Now we come to the heart of the matter. Petraeus, who has risked his life and been wounded as a soldier, showed bad judgment and fooled around. That's not exactly an aberration in the highest levels of politics. Perhaps you recall the name Bill Clinton, now a global statesman.

So what is driving the story? Why has the press devoted far more attention to Petraeus' personal life than, say, his agency's role in the fatal attack in Benghazi?

Our culture tends to put generals on a pedestal, and none more so than Petraeus, who courted journalists assiduously and received favorable coverage in return. The mighty media machine turned David Petraeus into a household name, and now his image is crumbling beneath the weight of that machine. The fame he sought is being used against him. If the secretary of commerce gets caught carrying on with a smitten young woman, it's a two-day story.

There are other factors. Some commentators who opposed Petraeus' role in George W. Bush's surge in Iraq are using his fall from grace to settle scores. And don't ignore the pop-culture element, swirling around this question: If the nation's top spy can't keep an affair secret, who can?

But we have reached the point where the enormity of the media spectacle far exceeds the news value of the revelation that one of America's top military leaders was also a flawed human being.

Watch: Jezebel crusade against teens' racist Obama tweet turns harsh

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The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.

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