Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

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

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

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

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT