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 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 3:28 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT