Peter Beinart, writing at the Daily Beast, argues that Anthony Weiner should stay in the race for mayor of New York City (for now). He points out the media’s hypocrisy in defending Bill Clinton’s far worse behavior (without noting that in attacking Weiner, the media is likewise protecting the Clintons). Perhaps, he argues, the media simply do not understand “sexting,” which is becoming more common among younger Americans.
According to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, only 5 percent of Americans 30-49 admit to having sent a sexually explicit message or image via cell. Among Americans in their 20, it’s 13 percent. As in so many arenas of life, what people once did in person they now do virtually. And for a generation that’s not yet accustomed to them, sexual indiscretions committed virtually seem creepier than the old-fashioned kind.
Beinart is correct that sexting is becoming more acceptable. It was the subject of a very successful Samsung ad, released last year, in which two adorable children transfer a video that they have made to their father’s smartphone as he leaves for a work trip. Before the taxi drives away, his wife leans in and transfers a video of her own, warning softly: “I also made you a video. You probably shouldn’t watch it on the plane.”
The Samsung ad works because the sexting happens between a husband and wife–and between parents who have not lost their passion despite the pressures of work and family. Not everyone who saw the commercial may have understood what it was about–the San Francisco Chronicle came up with some alternative explanations–but it’s unlikely anyone who didn’t understand the technology was offended by the idea.
Weiner’s behavior is different, for two reasons. First, he was sexting complete strangers, and doing so as a prelude to more intense relationships. Second, he misled the public in claiming that he had changed his behavior. The first is a personal problem, and might indeed be described as a matter solely between Weiner and his wife; the second is a public problem, and is relevant to the question of whether voters can trust him.
Beinart’s overall argument is that the voters, not the media, should decide Weiner’s political fate. I’m sympathetic to that view, but not to the idea that the media are not qualified because editors came of age without “sexting” technology. If Weiner had merely been caught “sexting” his wife, the story would have mere tabloid fodder, if that. And the media’s motives are not as innocent as Beinart seems to allow.