Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Media, stop stoking Petraeus sex saga

By Howard Kurtz, Special to CNN
November 28, 2012 -- Updated 2102 GMT (0502 HKT)
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
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2311 GMT (0711 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT