Vitter Scandal: Media Swallow Larry Flynt's Line

When someone points an accusing finger at a politician, the media reaction apparently depends upon whether the politician is a liberal or a conservative. 

Media coverage of social conservative Louisiana Senator David Vitter's dalliances with prostitutes has emphasized his hypocrisy, following the lead of the man who “outed” him, partisan Democrat and porn tycoon Larry Flynt.  In contrast, when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth exposed former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's shameful military record, the media circled the wagons around Kerry and attempted to undermine the credibility of the Vietnam vets.

In the latest development in the D.C. Madam scandal, Louisiana Senator David Vitter just emerged from a week of seclusion to apologize once again for doing business with Deborah Jeane Palfrey's escort service from 1999-2001, while also denying news reports that he patronized a New Orleans bordello several years ago.

Flynt, who has a history of savage attacks against social conservatives going back to the 1980s, found Vitter's telephone number in the telephone list of Pamela Martin & Associates, which federal prosecutors accuse of being a prostitution service.      

The founder of Hustler magazine, Flynt is a self-described nemesis of the religious right.  Flynt has embarked on a new campaign against what he calls “hypocrisy” in conservative lawmakers after placing an ad in the Washington Post in early June offering $1 million to anyone who could document a past “sexual encounter” with a member of Congress or a “high-ranking government official.” 

Flynt conceded on the MSNBC show Live with Dan Abrams last week that his feud against conservative Republicans is personal as well as political:  “Well, Dan, I've been jailed nine times, been shot and paralyzed, all for publishing Hustler magazine. So let's just say that it's payback now, and payback's a bitch.”

“I've been a die-hard Democrat all my life," continued Flynt, adding gleefully that most of the Republicans he's exposed over the years for sexual indiscretions “have actually been fundamentalists.”

According to The Hill, Flynt vowed to out only “lawmakers whom he perceives to be hypocrites.”  Reports The Hill: “Flynt insisted that he exposed the conservative lawmaker's sexual indiscretions only because they contradicted Vitter's longtime defense of the 'sanctity of marriage,'” declaring, “If someone's living a life contrary to the way they're advocating ... then they become fair game. I don't want a man like that legislating for me, especially in the area of morality…Republicans are more fun because they get caught so easily.  They've been living a repressed life all their life.” 

The media are regurgitating Flynt's gotcha spin on Vitter while largely ignoring Flynt's agenda and partisan history. 

Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News, reporting on Vitter's July 16 apology, introduced the senator as “one of the Senate's most conservative members, [who] has long campaigned for strict family values and the defense of marriage.”

The NBC story follows a pattern started last week in which the media described Vitter's fall as a hypocritical departure from his opposition to gay marriage while burying Flynt's role in making the story. 

On July 13, the Boston Globe editorial page sniped: “This would merely be a sad episode for his family, were it not for the Louisiana Republican's showboating as a family-values crusader and his exploitation of anti-gay sentiment for his own political benefit,” adding, “It's galling when a married customer of an escort service casts aspersions on gay constituents' fitness for wedlock.” The Globe does not explain the logical link between Vitter's romps with prostitutes and his opposition to same-sex “marriage.”  Is anybody who commits a sexual sin automatically disqualified from commenting on sexual matters? 

A July 11 newscast on CNN Morning America stated: “What makes this [the D.C. Madam scandal] so hard for Vitter's constituents to believe is the senator has made traditional family values the cornerstone of his political career.” 

On July 13, ABC's World News Tonight anchor Charles Gibson introduced Vitter as a “self-proclaimed defender of family values.”  ABC then played a video clip quoting Vitter: “We focus here in the Senate on nurturing, upholding, preserving, protecting such a fundamental social institution as traditional marriage.”  Reporter Jake Tapper continued: “And just days ago, Vitter sent this letter to senators urging them to support abstinence education to teach teenagers.”

“Senator's moral high ground gets a little shaky,” gloated a July 11 New York Times report describing Vitter as “an uncompromising foe of abortion, same-sex marriage and the immigration compromise that died in the Senate in June.”

Most of the media kept Flynt's partisan and personal agenda under wraps even when he was very candid about what he wanted to do to Vitter and why.  CNN, on July 15, aired an in-depth investigation into Flynt's background and motivations.  The New York Times and USA Today disclosed Flynt's role in the D.C. Madam scandal but did not report his background as a long-time crusader against social conservatives. 

The media's gleeful embrace of Flynt's line contrasts sharply to the skeptical scrutiny they applied to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth during the 2004 presidential campaign.  When a presidential candidate bases his candidacy on his status as a war hero, and evidence comes to light that he was anything but, the media ought to have investigated the evidence.  Instead, The New York Times and other media outlets focused on attacking the credibility of the Swift Boat vets by alleging that some members had financial and personal ties to the G.O.P.  The accusers' political connections, real or imagined, had everything to do with the credibility of the accusations they brought.

On August 21st, 2004, the Washington Post described the anti-Kerry group “as rooted in Republican politics and big money,” and “the most committed members say they are driven by desire to expose Kerry as a fraud who doctored his record to win medals and an early release from Vietnam.”

When George W. Bush's campaign denied ties to the Swift Boat vets in late August, The New York Times sought out to prove otherwise in an August 24th expose: “The President spoke on a day when Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, in another indication of its web of ties to the Republican Party, acknowledged that a woman who helped set it up and works for it is an officer of the Majority Leader's Fund, a political action committee affiliated with the former House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas.” 

The Times indicted the Swift Boat vets for receiving contributions from individuals who were also Bush supporters.  These included “Bob Perry, a Texan who has long supported Mr. Bush, and his company, as well as Sam and Charles Wyly, prominent Texas Republican donors”

The next day the Times ran an article exposing group member Benjamin L. Ginsberg as “a senior lawyer for the Bush organization in the Florida recount after the 2000 election and was once general counsel to the Republican National Committee,” helpfully adding that “almost all” of the objections the Swift Boat group raised “to Mr. Kerry and his war record have been contradicted by official war records and even some of its members' own past statements.”

USA Today noted in a September 1, 2004 news story: “At least $200,000 of the $2.8 million the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth says it has raised came from a prominent Texas home builder, Bob Perry, who is also a contributor to Republican campaigns, including Bush's.”

When a political partisan with an axe to grind accused conservative David Vitter of cheating on his wife, the media bought the story and concealed the messenger.  But when Swift Boat Veterans for Truth accused liberal John Kerry of cheating on his country, the media smeared the accusers.  For the media, is this the new definition of fair and balanced? 

David Niedrauer is an intern at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.