The Story of the Generals: Prurience or Public Interest? Desperately Needed Break?

by Bob Schwartz


I see a little silhouetto of a man,
Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?
Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very frightening me.
Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody

Responsible media personalities have had to admit that they are hanging on every detail of the The Story of the Generals, even as they question whether private behavior, however crazy, however famous the players, rises above the level of celebrity gossip.

That’s a great and important question—in general. But in this particular case, something is happening. The details are growing exponentially, to the point that every story about it, even in this up-to-the-microsecond digital news age, is old the moment it is published. And practically all of the revelations have a public facet. It was tantalizing to learn that Jill Kelley had an identical twin sister who, among other things, was involved in a bitter child custody battle that ended with her losing custody and being branded “psychologically unstable” by the judge. It was another thing entirely to learn that both General Petraeus and General Allen had written letters to the court supporting her. And it was still another thing to learn that this sister’s ex-husband at one time worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.

On the public-private scale, stories all deserve the benefit of the doubt that leans toward privacy, and it’s better to err on that side. That’s what all of us would want for ourselves and our families. But this story sits at a previously unknown nexus of the strange personal and strange public. It is sui generis (and if it turns out not to be one of a kind, we are in serious terra incognita). We are stuck being unable to extricate prurience from public interest until we know it all, or at least much more. The evidence is compelling that there is something here we might deserve to care about as citizens, not just as voyeurs.

One of the other factors that plays into the fascination with this story is that we need a civic break. That is no comfort for the genuine pain that surrounds it, nor is it an acceptable excuse for prying. But it is a fact. We are supposed to immediately care about how we will resolve the looming fiscal crisis, about who is in leadership positions in Congress, about why Mitt Romney lost and Barack Obama won, about who will be running in the 2016 Presidential race, etc. Enough, for just this moment, is enough. Yesterday brought two horrific reports, one from Arizona about a Romney supporter who ran over and critically injured her husband in a parking lot because he had failed to vote, another from Florida about a man who committed suicide because Obama was re-elected.

That’s a reason we can’t get enough of this story, and miraculously, the story keeps growing to distract us in unimaginably original ways. And who knows? Maybe while we are so distracted, those who are elected to solve our problems—and a few who lost their jobs because they didn’t—will take the opportunity while we aren’t looking to start solving them in a cooperative way. That would be a much shinier and more substantial story to mesmerize us.