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One question media struggles to answer in Petraeus affair: How much should we care?



petraeus-kelley.jpgThere's no doubt the story about David Petraeus' public acknowledgment of an affair with biographer Paula Broadwell makes a spicy, compelling story.

Especially as the story's focus has widened to include Jill Kelley, a Tampa wife and mother described as an unpaid social liaison at MacDill Air Force Base, who Broadwell allegedly sent harassing emails anonymously.

According to NPR, Kelley asked a friend at the FBI to investigate the emails; as investigators traced the messages, they realized they came from Broadwell and other emails indicated the biographer was having an affair with the CIA chief. (at right is a photo of Petraeus with Kelley, her husband and his wife taken by Tampa Bay Times reporter Amy Scherzer which has circulated all over the globe)

The FBI was initially concerned, the Wall Street Journal reports, because Petraeus and Broadwell had set up a private gmail account to communicate with each other and investigators wondered if the director's email account had been breached (the two wrote private emails which were not sent; instead, they logged into each others' accounts to read them).

petraeus-kelley2.jpgBut now that the investigation seems concluded and no one has yet been accused of breaking any laws, the question remains for journalists: How much should the public care about this?

There have been a flurry of new developments worthy of a bad romance novel: Another general, John Allen, is under investigation for sending up to 30,000 emails to Kelley. The FBI friend of hers who initially referred the case to the agency was barred from participating in the investigation by superiors who feared he was obsessed with it. The agent had sent a shirtless photo of himself to Kelley.

USA Today reports Kelley has hired Abbe Lowell, the lawyer who represented Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and PR crisis management expert Judy Smith, whose life is fictionalized in the ABC series Scandal.

The WSJ reports classified information has been found on Broadwell's computer. But since she hasn't been arrested, it seems unlikely the information was important. And as an Army reservist with a security clearance, Broadwell claimed to have multiple sources for classified information during a recent speech.

Some conservative lawmakers have questioned the timing of the disclosures to officials, noting claims that the White House and some top government officials weren't notified about Petraeus' affair until after last week's closely-fought election. But NPR's story notes that investigators had trouble deciding if the issue was worth pursuing at all and investigators would have been reluctant to spread word about their efforts until they were finished gathering information, to avoid any attempts to conceal facts.

petraeus-broadwell2.jpgBut so far, all these breathless discoveries have done little more than uncover unsavory details about top officials who may have acted unseemly, but little else.

(Gen. Allen, whose nomination to serve as the next NATO commander is on hold during the investigation into his emails to Kelley, could be found guilty of reaching military codes if he had an affair.) 

If anything, the episode reveals how uncritical some journalists were about Petraeus' golden-boy image and how little some pushed back against Broadwell's overly complimentary writing on him. (even Jon Stewart admitted he missed the boat Monday night)

She has called herself a journalist in the past. But it goes without saying that responsible journalists don't sleep with their subjects or blur the lines between friendship and official capacity the way she did. And the question of whether tougher questions should have been asked of an obviousy friendly biographer seem obvious now.

The real challenge for journalists here is to discover if there is anything more to this story than a series of messy personal relationships and broken confidences.

And if there isn't any more, will we wean ourselves from covering it so much? 

[Last modified: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 8:51am]


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