For years the cheesy, celebrity gossip tabloid National Enquirer has boldly proclaimed its motto: "Enquiring minds want to know."
Apparently a few million minds still want to know the latest on Jacko, Brangie, Demi and Ashton, JFK Jr. and Liz, because the paper manages to sell about a million copies at the supermarket checkout lines, down from a reported peak of 6 million copies.
So surely curious Nevadans would be starving for news about the peccadilloes of our celebrated senator, John Ensign, who recently flew home to Nevada for an abbreviated press conference at which he confessed to his constituents a nine-month affair with his wife’s best friend, Cindy Hampton, who was a paid employee on his campaign staff and was married to the head of the senator’s Washington office, Doug Hampton, both of whom were fired a couple of months before the affair was ended with a lovely $96,000 parting gift from the senator’s wealthy parents.
How much more tabloidish could it get? Surely the voters and voyeurs are thirsty for more, right?
Ensign said at the time he would not resign and has since indicated he plans to run for re-election.
Shortly after Ensign’s confession, which apparently was prompted by the fact Doug Hampton was shopping the story to a cable television network, presumably in hopes of prying loose some even lovelier parting gifts (Some wags might call that pimping after the fact, but I prefer to call it trolling for hush money.) the Review-Journal conducted a poll asking people across the state their opinions of Ensign. The percent of those polled who recognized Ensign’s name favorably had dropped to 39 percent from 53 only a month earlier.
This past week we polled again (see today’s front page), again using our professional pollster Mason-Dixon Polling and Research out of Washington, D.C. Ensign’s recognized favorable ratio had dropped to 31 percent. But 54 percent said he should not resign and 45 percent said he should seek re-election.
In this latest poll we asked a number of questions about how seriously voters viewed various aspects of this affair. We asked them to rate items on a scale from very serious to not at all. Only 30 percent thought the mere fact that Ensign had an affair was very serious. But fully 60 percent, the highest of any aspect mentioned, thought it was very serious that he had an affair with his wife’s best friend. Only 49 percent deemed the $96,000 gift as very serious.
So surely we all want to know more from the now mute senator, right? (I invited him in for an editorial board the next time he is town, but his press liaison said thanks, but no thanks.) When asked how seriously they view the senator’s refusal to answer questions from the press or anyone about the affair, a paltry 30 percent thought this very serious. Fully 24 percent viewed his silence as not at all serious.
In hindsight, perhaps we should’ve had a final query. Which of the following best fits your attitude about current events?: Don’t know? Don’t care? Don’t want to know? All of the above?
The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press takes a weekly news interest index. The one for the week ending July 12 asked what one story people most closely followed that week. Far and away the most followed story, for the third straight week, was the death of Michael Jackson at 29 percent of respondents. The economy was being followed by only 20 percent, Obama overseas by 12 percent and health care by 11 percent. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s resignation attracted 8 percent.
And don’t assume Jacko was being watched because that was all the media carried. Pew found only 17 percent of the so-called news hole was devoted to Jackson developments.
When asked by Pew what story people most talked to their friends about, it was Jackson 43 percent compared to a distant second for the state of the economy at a mere 18 percent. Health care reform, Palin and the shooting death of quarterback Steve McNair all drew 8 percent.
If ignorance is bliss, apathy must be euphoria.
Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press, the First Amendment and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@ reviewjournal.com. Read his blog at lvrj.com/blogs/mitchell.