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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Celebrity sells, and we're the ones buying

By Tom Warhover
November 16, 2012 | 5:02 p.m. CST

Dear Reader,

When is enough too much?


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The media have been aflutter with the news of Gen. David Petraeus’ affair and resignation and affair and shirtless FBI agents and affair.

It’s a legitimate story. Or was, for about two days.

The head of the CIA has sex with someone who is not his wife is news because he resigned. It might be news because a guy in that kind of position could be open to blackmail or some subtler quid pro quo.

But a week and counting? Really?

Sure, it gets sex into newspaper columns. Mine is a prime example.  I’ll get all the sex talk bundled up here so that it will be out of the way for any foreseeable future: sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, consenting adults, sex, sex, the other woman, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, men in power, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, adultery, sex, sex, sex, sex.

Sex, sex.


(Take that, search engine optimizers.)

Were national security secrets passed across the pillow? Not that we know so far. Pedophilia? Nope. The priesthood? I don’t even know the man’s faith. So, it was about sex.

There, I said it again. Sex. Sex sex.

If there is a legitimate continuing story, it’s probably about the ease with which a government agency, in this case the FBI, can gain access to thousands of pieces of correspondence that have nothing to do with the commission of a crime.

But this story has legs.

You know why.

Say it with me:


One of the frames that keeps this story alive is the Myth of the Perfect Man (or woman): Because Petraeus is a wise and effective military man, he must be wise and good in all other facets of his life, including his marriage. “The Greeks understand that the greatest heroes could have fatal flaws. Such ambiguity is called real life,” writing coach and sometime press critic Roy Peter Clark wrote. “The press has tended to cheapen heroism by applying it too broadly.”

Find me a perfect man (or woman). I’ll call you a liar.

But the press can build tall pedestals, easily knocked over in the first breeze. The people who follow the press help build them.

The other frame is Celebrity. Petraeus isn't a Hollywood star, but he has legitimate star quality in the political sphere. The Celebrity frame allows us to leave privacy at the door. Because they have Celebrity, there is no privacy.

Which brings me to our local titillation.

There were no allegations of affairs (sex) in the court documents. The decree was just two people calling it quits after a long partnership. Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel and his now ex-wife, Vicki, got divorced earlier this month.

You can read about it in the Columbia Missourian or from any of a dozen news sources.

At a news meeting Friday, the merits of an article were discussed: Others were already publishing the news; he’s the highest paid government official in Missouri; the Missourian previously published a brief story on his separation, so the divorce decree puts an ending to the story.

All those arguments, in my mind, were a bit of a stretch. Finally, the plain, unvarnished truth came out:

In Columbia, Mo., Gary Pinkel is the closest thing we have to high celebrity, and people like to know about the private lives of the rich and famous. We like to opine on whether we could handle the $23,000 a month that Vicki Pinkel gets. We like to snicker at the Chrysler Town and Country he must buy her.

One editor likened it to a wreck on the other side of an interstate: You know you shouldn’t look, but you just can’t stop yourself from rubbernecking.

A wreck, or the crash of a marriage.

Or the stimulating details of a CIA director who, by most accounts, got pretty high marks for his day job but failed the fidelity course.

We’ll keep reading about Petraeus, I’m sure. Why?