"The last thing I could ever do is publish something that wasn't true, because it'd kill me. And I know that. So I function at a higher standard than mainstream media." That's what Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt told Howard Kurtz, host of CNN's Reliable Sources, in July 2007, just days after Hustler's reportorial handiwork forced Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) to admit he had employed "D. C. madam" Deborah Jeane Palfrey's escort service.
Vitter came clean after Flynt long-time investigator Dan Moldea discovered that the Louisiana lawmaker's name appeared in Palfrey's telephone records, admitting that he had a "very serious sin in [his] past." What made the sordid unveiling even more juicy by Washington's standards-and a coveted prize for Flynt-is that Vitter, when he was a state representative, had pronounced President Bill Clinton "morally unfit to govern" and had based his political career on a socially conservative agenda.
Like much else in Washington, it was a case of history repeating itself. In 1998, Flynt's investigation of congressional dalliances in the shadow of impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton ended the career of another Louisiana politician, Bob Livingston, who was about to become House Speaker, a seat only two steps removed from the Presidency in the line of succession. The House Speaker-elect was forced to resign when Flynt revealed that Livingston had engaged in extramarital affairs.
Arguably, this was real news-salacious, certainly, but when politicians run for office on the basis of their sterling character, evidence of moral transgressions is newsworthy and of value to the citizenry.
So what drives a man-who makes his living from magazines and videos that concentrate on the graphic depiction of explicit sex-to expose the sexual escapades of Washington's powerful elite?
On July 13, 2007, just two hours before Flynt taped the interview with Kurtz, he spoke candidly with the authors of this article at a Beverly Hills restaurant, addressing the topic of checkbook journalism and providing insight on his motives for offering $1 million to anyone who "had a sexual encounter with a current member of the United States Congress or a high-ranking government official" or who could document evidence of illicit sexual or intimate relations with a prominent politician.
Flynt is well aware that people will question his motives. "The people you talk to who are critics will say, 'Why did you destroy this young man's career?'," observed Flynt. "If they only knew that I don't expose anybody's sex life for the sake of exposing it. If somebody takes a public position contrary to the way they are living their private life, as far as I'm concerned, they are fair game. It's the hypocrisy that we're going after. Many of these politicians go to Washington with the best of intentions, but the lobbyists start shoving money in their pockets and then it's hopeless. It's corrupted the whole city of Washington."
Indeed, during his interview with the outspoken adult magazine industry publisher, Kurtz openly speculated about what was behind Flynt's latest scheme to uncover sexual dirt in the nation's capital. "You and Hustler magazine haven't been in the news for a while," he told Flynt. "Could this have anything to do with trying to get some publicity for Larry Flynt?"
Regardless of what motivates him, Flynt got the goods he asked for. And when he did, the other media aimed a spotlight on his bounty, and often on Flynt himself-albeit begrudgingly.
"It's more of a left-out feeling." That's how Flynt describes the media's reaction. "When you do something that the mainstream should have gotten, it's a downer for them."
Flynt believes the mainstream media would rather ignore him completely, but knows they can't. "Over time, they have taken me seriously, but reluctantly," he noted. "When I break a story, they will use it, but preferring they wouldn't have to do it. Because there are so many media outlets, if they don't do it, somebody is going to do it." But it's typically Flynt who has to cause a stir on the political front before he captures the media's attention.
Curiously, Flynt says he gets a better response from the European press than he does from the media in his own country. "In France, Germany, and England, they want me to come into the studio and talk about George Bush or the political system in this country. But in the United States, they don't feel that I am worthy," he remarked.
One sticking point for the mainstream press is the way Flynt gathers his material. American journalism looks askew at paying a price for information, a technique that carries the pejorative label of "checkbook journalism." The practice came under fire in the weeks leading up to Flynt's most recent (as of July 23) political bombshell when it became apparent that several television networks were in a bidding war for the first post-prison interview with heiress Paris Hilton-leaving the losing media outlets groping to explain why they needed to back away from paying for an exclusive.
The Los Angeles Times quoted NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker as downplaying the use of pay-to-say sources. "[H]istorically there have been many instances where there have been fees paid for services, videos, photographs, and people have gotten around this, including the most famous interviewers on American television," he observed, suggesting that it's not all that unusual for payments to be made in the news-gathering process.
Flynt is open about and isn't troubled by checkbook journalism. He says he's more up front about it than other media outlets, that's all.
"One of the biggest-selling issues of Hustler I've ever had featured the Jackie O nude photos that I bought from the guy in Italy," he recalled. "So I started checkbook journalism at a very early age. Now, that whole bunch at the Today Show and others do the same thing. Money might not transfer hands, but the person will have a book to publicize. So Nightline will do their story to coincide with the book coming out-they're promoting the hell out of it-and if that's not checkbook journalism, I don't know what is. One should not be dependent on the other."
In short, Flynt claims to merely do directly what other media organizations do in a roundabout fashion.
But that doesn't stop mainstream media opinioneers from lashing out at Flynt. MSNBC's Tucker Carlson accused Flynt of "taking a short cut and just trashing the guy's personal life" adding, "What a sleazy short cut that is."
Similarly, political columnist E. J. Dionne lamented, "The magnitude of our public problems does not afford us the luxury of indulging in crusades about politicians' private lives, even those involving a high degree of hypocrisy."
That response from media personalities like Carlson and Dionne doesn't surprise Flynt, nor does Flynt think that others will adopt his news-gathering tactics.
"People won't follow my lead for one simple reason: The people who would want to do it simply can't afford it," said Flynt. "The mainstream media can afford it, but they won't do it because they don't want to be so brazen. I've been very successful-moneywise-so I don't have to compromise."
We agree that the media are disingenuous when they criticize Flynt and his tactics for exposing politicians. After all, media organizations are the ones that often frame news coverage in terms of sex-and it didn't stop with Bill Clinton. The 2008 presidential campaign is already rife with stories about past affairs of former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the "trophy wife" of candidate Fred Dalton Thompson, and almost every media outlet has jumped on the story about Senator Larry Craig's misdomenor arrest in a Minneapolis airport restroom. None of these stories was broken by Hustler.
And it's not just on the national level. The Los Angeles Times devoted dozens of column inches over several weeks to an extramarital affair that the city's mayor-Antonio Villaraigosa-had with a television reporter who covered city hall.
Ironically, Flynt contends it's not the sex that matters. It's the hypocrisy. But politicians aren't the only ones guilty of hypocrisy. When Flynt is nosing around in the muck, the mainstream media are quick to attack him. When they investigate personal sexual matters, on a fairly regular basis, it is somehow more noble. The news media could stand to learn a lesson about hypocrisy. Perhaps Larry Flynt can teach them.