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Media treat Petraeus better than his ‘mistress’

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I know we’re just settling in with our popcorn for the scene where the lawyers and PR handlers transform disgrace into opportunity for the players in the David Petraeus story.

Already Petraeus is on the contrition circuit, saying last week he "screwed up royally." Why next thing you know, he will be nominated to replace Hillary Clinton at the State Department.

But before we move on to Act II: The Image Rehab, could we clear up this business about how women get depicted when the stuff hits the fan in a scandal?

Some of you are feeling sad that Petraeus, the retired four-star U.S. Army general who had an affair with the author of his biography All In: The Education of General David Petraeus, had to quit his job as Central Intelligence Agency director last month after admitting to an extramarital affair. "They threw this poor fellow to the wolves," celebrity divorce lawyer Raoul Felder told the Daily Beast.

Poor fellow, indeed, getting his reputation tarnished for engaging in indiscretions with Paula Broadwell, a married woman who surely must be responsible for the fall of our military hero, considering media commentary that dubbed her a slut and a cunning seductress.

How could this bad result have come to such a good guy?

"From what we know now, he wasn’t an alcoholic or a drug addict — something that might impair his thinking," wrote columnist Susan Reimer in the Baltimore Sun. In fact, "he did nothing truly weird, like Rep. Anthony Weiner, who sent those cell-phone pictures of his crotch to random women."

He probably wasn’t a bank robber or an animal abuser or an inside trader, either, and from what I can tell, the only things he is guilty of are cheating on his wife and a surfeit of professional preening.

But there is something a little bit off when one party to a sex scandal is congratulated for the sins he managed not to commit while the other gets attacked as "a shameless, self-promoting prom queen," which is the way Broadwell was described by an unnamed military officer in the blog Business Insider. (Memo to Mr. Unnamed Military Officer: Next time you give a media interview, show a little military-style courage and attach your name to those smears.)

Petraeus is no stranger to self-promotion himself, and several writers have called him out both for his assiduous courting of the reporters who covered him and for his tacky decision to adorn his civilian clothes with military medals for a recent speech in Washington.

But that self-promotion hasn’t led to any portrayals of Petraeus as "a shameless self-promoting prom king."

I have, though, seen a lot of stories that referred to Broadwell as Petraeus’s mistress. And so has J. Nathan Matias, a research assistant at the MIT Center for Civic Media who studies gender representation in the media. Matias used a news database called Media Cloud to get an idea of how Petraeus and Broadwell were being depicted in mainstream media and in blogs, and noticed that the word "mistress" was being used in such varied places as USA Today, Newsweek and Slate.com. Bloomberg View and Bloomberg Businessweek have also referred to Broadwell as his mistress.

"If I were trying to write a piece, I wouldn’t refer to her in that kind of possessive way," Matias told me. "I’d try to find language where I’d say they were having an affair, and identify her in terms of who she is in society, just as they are identifying Petraeus."

Readers coming across the word "mistress" tend to visualize a woman who provides sex in exchange for cushy, rent-free living and a lot of high-end shopping, Matias said. That label is "kind of demeaning" in any event, he said, but doesn’t even apply in the case of Broadwell, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, a West Point graduate and recipient of two master’s degrees.

"She is getting the typical response to the scarlet letter woman — he is a man, so he’s weak, but she is crazy, demonic and a threat to national security," said Victoria Pynchon, a blogger on negotiation and women’s issues at Forbes.com. "He’s mostly getting a pass, and the women in this story are getting no pass." Equal treatment in the media would at least make Petraeus the sugar daddy to Broadwell’s mistress, wouldn’t you think?

In a blog post that managed to squeeze in the word "slut" four times, the conservative commentator Robert McCain noted that Broadwell had conducted interviews with Petraeus while the two were jogging, which apparently is reason to conclude "the slut was very cunning in her seduction." Even The Washington Post found a way to present her as conniving, noting that she was "willing to take full advantage of her special access" to Petraeus while researching her book.

Petraeus, meanwhile, was described by an unnamed friend (does anyone talk for the record on this story?) as being "vulnerable" after leaving the camaraderie of the military to take the CIA post.

In the Baltimore Sun story, the author suggested "we need to learn to get past these bimbo eruptions." Bimbo, from dictionary.com, is "an attractive but stupid young woman, especially one with loose morals." What we really need to work on is getting journalism schools to teach students the apparently lost art of looking up words in the dictionary.

 

Susan Antilla, who has written about Wall Street and business for three decades and is the author of "Tales From the Boom-Boom Room," a book about sexual harassment at financial companies, is a Bloomberg View columnist.

 

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