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Lyons: Most affairs aren't news until they are

News consumers and media operatives say people love a good sex scandal, and they’re right, but that doesn’t mean that many of us can’t be a little embarrassed by the level of detail and the resources thrown at the Gen. David Petraeus story.

As a newsroom manager, or even as a beat reporter, you’re always concerned about resources. Time is finite. Like cutbacks in many industries, staff has dwindled in newsrooms from the Northwest Herald to CNN. Every minute you spend on one story is a minute you can’t spend on another.

Not terribly often in local news markets, but occasionally, people want to tell you a so-and-so is sleeping with so-and-so story. It’s one of the quickest ways to end a conversation. Sounds like a personal problem, which unless it affects something larger, it’s a family matter not a news story.

People are unfaithful to their spouses. Dog bites man. It happens. Half of all marriages end in divorce. It’s nothing to celebrate or gloat over, and unless it’s your marriage or the marriage of a close friend or family member, not much to agonize over, either.

In Petraeus’ case, it obviously does affect something larger. When the director of the CIA steps down over an affair, that’s news. This isn’t just some guy who runs the township snowplow fleet – he’s the head of the most powerful spy agency on a very dangerous planet.

You can’t reasonably argue that this isn’t news. His resignation causes problems for the CIA and high levels of the federal government, but it’s very murky at this point how much impact the affair itself will have beyond the destruction of some careers and personal lives.

And that’s the key: We don’t know yet. So in the meantime, those of us who are squeamish about the details of people’s private affairs might want to look away until we know. Some of us aren’t squeamish, we just don’t care until we have to care.

But you can expect the national media to probe every possible detail until we know whether there’s more to this. Between legitimate news outlets and tabloids and scandal rags, we’ll hear details that you wouldn’t hear about your best friend’s dalliance.

Some details take you to the next level of a story, others are just silly and salacious, and professional reporters should be able to tell the difference.

We should hope that the focus of media reports are on things that could be important. Was national security compromised at any point and how? What impact will the scandal have on the Benghazi investigation? Does the federal government have too much power and ability to examine private emails?

And speaking of resources, if there is little more to this scandal, why is the FBI spending time investigating spats among jealous, scorned lovers?

Meanwhile, expect to hear even more, whether you’re looking for that kind of information or not, until the only plot lines left are suitable for a Lifetime movie.

Just like democracy, journalism is occasionally a messy affair.

• Kevin Lyons is news editor of the Northwest Herald. Reach him at 815-526-4505 or email him at kelyons@shawmedia.com.

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