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Friday, May 29, 2015

Why Is This News?

I just read this article--front-page, top right corner of The New York Times--reporting that former representative Dennis Hastert (R-Ill), who served as speaker of the house for much of the early 2000's, has been indicted over activities designed to hide past "misconduct"--the word placed in ominous quotation marks right in the headline.

Now, today's title notwithstanding, I understand why this merits press coverage: Hastert is (or at any rate, was) a prominent public figure, apparently the longest-serving Republican speaker ever.  In that sense, any major events in his life merit some public scrutiny--in the same way that a Kardashian wearing a tacky dress apparently merits scrutiny.  But front-page, above-the-fold coverage in the national paper of record?  Even if Hastert is ultimately found guilty, his "crimes" hardly seem worthy of such blaring coverage.

The crimes themselves sound pretty bad: Lying to federal investigators and engaging in shady banking practices.  But the shady practices themselves seem to be that he withdrew money from bank accounts--apparently, his own bank accounts--in amounts that were designed to evade bank-reporting requirements.  He was giving the money to an unspecified person to compensate for unidentified instances of "past misconduct": In other words, it sounds like he was a naughty boy in the past and was now paying someone off to keep his naughtiness quiet.  When his banking patterns did draw the attention of regulators, and Hastert was subsequently questioned by the FBI, he denied paying anybody and claimed that he was just holding onto the cash himself because he had lost faith in the nation's banking system.  (And, heck, the way Congress operates, who wouldn't believe such an excuse?)

So, OK, if he did everything he's being accused of, he did break some laws.  But in the annals of criminal justice, his crimes hardly rise to Dillinger-esque proportions: He used his own money, to pay off someone for something he did, long after he was no longer involved in government, and--presumably out of embarrassment, he tried to hide the fact that he was making these payments.  He should certainly face punishment, but unless there is substantially more to this story than we're hearing so far, I imagine that punishment will probably amount to little more than some fines--and of course the suffering of the shame that he had tried so hard to avoid.

At the risk of sounding like a Fox News enthusiast, though, the "liberal" New York Times' trumpeting of this story from its most-prominent platform, makes me wonder if the editors are engaging in their own inappropriate glee at the downfall of a prominent Republican.  Not that I don't enjoy that as well, but I could wish for the Times to tone down its Schadenfreude.

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