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Stop Treating Sex Scandal Press Conferences Like Couples Therapy

Last night, networks tackled the Weiner redemption tour with the breathlessness of news crews still giddy from the fumes of the royal baby beat. MSNBC's Lawrence O’Donnell did an impassioned segment on “standing by your man,” complete with a sex therapist called on to deliver insights such as “it seems like were looking at someone who is really getting off on the power, the attention.” On Fox, Donald Trump declared Weiner “a sick guy.” Rachel Maddow was all bubbly outrage on MSNBC, railing against Weiner’s “redemption tour” and the “online, no-pants exchanges that he was still having after he supposedly came clean.” The main exercise on every network, though, was the same one that has propelled media coverage of many sex scandals before this one: playing and replaying that press conference, endlessly interpreting the words and the body language for signs of discord or hidden feeling. “What do you read into it?” CNN's Erin Burnett asked guests after rolling the clip. TV analysts jumped to play the marriage counselor, marveling at both Weiner’s audaciousness and Huma Abedin’s mysterious attachment to the man at her side. “This is no longer a campaign, this is a public therapy session,” said one CNN correspondent, perhaps the truest statement of the night.

In the past, these press conferences have been a more lopsided expression of the marital psyche. Clearly much of the scrutiny of Eliot Spitzer’s public announcement centered on Silda Spitzer’s chagrined face as she stood by in silence. In 2008 Dina Matos McGreevey did a circuit of CNN appearances to say: “My heart just broke for her because I know exactly what she is feeling.” Even the sight of Hillary Clinton beside Bill during his press conference as he issued his adamant denials later made for pundit analysis about how much she really knew. But in this case, of course, Huma—referred to by her first name, as CNN's Dana Bash pointed out, because “she is almost like Cher or Madonna here in Washington”—was not a cipher; she spoke persuasively and firmly for herself. She could hardly have been more clear in her statement that her husband had “made some horrible mistakes, both before he resigned from Congress and after” but she loved him and had forgiven him, which was “not an easy choice.” The fact that she spoke didn’t change the message of the press conference overall, which was, of course, that having been forgiven by his sane, loyal wife meant Weiner should be forgiven by voters too. It did, though, diminish the usefulness of an outpouring of psychoanalysis lobbed in her direction. If there was one part of the whole mess that didn’t need parsing, it was Huma’s inner monologue.

Yet the media’s instinctive response was still to make a game of wondering at the contents of her head along with his. “You know Huma Abedin personally,” Anderson Cooper said to Dana Bash, adding gravely: “It must be an extraordinarily difficult day for her.” Cooper brought in a “relationship expert” and former co-host of “Love Lines” who assessed the chances of the marriage “staying strong.” Even as commentators observed that “a lot of times we see the good wife, but we don’t really hear her,” they seemed bent on upholding the idea of the good wife as quietly tortured and opaque. Huma’s prepared remarks were not just an endorsement of Weiner’s character but also (more persuasively) a defense of herself. Yet there is still a strange, persistent impulse to characterize the political wife’s brain as something that exists to be unpacked, even after she has taken the unprecedented step of testifying on her own behalf.