WASHINGTON – Any time your employer has to issue a statement explaining that you’re “taking some time off to work things out,” you know it’s bad.
It’s certainly not good for for Ed Henry, the (married) White House correspondent for Fox News, who is dropping out of sight for a bit after a tabloid report on Wednesday claimed he’d had a 10-month affair with a Las Vegas hostess.
But just how bad?
Eh, probably not all that terrible, scandal experts and precedent say.
For one, unlike for politicians, the between-the-sheets doings of journalists generally don’t make news – or at least news that sticks, says Mark Feldstein, a University of Maryland journalism professor who’s writing a book about media scandals. Scandals involving journalists typically have to do with fabrication, plagiarism or bias, not sex.
One exception might be Chris Hansen, host of the long-running Dateline NBC segment “To Catch a Predator,” who was booted from the network in 2013 after tabloid reports surfaced of the married newsman’s alleged affair with a Florida TV reporter three decades his junior. (But in a testament to second acts, he’s now hosting a show on the Investigation Discovery network.)
“There isn’t quite the same sense of investment in the character of journalists the way there is in the character of politicians by the public,” Feldstein says.
In other words, who cares what an unelected grownup does with a presumably politically unconnected Las Vegas hostess when he’s not reporting the news from Washington?
That said, there’s a complex – and constantly shifting – matrix that determines how successfully a TV news journalist emerges from any sort of dark cloud. Why, for example, did Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly remain on his show after multiple scandals (including a settled sexual harassment lawsuit and accusations of embellishment), while NBC anchor Brian Williams was exiled from his anchor chair after it came out that he’d exaggerated stories of his reporting missions?
Factors include how prominent the person is, how important they are to their network, how much the respective scandal undermines their public image, how bad their transgression is and how they handle the fallout. Feldstein’s take:”Brian Williams paid more dearly because he had more credibility, because O’Reilly has the reputation as polemical pugilist, not a voice-of-God objective reporter.”
Fox didn’t say how long Henry will remain off the air. But when, how and if his scandal blows over – like so many tumbleweeds across the Las Vegas desert – is partly up to the Fates.
When it comes to survival, “a lot of it is just down to the vagaries of the news cycle,” Feldstein says. “There are a lot of variables and there is no formula.”