The Imp of the Perverse

Edgar Allan Poe wrote an essay called “The Imp of the Perverse,” one of the most insightful and important works I’ve ever read. Poe explored the importance of perversity in human affairs: the fact that surprisingly often, people do things just because they shouldn’t. Because they’re wrong, or dangerous. Or evil.

Hugh Hewitt did a post this morning that reminded me of Poe’s evergreen insight: The Los Angeles Time Does a Hit on Lance Armstrong. The L.A. Times ran a huge, page one story on a lawsuit that Armstrong was involved in against a company called SCA Promotions, Inc. Armstrong sued SCA for breach of contract, and the case was arbitrated pursuant to a contractual provision. Arbitration proceedings are normally not public, but someone leaked thousands of pages of documents and transcripts relating to the arbitration to the Times, and the paper responded with a long article that had virtually no news value.

The purported news hook was that SCA accused Armstrong of using performance-enhancing drugs. What makes the Times’ page-one treatment of this non-story bizarre is that Armstrong won the case; in fact, routed SCA. What happened was that SCA was contractually obliged to pay Armstrong a $5 million bonus if he won the Tour de France in 2004, which he did. But SCA seized on the fact that Armstrong had been accused of drug use to justify its refusal to pay the $5 million. By the Times’ own account, SCA was not able to come up with any evidence that the drug allegation was true, and Armstrong denied it under oath. Before the arbitration was completed, SCA caved. It paid Armstrong the $5 million, plus interest and attorney’s fees.

So where’s the story? There isn’t one, unless the Times wanted to run an expose on SCA’s business practices. I think Hugh’s diagnosis is exactly right:

Big MSM has really lost its way, concluding that anything “secret” is in fact wrongfully hidden from public view, and that its function is to act as a conveyer belt to the front page for whatever a party or person doesn’t want revealed.

I think that’s right. Newspapers like the L.A. Times follow a perverse standard: they print stories simply because they shouldn’t. As in this case, where they had an opportunity to invade Armstrong’s privacy by disclosing documents that should have been kept confidential. And, in many other cases, where the fact that a story or a document is leaked–better yet, that the leak was illegal, and publication endangers national security–becomes a reason to publish. Exposing secrets, especially when there is a good reason not to, has become a perverse end in itself.

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