UPDATE: Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz has resigned. He issued a statement citing “unacceptable personal conduct” as the reason. The nature of that conduct remains undefined.
While Duane Ose, the 78-year-old star of a former reality-TV show could be risking his life by following his hormones into the foothills of the Alaska Range, the mayor of the state’s largest city might have forfeited the political future to his.
And to think there are those who accuse women of being “too hormonal.”
Let me state, before going any further, that a.) I am not a perfect man; and b.) like most of the rest of the journalists in Anchorage, I ignored the developing scandal surrounding Mayor Ethan Berkowitz when it first appeared on the Facebook page of Your Alaska Alaska anchor Maria Athens and then broke in non-social media on the website Must Read Alaska (MRAK).
First off, to be wholly honest, I know and like Berkowitz. I liked him more when he existed in a Wally Hickelesque big-dream-mode before his election as mayor, but a politician going pragmatic is not an automatic reason to dislike him or her.
More than that, though, I always appreciated Berkowitz as a smart guy, and smart guys don’t send “dick picks”, or in this case “ass picks” (though there are warnings of more pics to come), over the internet to women.
Not to women with whom they are in long-term relationships. Not to women with whom they want to start new relationships. Not to random women.
This is the 21st Century.
Anything you put into the tubes – ANYTHING – can be found there. If you’re someone involved in politics – even if your someone not involved in politics – it is fundamentally stupid to put nudies – back, front or sideways, upside or downside – in the tubes unless you’re ready to have them come back at you.
Black, white and gray
Granted, if you’re a film celebrity, there might be upsides and downsides to weigh. Some might argue a sex tape revived the career of actor Rob Lowe, and Lowe himself once told USA Today this:
“People talk about it, I go, ‘I think it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Honestly, I do, ’cause it got me sober. Sober got me married. I’ve been married 29 years, and I have two great sons. I don’t think any of that happens without going through that scandal. I really don’t.'”
But Lowe is an actor, not a politician. Sex pics, be they video or stills, have generally spelled the end for U.S. politicians. President Donald Trump has survived various sexual allegations, as did former President Bill Clinton, but nobody ever produced any photos or video of either of them nude or in action.
Former members of Congress, starting with Rep. Katie Hill, D-Calif., can attest to the dangers of sexually explicit photos and videotapes. Exposing your private parts to a camera is political suicide.
Thus, when Suzanne Downing “broke” the Berkowitz story on MRAK, it was easy to ignore. Berkowitz couldn’t possibly be so stupid.
I even went so far as to agree with a friend, a former journalist, that MRAK might have crossed the line in moving the story from Athens’ post in social media onto the bridge between social media and traditional media.
Or what former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin liked to lambast as the “lamestream media.” But let’s be honest here. Adhering to certain rules of evidence, as long as you adhere to them, is not a bad thing. It is a good thing.
Still, the former colleague and I eventually ended up in an argument over whether the right-wing media or the left-wing media was worse. It deteriorated to the point where I simply hung up on him.
Arguing the difference between bad and baddest is a waste of time. MRAK is a right-leaning publication that admits it. The Anchorage Daily News – the state’s largest news organization – is a left-leaning organization that denies it.
A day after MRAK ran the Athens story with the ADN still reporting nothing, another former ADNer pinged me to ask “if the accusation had been about (Gov. Mike) Dunleavy instead of Berkowitz do you think ADN would have quashed it?”
I would have liked to think the answer, yes. But it’s been a long time since there’s been an argument in the ADN newsroom about anything, let alone how to cover right-left politics.
Diversity died there a long time ago. ADN editor David Hulen likes it that way. He abhors rigorous debate. Anyone inclined to question the newspaper’s editorial policies is soon shifted aside or simply gone.
Friends and enemies
There is nothing inherently wrong with this. It might even be good. When Berkowitz decided it was time to confess his sins (the rumor being that Athens has more than just butt photos), he had an outlet to which to turn.
And thus more of the story emerged.
“Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz apologized Monday for what he termed a ‘consensual, inappropriate messaging relationship’ with Anchorage news anchor Maureen ‘Maria’ Athens,” the newspaper reported today.
Unfortunately, this came three days after the mayor issued a statement saying “the slanderous statements from Your Alaska Link reporter Maria Athens are categorically false and appear to be the product of someone who is hostile and unwell.”
Athens’ report that Berkowitz “exposed his genitalia on an underage girl’s website” might well be untrue. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is reported to have cleared Berkowitz of any criminal activity.
The facts of the case, however, remain unclear even as this is written. Some mght consider an “underage girl” someone under the age of 18. Others might move the bar down to 21.
According to the Alaska Bar Association, “two people who are both 16 or older can (legally) agree to have sex with each other,” a standard that would move the bar even lower.
The same standard would appear to apply to sharing sexual images on the internet. If, of course, both parties were willing participants in that exchange.
No one, at this point, knows what Athens meant by “under-age girl.” Twenty, 19, 18, 17, 16?
If Berkowitz was engaged, as he now says, in “an inappropriate messaging relationship” with Athens, there is no reason he couldn’t be engaged in such a relationship with another woman even younger.
Berkowitz is 58. Athens is 41.
The discovery of a second relationship with someone even younger might explain why Athens’ unleashed the accusations that ended up costing her her job, getting her arrested for fighting with her boss and Anchorage Police, and – if untrue – would be slanderous and subject to litigation.
They still might although it is hard bordering on impossible for public and political figures to bring slander and perjury lawsuits against “journalists.”
If, as Berkowitz now suggests, the actions of Athens are the result of some sort of relationship gone bad, there is a good argument to be made that her public accusations were fueled by malicious intent. Still, if there is any substance to them at all, the mayor faces a tough case to prove slander.
And at this point, it would appear the story remains incomplete.
A new Alaska
All of which raises the biggest question of all: Does any of this matter?
The FBI and the Anchorage Police Department say they have investigated, and no crimes were committed. Whatever happened here was between Berkowitz and Athens, or maybe Berkowitz and Athens and other parties if Athens is to be believed.
The old Alaska was a pretty libertarian place with a lot of tolerance for what people – including politicians – did in their private lives. As a reporter in the state capital in the late 1970s and early 1980s – when the Permanent Fund was being developed and the future of the state was being shaped – I witnessed my share of misbehavior (and illegal behavior) on the part of political leaders.
A joint passed around was not considered a bad thing though marijuana was then still illegal. A few lines of cocaine among casual friends was not something to get concerned about, though that was as illegal then as it is now.
Sex? Well, sex was sex and thankfully people weren’t carrying around smartphones with which they could record anything or everything.
Times have changed since then, however. Views are different now. I admit to favoring the old school views.
Who you chose to have sex with and what sort of chemicals you decide to ingest is really not my business. On some level, any “consensual, inappropriate messaging relationship,” Berkowitz had with anyone – journalist or bartender, male or female, politically connected or politically unconnected – is between him and his family and his children, the real victims in all of this.
If nothing else, express a little sympathy for them. They are now caught in a story that would mean nothing, totally nothing, but for one thing:
The judgment of anyone who aspires to lead, as Berkowitz has, only to engage in this sort of politically dangerous behavior immediately raises questions. And the questions only increase when the politician’s first reaction to the exposure of his behavior is to resort to what some might call “victim blaming.”
It’s hard to see Athens as a victim, but Berkowitz’s Friday claim that Athens’s statements “appear to be the product of someone who is hostile and unwell” were clearly misleading, and that claim she is “unwell” is especially problematic.
Athens looked unwell in the video she posted that launched the accusations. But well or unwell, there was clearly more to this story, and still is, than a product of her mental health or imagination.
Part of her story at least appears to be true. She had some sort of sexual relationship with Berkowitz – online or off – and she has the photos to prove it.
And the fact she was arrested by the Anchorage Police Department – an organization overseen by Berkowitz – shortly after she made this all public only makes the situation look worse for the mayor.
There is absolutely no reason to believe Berkowitz had anything to do with her arrest, but lordy the optics are bad. So, too, his initial claim suggesting Athens made everything up only to be followed by the admission of a relationship between the mayor and the reporter.
But maybe it’s all just confusion over “the meaning of what the word is is.”