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Clamoring for Scandal, Selling America Short

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From THE VN/VO:

It’s like clockwork. A second-term presidency embroiled in allegations of lies, manipulation, and smear tactics. And of course, with the same precise predictability, reporters and pundits are stepping over each other to vilify, defend, or whatever it takes to be the newest flavor of Woodward, Bernstein, or Drudge. The Plame/Libby/Rove controversy – though it doesn’t have its sexy Watergate-esque name yet – does now have the beginnings of the ever-familiar “life of its own.”

Unfortunately, when this happens, one of the most important questions the media should ask in perpetuity of any such scandal flies out the window:

Is this really news?

In the coming months you can bet that accolades, deifications, and self-congratulations will be handed out- from both sides of an ever more partisan media – to those who probed with such predictable queries as “Is the president’s staff full of crooks?” and “How much was the liberal media involved in the witch hunt against the president?” These, however, are not the real tough questions. These questions have built-in audiences and built-in answers. The tough questions have as much to do with the media’s responsibility as they do the government they cover.

– WATERGATE, IN FOUR ACTS –

Our fascination with this genre of political scandal started with the Watergate breakins of the 1970s. Nixon’s scandal was the first in modern times to have more to do with the snowballing effect of mob opinion and ancillary cultural struggles than it did with the specific unsavory actions which brought it about. We judge Watergate through the prism of the rising anti-establishment counterculture at the time, not through any fear of the devastation Nixon and his administration would have caused had they not been caught committing essentially petty crimes.

You see, it is not about the crime. Rather, it is about the story. Hence, we were bound to repeat the same formula with Reagan (Iran-Contra), Clinton (Monica Lewinsky), and now George W. Bush. Reagan’s scandal was the only one of the set that came anywhere near an indictment on actions and policy that could have been substantially dangerous to the fabric of the nation. Ironically, this was also the least culturally significant of the modern scandals. The cause and effect of policy bores people. The simpler he said/she said is a heck of a lot more exciting. And it’s easy to find.

Though conveniently poor recollections and presidential pardons will never allow us to solidify much as fact, the one thing common sense tells us about any of these scandals is that guilt is much more predominant than innocence. While high-ranking American politicians are rarely megalomaniacal lunatics bent on undermining democracy, they do lie and smear. Often. Major victories for the survival of our nation – little events like World War II and trust-busting – were peppered with technically illegal deceit and fabrication in an attempt to cut through bureaucracy.

In modern times, however, we have a condition where at any point in time one-half of the nation clamors for the downfall of the current administration. The media, thusly, are more than happy to do the dirty work. They set the proverbial “speed trap at the bottom of the hill.” The populace’s desire for the story is pre-existing, the dishonesty and falsehoods are there for you – why not?

– COMPLEX ISSUES, INSTANT OPINION –

I don’t claim to know what Scooter Libby, Karl Rove or Dick Cheney did, knew, or could recall. Shedding even more light on the speculation of such things, however, only serves to add fuel to the court of mob opinion. Any set of rational priorities would put the actions and knowledge of the administration toward a host of other issues – real issues such as the war in Iraq, the economy, education, cultural morality, and the like – in a much larger share of the spotlight than a smear campaign on a partisan op-ed writer and the outing of an ambassador’s wife who is a possibly-secret-but-maybe-not-so-secret-anyway CIA spy.

These “real” issues, however, aren’t as easy to digest for most people. Whether the war in Iraq ends up as a success won’t be known for years – maybe decades. Internal issues like education and the economy see their results evolve slowly over many years. And, to boot, these issues – as much as we want them to be – are never black-and-white, right-or-wrong matters. Uncovering a lie – and helping to snowball that into other lies to the point where it’s criminal – is, indeed, as black-and-white as it comes.

The great irony in great political scandals – which are almost always fueled by the simplest and most benign crimes – is that we stop forming opinions and analyzing decisions on the complex and truly important issues of the time, and whittle down the entirety of our national debate into a strange and often fabricated arena of perfect morality. Contradicting everything we used to take as “it’s ugly but it works” common sense, we pretend that government officials and policy makers should- or even can – operate according to a strict and perfect godliness.

– THE MEDIA’S JUDGMENT PREDICAMENT –

Thus the media are forced into a predicament. They need to sell papers and garner more viewers, which means they need to play into the simpler show-me-right-and-wrong mentality of the masses – their customers. When it comes to political and policy debate, the media find themselves with two essentially opposing concepts which they must somehow bring together to fulfill their responsibility in communicating the events and effects of the government. On one hand, you have the desire of people to have the complex issues of the day digested and categorized as good or bad. On the other hand, the best we have in terms of actual effects and immediate conclusions is derivative affairs – which often devolve into scandals – such as white lies and shaded truths.

The unfortunate consequence is that in the mind of the media and their viewers, the rights and wrongs of these simpler and less important deceits are actually the basis of judgment on major issues such as wars, economic policy, and the like. It is because we can’t feed our desire for instant judgment on such major issues on the results of said issues themselves, that the majority of people are willing to relegate the most important mistakes and victories to future history books, and settle with the outcome of political scandals to judge our leaders.

Will the war in Iraq bring a more stable world? Will Bush’s economic policy make us a stronger nation in the more competitive economic world of the next few decades? I guess it’s up to Scooter Libby, Patrick Fitzgerald and the newsmagazines to fight it out for us.

Edited: nd

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  • Nancy

    Unfortunately, I think in the case of the Dubya white house, it’s less a question of just wanting to bring down the current administration, as it is that as of yesterday, 2,065 American soldiers (+ who only knows how many other non-combat personnel) are dead due to possible mechanations & lies, which is a lot more serious than just a bunch of newsies needing to sell papers.

  • http://www.elitistpig.com Dave Nalle

    Nancy, whatever the White House did to sell the war didn’t kill the soldiers, terrorists did. If we had gone into Iraq and Al Qaeda had backed off and let us help the Iraqi people wihtout interference then no one would be questioning Bush’s methods today.

    Dave

  • David

    Nancy is right. It is a legitimate scandal that the political leaders in a so-called democracy brazenly lied to Congress and its citizens to take the country into an illegal war that killed and maimed so many of its citizens, and also brazenly applied dirty tricks to silence detractors. If anything, the news media should have highlighted the scandal two years ago.

    As for what Dave Nalle wrote: The Bush admin, the neocons, the US military and their apologists have been trying to pretend that al Qaeda is behind the Iraq insurgency to legitimize the dying American soldiers and Bush’s lies.

    Al Qaeda only makes up only a small portion of the largely home-grown Iraqi insurgency and resistance to the US invasion and occupation. Many independent experts estimate foreign fighters to make up 3% to 10% of all insurgents. The al Qaeda-affililiated “Monotheism and Holy War” of Zaqawi (which the Bush admin calls al Qaeda in Iraq to make the connection) makes up a part of these foreign fighters

    Most of the insurgents are Iraqis. The local Iraqi insurgents are estimated to be 200,000 (30,000 fighters and the rest supporters), even more. Almost all are Iraqi Sunni Arabs who are angry with foreign military occupation of their country. You could imagine what people in Texas would do if foreign troops came in and set up checkpoints in their neighborhoods. Moreover, many of those foreign jihadis fighting in Iraq wouldn’t even be jihadis if they weren’t outraged by Bush’s invasion and occupation of a Muslim country. The US military cowboyed in and convinced the Sunni Arabs of Iraq that the US was going to screw them, thus driving them into violent resistance. They weren’t initially terrorists and could have been won over with a more intelligent strategy that the Bush admin appears incapable of.

  • http://parodieslost.typepad.com Mark Schannon

    I agree with your overall premise that Americans are easily excited about scandal and go dull-in-the-eye and brain when trying to understand complex socio-political issues.

    However, if I read your article correctly, you act as if the original Watergate was, at heart, a minor issue. That claim undermines what is otherwise a series of excellent points.

    Nixon’s scandal was the first in modern times to have more to do with the snowballing effect of mob opinion and ancillary cultural struggles than it did with the specific unsavory actions which brought it about.

    We judge Watergate through the prism of the rising anti-establishment counterculture at the time, not through any fear of the devastation Nixon and his administration would have caused had they not been caught committing essentially petty crimes.

    Petty crimes? Subverting the FBI & CIA, illegal wire tapping of not just the Democratic party but journalists, activists, and who knows who else, breaking and entering without a search warrant, creating a constitutional crisis of massive proportions by initally refusing to obey a Supreme Court decision, firing a special prosecutor (after two AGs resigned in protest,) massive raising and disbursement of millions of dollars in cash to subvert the electoral process, destruction of evidence (the tape gap) under subpoena by the U.S. Congress, lying to Congress, lying to the American people…

    I lived through Watergate. As bad as was Iran Contra–another series of illegal acts in complete violation of law–it pales before what might have happened had Republicans not finally grown so sickened of the Nixon corruption that they forced him to resign.

    And Dave, you’re probably right that it’s the continuing terrorism that has elevated the emotion around Iraq, but there would still be voices crying out–probably in the wilderness–about abuse of habeus corpus (www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/13/AR2005111301061.html, (sorry, couldn’t figure out how to create a link) the pathetic lack of planning for the post-victory rebuilding, the failure of the military to adequately protect both U.S. and Iraqi soldiers with armor, weapons, and support, and the irony that the war has actually catalyzed the militant loonies and gave them a focus for their insane behavior.

    In Jamesons Veritas

  • voltairean

    aren’t you doing exactly what you decry the press for doing? you simplify “plamegate” by lumping it with other second term scandals and also fail to consider the implications of the scandal in the larger picture.

    further, you state that we should not judge the president on simple deceits like the CIA leak but broader issues like the war in iraq. news flash – they are related. how can anything get bigger picture than lying about the evidence that lead a country to war? and that is essentially what the CIA leak is about.

    i would add that little deceits themselves are important because they show a character flaw. further if one is willing to tell little lies, what is to stop them from telling big lies? and how are we the public supposed to tell when something is a lie at all, especially when you are essentially advocating for a less intrusive press?

    take the president’s statement last week that “we do not torture”. This is a bold face lie. Is this a little deceipt that is not important since it is not about economic policy or war? hardly. besides being directly related to the overall “war on terror” it shows the willingness of the president and this administration to state something completely controverted by the facts. so how can we ever trust them on anything? the simple answer is you can’t.

  • Nancy

    A more recent example: Dubya’s claim this past weekend that “even the UN believed there were WMDs”. No, actually, they didn’t. Hans Blix (remember him, George?) investigated FOR the UN & repeatedly said there were NO WMDs. Which was why when Dubya finally did send the US charging in to Iraq, we had to pretty much go in alone. Which is pretty much where we are today, as well.

    Meanwhile, all kinds of embarrassing little things are cropping up, tiny of themselves, but indicative of a much, much larger situation underneath, suggesting that there is something rotten, and it ain’t in Denmark, Horatio.

    Dubya has been caught on tape, time & again, telling outright lies. His various administration underlings – especially Rove – are notorious & PROUD of their abilities to destroy reputations & lives based on their lies & what they euphamize as “spin”, but which any normal, honest human being calls by it’s true name: lying. Slander. Libel. Smears. Dirty tricks. McCarthyism.

    I really enjoyed that little movie, “Liar, Liar”. I sure would like to see the same force operating at least here, if not worldwide, even for only a few hours. However, even without it, liars leave tracks, and Bushco’s are coming home to roost, finally.

    I can’t wait for the impeachment & (hopefully) hanging.

  • http://www.richardbrodie.com/ noanchorbabies

    Thus the media are forced into a predicament. They need to sell papers and garner more viewers, which means they need to play into the simpler show-me-right-and-wrong mentality of the masses – their customers.

    Ironically, they are losing customers over this one, because there doesn’t seem to be any motivation! It needs to be made about a million times more clear what advantage anyone gained from this “leak”, otherwise it’s just somebody being stupid, not criminal, and so there can only be a secondary “cover up” criminality.

  • voltairean

    noanchorbabies #7

    HUH?

    The only thing ironic was your post. The fact that newspapers are losing subscribers is not ironic but rather evidence contrary to the point the original poster and you are attempting to make (assuming a correlation could be shown between the story and decreasing circulation). But it is indeed ironic that you had the intent of supporting the original post but instead gave facts supporting the completely opposite point.

    Also, can you please direct me to the legal statutes that state you have to gain from a criminal act for it to be criminal? I presume a hitman who shoots and misses his target and does not collect anything would not be guilty of any crime because he did not gain anything?

    And what is your overrall theory on the case? The VP, Scooter Libby and Karl Rove were sitting around the White House guzzling beers and thought it would be a lark to out a CIA agent and thus cannot be accused of doing anything other than being stupid?

    Yeah, I think it’s either that or maybe, that they were the main perpetrators of faulty evidence that led the nation to war and were doing everything in their power to squash any evidence or persons who tried to bring this to light. Could go either way really.

    Finally, is “secondary cover up criminality” like double secret probation? Is it a felony or a misdemeanor? Where can I learn more about it?

    Instead of worrying about “anchor babies” who are about as likely to have a negative impact on your life as you are to become Attorney General and start honing your english, research and reasoning skills.

  • Baronius

    Chris, you forgot the most bizarre part of the modern press, the stories about themselves. At some point in every story, the newsweeklies and talking heads will ask “did we go too far”, et cetera, not out of any genuine desire to improve, but just to talk about themselves. Reporters can draw out a scandal by talking about how they covered the scandal. (Woodward made a career out of retelling one story.)

    I think the Plame story has extra appeal to the media because it’s indirectly about them. Do you recall all the stories about embedded reporters? And Daniel Pearl, the reporter who was seemingly the only person ever killed by terrorists? And Cindy Sheehan, who became a story because 40 anchormen had nothing else to cover in Texas in summer?

    Maybe the grimmest example of the press distorting a story around themselves was Terri Schiavo. A 24-hour death watch with hundreds of reporters and about a dozen protestors. The Schiavos kept sending the protestors home, because they wanted to deal with her passing privately. The networks LIVE FROM FLORIDA, all talking about how this should be a private matter. Then LIVE FROM WASHINGTON, all complaining that politicians shouldn’t be using the Schiavo story for their benefit.

    Oh, and I can’t forget the “why don’t the people understand how important this is” story. We’re seeing it with Plame. But you can see it every Sunday on the talk shows, when reporters sit around discussing how the people won’t sit still and focus on the stories the reporters find important.