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.
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?
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.
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.