McGuire on Media

Political scandals and the media

One of the fascinating things about a university campus is the connections you make outside your department.  One of those connections, with political science professor Dr. Ruth Jones, led to an appearance in a new class she’s teaching on “Political Scandals. ”

I made it clear to the class I was not the most distinguished media professor they could find on the subject since my claim to infamy came 30 years ago,  late at night, when word of Wilbur Mills fighting with Fanne Foxe at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C.  came across the wire.  I am afraid I put that story on the back page rather than the front page.  So what do I know?

As I reflected on the subject I realized my knowledge of political scandals started with Mike Royko’s book The Boss.  It was released the year I graduated from college. It painted Richard Daly as corrupt, and it confirmed a lot of suspicions. It opened my eyes. Royko called Daly to account, but you could not call that a scandal because Daly by and large rose above it. He had taken really good care of the people of Chicago.

My research  for the class was confined to Google, but that was fruitful.  I found a great chronology of sex scandals compiled by John Dean and a list of scandals put together by Wolf Blitzer.  This “scandal scorecard” was pretty interesting too.

Using that material I made a fairly obvious observation to the students, but I think it is important to distinguish scandalous behavior from a scandal. I contended you don’t have a scandal unless people/readers citizens: 

  • learn about it
  • are outraged, amused or titillated 
  • have an ongoing interest in the story
  • the press figures out how to give the story legs with new information

Many people think the press alone carries a scandal. I think that’s myth.  I can certainly point to cases I thought would blow up into a scandal, and they never did.  In other cases, the resulting scandal hit me and my associates in the back of the head before we knew what was happening. The public has to engage rather than yawn for there to be a scandal.

In the same vein, it is error to believe that all scandals are media driven.  I argued to the students there can be many drivers for scandals.  Again, heavily relying on those cited lists I divided those drivers up this way. This is by no means an exclusive list and, I offer this not for scholarship, but to provoke thought and discussion. I hope I have not incorrectly classified anything.

Media or reporter driven:

  • Watergate (Wash. Post)
  • Robert Packwood (Wash.Post)
  • Brock Adams (Seattle Times)
  • Rep Mark Foley (ABC News)
  • Gary Hart ( Miami Herald, after a challenge).

Police or investigation driven:

  • Ted Kennedy and Mary Jo Kopechne’s death
  • Wilbur Mills’ Tidal Basis squabble with Fanne Foxe,
  • Duke Cunningham,
  • Larry Craig arrested (but somebody probably tipped the media)
  • Gary Condit
  • Rep William Jefferson
  • Jack Abramoff investigation: Tom Delay, Rep Bob Ney

Largely Opposition driven: 

  • Gore’s Buddhist temple,
  • Whitewater/Lewinsky

Angry wronged person goes to press:

  • Rita Jenrette and her husband John Jenrette
  • Elizabeth Ray and Rep Wayne Hays (Wash Post)
  • Newt Gingrich’s wife in divorce trial

Perceived Hypocrisy driven by the Clinton Impeachment:

  • Robert Livingston
  • Henry Hyde,
  • Helen Chenoweth

The class appearance offered a fun opportunity to explore some history I have neglected for a while. We tend to think the media is at the center of everything scandalous. It is true that when the press is at its vigilant best, responsible media lubricates discussion. Yet, it is a severe mistake to think the media is always the key driver.  Blessedly, a democracy is bigger than that.