Tag Archives: scandal

What Happens to a Scandal With Boring Details?

The IRS scandal is starting to look like one of those movies with a cool title and a heart-pounding trailer that ends up delivering two hours of excruciating boredom.

The initial headline “IRS Targeted Tea Party Groups” promised conspiracy, duplicity, and suspense. Surely we’d find a bloody trail leading towards the White House. Investigating that trail would lead to a series of exciting confrontations, where ever-higher-level members of the administration would face the choice of flipping on their bosses or falling on their swords. Eventually, the story might culminate in a presidential resignation (like Nixon) or impeachment (like Clinton).

Excitement! Headlines! Ratings!

Instead, the unfolding details sound more like scenes from David Foster Wallace’s novel The Pale King (also set at the IRS) which explores the spiritual dimensions of boredom.

Nobody has found any trail pointing towards the White House. More and more it looks like bureaucrats broke the rules for the same reason bureaucrats usually break rules — to make their tedious jobs easier. Like cops profiling black teens, IRS agents profiled conservative groups because (i) from their (possibly biased) point of view, that’s who they expected to be cheating, and (ii) it was simpler than thinking up legal ways to generate suspects.

If you want to take viewers deeper than that, you’ll need describe how the regulations define and treat 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) organizations differently from 527 organizations. You’ll have to send cameras to the offices of victimized Tea Party groups and re-enact them filling out unnecessary forms. I’m sure people will be glued to their TVs.

Thursday on Lawrence O’Donnell’s The Last WordChris Hayes explained how he looks at this as a TV host:

My feeling is that as it comes out — as the media is forced to cover what is essentially a somewhat boring story of bureaucratic malfeasance or overwhelmedness or bureaucratic incompetencies or just bureaucratic bureaucraticness — it becomes less interesting. I’m genuinely curious the degree to which this can have legs.  … I have hopes that just from a sheer I-have-to-produce-a-television-show-every-day level, is this interesting? Like, it’s not. … I think the actual details of it end up not sustaining the drama. … What was in the headline was dramatic. … The third through 15th paragraphs are not dramatic.

But Nate Silver makes a different prediction. His model recognizes that a scandal “having legs” involves more than just whether the charges are important or true. He judges a scandal’s potential by (i) whether the accusation is easier to describe than the defense; (ii) how well the story fits or contradicts some pre-existing narrative; (iii) whether the opposition can push the scandal without getting tarred by it; and (iv) whether the media has anything shinier to pay attention to.

By that measure, the IRS scandal looks to have a future: Again, it’s got that great initial headline. It fits two standard conservative narratives: that conservatives are persecuted, and that government is out of control. It figures in the duel between liberal and conservative narratives about Obama: Is Obama basically a good guy doing his best in a difficult job, or is he a ruthless Chicago politician? Since Republicans don’t have their own IRS, this can’t backfire on them the way the Clinton adultery scandal did. And finally, 2012 is over and 2016 is a long way off, so political reporters are looking for excitement like bored 8-year-olds at the end of summer vacation.

How can we reconcile these two conflicting predictions? I think they describe two different universes: For the general public, the IRS scandal will strangle on its own tedium, as Hayes predicts. But it will reach its full scandalous potential inside the conservative media bubble, where the exciting details necessary to keep it going will be invented from whole cloth.

The best insight into the conservative media comes from a series of posts by Tod Kelly on the League of Ordinary Gentlemen blog. His theme has been: “America’s conservative media machine is slowly but surely killing America’s conservative party.”

In the late 90s through the early and mid 00s, the GOP found that it could increase both number of voters and voter passion by aligning itself with a media machine that was initially created to build ratings from shock value. … An inherent flaw with this type of model is that while it leads to quick ratings and advertising profits, it can be difficult to sustain. If you spend one week calling the President a liar and an idiot, it’s not going to be long before calling him a lying idiot isn’t really all that shocking. You have to continually push just a little bit more as you go, or risk being irrelevant in the shock-media world.

… Somewhere along the line, however, this model has to break down – partly because you eventually reach a ceiling where the base that believes the ever-increasingly shocking claims is small enough to make the party you’re backing politically irrelevant, and partly because to those that aren’t part of the machine or the base you begin to look increasingly out of touch. Birtherism is a fairly good example of this ceiling being reached, as are the Death Panels and Obama/Hitler youth programs. Unfortunately for the Right, however, once you tie yourself and your success so inexorably to the machine it becomes almost impossible to untangle yourself from it.

Republican politicians initially thought they would define a narrative that their media machine would trumpet to the world. Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the rest would serve their governing agenda and help them win elections.

Instead, the conservative media defines a narrative that is shaped to build ratings, and Republican politicians have had to get in step, even if it ultimately means marching off a cliff. The result is a party that can’t put together a governing agenda and can’t win national elections.

But the ratings are good — because media companies don’t need a majority, they just need a small core of dedicated viewers and listeners. (Glenn Beck’s subscribers pay $100 per year; a tiny fraction of the voting public can make him very rich.)

Kelly outlined how the primacy of ratings shaped four bogus stories leading up to the 2012 election.

the story that the President order[ed] his own people be abandoned in Benghazi, the story that the president started Operation Fast & Furious to overturn the second amendment, the story that UN forces will soon be entering the United States to collect the guns of private citizens, and the story that once reelected, the President is set to enact some kind of national Sharia law.

Each of these started as real stories about actions taken by the current administration.  As we will see, however, in each case a pattern begins to emerge:

1. The original story, while absolutely showing a potential miscalculation by the White House, isn’t really damning as initially reported (usually by FOX).

2. The story is then taken by bloggers, talk radio show hosts, and FOX “expert” commentators and reworked to better fit the narrative of Obama as evil usurper.  The facts are changed entirely, but no real journalism is used to gather new information; instead, the media machine relies on self-referencing its own continually shifting commentaries on the original story until a very different and far more nefarious sounding story emerges.

3. The huge whirlwind of the media machine is assumed to itself be indicative of “unreported” news, and thus the original reporting source (again, usually FOX) re-reports the story with the new “facts.”  (Reminding one of that moment in the children’s game Telephone when the original child announces what their starting phrase has morphed into).

4. The media machine and its audience point to the mainstream media’s ignoring of the new, factually dubious story as “proof” that the new story is true.

It’s not hard to apply that model to the IRS story. Tedium will not be a problem for Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity any more than it is for Stephen King. Boredom is never a problem if you let the story generate its own facts.

Republican politicians — even if they know better — will feel that they have no choice other than to pander to the invented story, even if it sounds crazy to most voters. They may even find themselves believing it, until confronted with reality, as Mitt Romney was in the presidential debates.

So even if the trail the White House remains totally bloodless and cold, we may well see impeachment hearings. Beating the drum for impeachment is great for ratings, and what Republican politician is in a position to say no?

The Cain Scandal After a Week

When I was putting the Weekly Sift together last Monday morning, I had a decision to make. Politico had raised the Herman Cain sexual harassment charge the night before. Should I call your attention to it or not? I decided not to.

For most of the week, it was the top news story. And yet, when I did my headline-scan this morning, it was nowhere to be seen. The most recent opinion polls show Cain still at or near the top of the Republican field, as if nothing had happened. (Though one poll shows his favorability ratings among Republicans dropping from 66% to 57% — still higher than, say, Rick Perry, who had no scandals this week.) Cain’s Intrade shares bottomed out below 5o cents (indicating a 5% chance of him getting the nomination) on Saturday, and were rising sharply towards 65 cents this morning. Then another accuser announced a press conference and they dropped to 35 cents.

So the conventional wisdom doesn’t know what to think. If we’ve heard everything, Cain will weather the storm. If we haven’t, who knows?

Here’s the yardstick I’m using to decide what’s a big deal and what isn’t: Politically, a scandal is only important if it changes people’s minds. Which means: As satisfying as it might be for me to speculate about what Cain did or did not do and whether that does or does not dynamite all the moralistic foundations of his candidacy, my opinion makes no difference in this matter, because I was never going to vote for Herman Cain anyway.

Politically, this only matters if it changes the minds of Cain’s supporters and potential supporters. And so far, I don’t think it has.

Not that Cain’s audience doesn’t care about sexual misconduct. Quite the opposite, they’ll turn on him quickly if they start believing that he pressures women for extra-marital sex, especially if some of the women turn out to be white. (They’ll tell you that supporting Cain proves they’re not racist. But I don’t believe they’re that not-racist.)

But what would it take to convince them? They aren’t going to believe “the liberal media”. And even if one or more women come forward, Republican primary voters will say that they just wanted money, which they’re being paid (probably by all-around boogeyman George Soros) to come out of the woodwork.

As Dahlia Lithwick points out, Cain’s defenders have already gone far beyond just saying “we don’t know what happened” or “innocent until proven guilty” and are instead attacking the whole notion of sexual harassment. They know Cain is innocent because sexual harassment is a “scam” (Fred Thompson) and “a lawyer’s ramp, like racial discrimination” (John Derbyshire). The mere possibility of lawsuits “drains the humor and humanity from the workplace” (Kurt Schlichter), presumably because it’s so darn hard to make a female subordinate laugh without hinting that you want to have sex with her. Rand Paul agrees, saying he will no longer “tell a joke to a woman in the workplace, any kind of joke, because it could be interpreted incorrectly”. Lithwick concludes:

Nobody is suggesting these claims [against Cain] are necessarily true. But to claim that they must be false because all women lie and all harassers are just joking is a terrifying proposition.

Here’s the sad truth: If you care about sexual harassment and are willing to take a woman’s testimony against a powerful man seriously, you’re probably already a Democrat. So your opinion on the Cain scandal doesn’t count.

[I anticipate a sneering comment from some conservative about Bill Clinton and Paula Jones. You need context to understand Democrats’ dismissal of Jones: Jones’ story was marketed by the same people who claimed the Clintons had murdered Vince Foster. She was the Nth attempt to drum up a scandal against Clinton, after the first N-1 had been bogus.]

So there are only a few ways Cain’s harassment scandal becomes important: if there’s an embarrassing photo, if so many women come forward that the Wilt Chamberlain racial stereotype starts to apply, if people other than the victims (especially powerful men) come forward with supporting testimony, or if the pressure throws Cain so far off his truthy style that he looks guilty to his supporters.

So far all the furor is coming from people who never liked Cain anyway. Unless that changes, the scandal just has entertainment value. Politically, it doesn’t matter.