The term “scandal” used to mean something, a serious abuse of power or some truly outrageous conduct – Watergate, Iran-Contra, lying a nation into war – but the word has grown almost meaningless, just one more partisan insult, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.
By Paul R. Pillar
The Washington Post‘s media reporter, Paul Farhi, had an interesting article earlier this week about the life cycle of news stories about “scandals.” The pattern Farhi discerns is that an incriminating report or accusation that quickly pushes a story to the status of “scandal” gets lots of attention, but that subsequent information that undercuts or negates the original version of the story gets much less.
And so some stories retain in many minds the elevated status of “scandal” even after the factual basis for assigning that status has crumbled.
Among the examples Farhi cited was the IRS policing of tax-exempt status, in which the later information indicating that the enforcement efforts involved were directed at groups all across the political spectrum received far less attention that the original version of the story, according to which the enforcement was aimed only at conservative groups.
Another of his examples was about the White House allegedly leaking classified information about a foiled terrorist plot, with the later, more accurate but less noticed, information being that the leak had actually come from a former FBI agent with a criminal record.
Farhi is writing about this as an issue of how well the press does its job, and there is indeed an issue there. But there are some other consequences of how “scandals” are treated and perceived that also deserve notice. For one thing, the term scandal has been debased.
The problem is not just incomplete or erroneous information about happenings that have acquired that label, but also a looser standard for applying the label. A term that used to be reserved for what is legally or morally outrageous is now applied to what is just politically edgy. That’s too bad; our useful vocabulary has been diminished, as has our moral sensibility. Teapot Dome was a true scandal; much of what gets that label today is not.
There also are unfortunate effects on policy debate and ultimately on policy itself, in two respects. One is that much of that debate is ill-informed, in the sense of being based on that early and erroneous reporting. Moreover, the public’s understanding of many issues reflects an imprinting on whatever was the first version of the issue that came to the public’s attention. The problem is thus one of public psychology as well as inconsistent press coverage.
Another consequence for policy and policy debate involves the opportunity costs of so much attention being sucked up by “scandals.” The president and members of Congress are having their time badly diverted from matters that are far more important for the well-being of the republic.
Of course, this is often a problem less of inconsistent press coverage than of willful political manipulation. Whatever the exact impetus, the public, press, and Congress alike are because of this diversion paying much less attention to many things that deserve much more attention. A list of those things could go on and on: strategic issues in the eastern Pacific, the Arab-Israeli peace process, and much else.
Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)