Sunday, May 04, 2003

Scandal and media consolidation
Friday I listed some possible disruptions that could occur during Bush’s cakewalk to reelection (or election if you prefer). My personal favorite on the list is a nice juicy scandal. This combines the practical effect of getting these dangerous clowns out of office with the emotional satisfaction of humiliating them.

At the time I wrote this I thought we might have a pretty good chance of getting a scandal to stick in the next 18 months. After all, it’s not like there is any shortage of candidates.

  • Cheney is probably most vulnerable to scandal due to his close ties to the energy and resource extraction industries, the blatant cronyism shown in giving Hallibuton no-bid contracts in Iraq, the probable shenanigans involved in the secret energy committee, and the still untold story of the administration’s inaction in the California energy crisis.
  • The whole administration is vulnerable on their incompetence before 9/11 and their attempt to block any investigation of it.
  • Redirecting an aircraft carrier for a campaign photo op is sleazy, but pretty small potatoes unless it is portrayed as part of a pattern of misuse of power.

The third point is instructive. A proper scandal doesn’t need to be anything actually illegal. It only needs to offend the middle class or generate enough noise to create a “where there’s smoke there must be fire” conventional wisdom. How many people could explain the details of Watergate, Iran-Contra, or Whitewater while they went on?

In writing about the possibility of scandal, I took a quick shot at the elements needed to convert quiet misdeeds into public scandal. I had three: hungry reporters, hungry politicians, and a venue. Allow me to be pedantic about this.

The first two elements are probably obvious. Hungry reporters pursue rumors and turn them into a narrative of sleaziness for public consumption. Hungry politicians call hearings, empower special investigators, and endow the narrative of sleaziness with political significance. But reporters don’t go directly to the politicians. Reporters need a powerful venue—a platform—to publicize their researches. Politicians are inherently cautious; they generally will not pursue a course until they are sure at least some of the public is already headed in that direction. The venue is the tool by which a reporter gets part of the public riled about the story.

There are really only two venues suitable for damaging an administration. The first is the national news media: the top half-dozen newspapers, the television networks, the cable news channels, a couple weekly magazines, and possibly public radio. The other is a sugar daddy with bottomless pockets. The national news media is the easiest to understand. Once one outlet has committed itself to a story, the others will jump on it to avoid being left out. At this point the original hungry reporters become hundreds of reporters and the story takes on a life of its own. Watergate is the textbook example of persistent reporters with a good venue turning an obscure story into a presidential crisis. The sugar daddy method is less common. The initial reporters find an obsessed source of cash that will buy space in magazines, hire think tanks, and contract instant books until they force the story into the public’s and the news media’s attentions. In Blinded by the Right, Brock tells how Richard Scaife and the Arkansas Project used this method to snowball Whitewater into an impeachment.

My initial thought was that the Republican control of both houses of Congress is the biggest obstruction we face in turning any one of the potential Bush scandals into a real crisis. A tame and friendly congressional leadership is unlikely to call hearings or sic special investigator on the White House.

I might be wrong about that. The biggest obstacle might be media consolidation. Media consolidation threatens investigative journalism by homogenizing opinions into a single market tested voice. Diversity is weeded out, risks are minimized, and news becomes entertainment. We all know this story, but that’s not the only risk in consolidation. When the news medium was made up of scores of individual players, the biggest threats to following a story were prickly advertisers and the political preferences of owners and publishers. When news becomes just one branch of a large diversified corporation (or a sub-branch of its entertainment division), the freedom to pursue stories becomes hostage to the interests of the whole corporation. For example, NBC is owned by GE, a company that makes jet engines for fighter aircraft that the Department of Defense buys. Whether or not the corporate mother is in bed with the administration or even likes the administration, it is in the interests of a diverse corporation to stay on the good side of a government that controls regulatory agencies and massive purchasing power. It’s just prudent business.

Even if there weren’t already enough good reasons to oppose media consolidation, the fact that it weakens the watchdog role of the fourth estate should be reason enough to stop the process.

Is a good scandal still a real possibility? Yes. The sugar daddy model shows how a story can become so big that the mainstream media can’t ignore it. It’s also not necessary that a story start at the center with national media and federal investigations. Many of Clinton’s problems began in Arkansas and moved to Washington. Imagine California investigating Cheney’s ties to their energy problems. Imagine New York City going after 9/11 information. Heck, they might be doing that right now. Imagine a persistent blogger bringing down a big-mouthed Senate Majority Leader.

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