Paul Farhi covers the media for The Washington Post.
For a few days back in May, the White House seemed to be swimming in scandal. Conservative critics of President Obama were raising new questions about the administration’s handling of the attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, and about whether the White House had leaked classified information about a foiled al-Qaeda plot in order to buff Obama’s national security credentials. Then came the disclosure that IRS officials had apparently singled out conservative and tea party organizations in processing their applications for nonprofit status.
It was the sort of bad-news bonanza the media loves. The press coverage was so damning and so bountiful that Reuters wondered if all the “mushrooming” scandals would sink Obama’s “second-term legislative agenda.”
Yet a few months later, these “scandals” look a lot more ambiguous and a lot less scandalous. As new would-be scandals emerge to take their place — When did Obama know about the
problems with HealthCare.gov? How about the spying on foreign allies? — the ones reported in the spring have dissipated.
The State Department’s inspector general in late September backed up the agency’s independent review board, which had concluded that no State employee, including former secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, had committed a breach of duty during the Benghazi attack. The leak about al-Qaeda turned out to have come not from the White House, as Republicans had charged, but from a former FBI agent
who was later arrested for possessing and distributing child pornography. In the meantime, it emerged that the IRS had subjected some liberal and nonpartisan groups to the same bureaucratic runaround it had given tea party organizations.
The striking thing about these new developments wasn’t just that they revealed the flaws of the original “scandal” reporting. It was also that the developments, blunting the original stories, received far less attention than the earlier allegations of wrongdoing. Only a few news organizations, for example, even bothered to cover the State Department inspector general’s report; I don’t recall many “breaking news” alerts on it. And I’m still waiting to read a meaty analysis article about how the ebbing of these controversies may help Obama’s “second-term legislative agenda.”
So it often goes in Washington Scandal Land. No doubt, some scandals are legitimately troubling and historically important and deserve the press pile-on. But what constitutes a scandal — especially in an age of instant and hyper-partisan media — can be a pretty subjective business.
Media coverage of alleged official wrongdoing follows a typical arc. An initial burst of allegations and claims, fanned by opposition politicians, builds to a crescendo. This is followed by a slow drip of journalistic revelation. By the time a more conclusive picture of guilt or innocence emerges, however, the coverage has often moved on, leaving the original impression largely unrebutted.
Two factors influence the rise and fall of news coverage of presidential scandals, says Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. First is the extent of the president’s popularity among those in the opposition party; second is the presence (or absence) of other, bigger news stories.