The downfall of Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) could just as easily have never happened. My Post colleague Ben Terris was iffy on even writing about Schock's "Downton Abbey"-themed office decor — the story that eventually became the tipping point for a series of revelations about Schock's questionable use of office and campaign expenditures. Terris took pictures of the office and almost deleted them at the request of Schock's staff.
But he didn't. Here's how Terris recounted it:
Terris, being the humble scribe that he is, also played down his role in uncovering Schock's alleged wrongdoing.
While it's true that the other reporters certainly pounced on the story and unveiled important things, Terris is being too modest.
But to say that Terris and/or "Downton Abbey" is totally responsible for Schock's downfall is also too simple. No, the reason the story — and by extension, Schock's expenses and expensive tastes — became an issue is because of the way his office reacted to it. Or, rather, overreacted.
We'll let you read Terris's initial piece. But suffice it to say, Schock's staff acted in an astounding fashion to the idea that Terris would write about the office. They begged and bargained and bullied. They effectively turned a fun Style story into a look-how-yucky-Washington-is story, complete with a whiff of ethical questions. The "Downton Abbey" part would have gotten clicks, yes, but the cagey response is what made this big news.
In Washington, the tendency of spokespeople is to do whatever it takes to kill a story that might make their member look even a little bit bad. And it's an understandable reflex. But there is such a thing as protesting too much, and the Schock staff's response to this was hardly commensurate with the story Terris was plotting.
Could Schock's problems have been brought to light anyways? Perhaps. But there are so many members of Congress and so much complicated disclosure to go through before journalists will be comfortable enough to even suggest wrongdoing. The Associated Press, for example, took the ingenious and laborious approach of cross-referencing Schock's Instagram photos with travel records.
From their report:
The AP's review identified at least one dozen flights worth more than $40,000 on donors' planes since mid-2011, tracking Schock's reliance on the aircraft partly through the congressman's penchant for uploading pictures and videos of himself to his Instagram account. The AP extracted location data associated with each image then correlated it with flight records showing airport stopovers and expenses later billed for air travel against Schock's office and campaign records.
This level of scrutiny quite simply is not applied to every member of Congress. There aren't enough reporters in Washington with enough time to do this kind of reporting on a whim. There might be all kinds of issues with members' various disclosures, but it's quite difficult to find the needles in the haystacks. There needs to be some blood in the water.
Schock's staff effectively put his blood in the water. But it's amazing to think we could just as easily have never known about all this if it weren't for "Downton Abbey" — the PBS show began as a funny anecdote but was quickly revealed to be symptomatic of a much larger problem.