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.
“When the political and news environment is unfavorable, scandals may erupt in the press despite thin evidentiary support,” Nyhan writes in a research paper forthcoming in the British Journal of Political Science. “By contrast, under more favorable conditions, even well-supported allegations can languish.”
Translation: When a Democratic president’s popularity is low among self-identified Republicans (or vice versa) and the news agenda is “light,” look out. The conditions are ripe for “-gate” suffixes to proliferate and dominate the news for days or weeks, no matter how shoddy or strong the underlying facts.
Conversely, the media tend to look the other way when the president is relatively popular among his opponents and when other events are competing for ink and airtime, even if an allegation holds up.
Nyhan studied The Washington Post’s coverage of 28 presidential scandals spanning five administrations, between 1978 and 2007. His list includes such notorious episodes as Iran-contra and the Monica Lewinsky affair, as well as some dimly remembered controversies, such as the financing scandal involving Banca Nazionale del Lavoro under President George H.W. Bush. (A “scandal” made Nyhan’s list when a page-one story or headline used the s-word to describe the event.)
Scandal coverage spiked when a president’s ratings among opposition voters were relatively low, and it fell or even disappeared when he was more popular, Nyhan found. The intensity and duration of these scandals was also subject to “exogenous” news events; wars, natural disasters, mass shootings, even plane crashes could blow a scandal off the front page, turning what had seemed like a crisis into a minor story. Or no story at all.
Nyhan suggests that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, helped President George W. Bush sidestep a nascent controversy over his administration’s alleged ties to Enron, the failed Texas energy company. After 9/11, political opponents and the press eased off on scandal-mongering. Nyhan points out that this was the time when Bush’s approval rating among Democrats was at its peak. Presidents and other subjects of scandal benefit from similar periods, such as right after an election or a reelection; during foreign policy crises, wars and natural disasters — or simply when Congress is out of session.
This last factor is important, especially if one or both houses are controlled by the opposition party, which they typically are. When Congress leaves town, there are fewer people around to leak incriminating documents, give interviews, or hold hearings that can generate a new scandal or keep an old one going.
There are, of course, scandals that transcend such factors — “scandals that are so scandalous that nothing else matters,” as George Mason University communications professor S. Robert Lichter puts it. But these are rare. Only three scandals have had the staying power and seriousness to threaten a president over the past 60 years — Watergate, Iran-contra and Lewinsky — and only one has forced a president from office.
Leonard Downie Jr., who served as The Post’s executive editor from 1991 to 2008, says that before Twitter and the rise of Internet journalism, the press was slower to recognize a scandal — or label it as such. Iran-contra, he says, took many months to build into a major crisis for President Ronald Reagan. “It was complicated,” Downie says. “It took a long time [for reporters and the public] to understand what it was.”
But today, every allegation “gets swept up in rapid-fire, argumentative coverage in the 24-7 news cycle,” he says. “The catchphrases get ahead of the reporting. . . . Now, if you’re silent, even for a few days, it’s seen as a statement. You’re covering up.”
New York Times White House reporter Peter Baker, who covered the Lewinsky affair for The Post and other presidential controversies since then, notes that news organizations don’t know, in the early stages of a would-be scandal, how to play a story whose dimensions aren’t clear yet. “There’s no question we get it wrong sometimes, or we get it right but may overstate it, or misjudge it, or underplay mitigating factors,” Baker says. “So the problem is you’re often either overemphasizing or underemphasizing the story, and that’s always clear in hindsight, but rarely in the moment.”
Politicians sometimes stonewall legitimate inquiries, Baker says, and sometimes the sourcing of a claim makes reporters uncomfortable. It took many months, for example, for the mainstream media to look closely at the National Enquirer’s revelations about John Edwards’s affair — because they were broken by the National Enquirer.
But more often, the deck is stacked in the other direction. Scandal and controversy, or allegations thereof, are what gain attention. The careful parsing of facts and non-facts is what gets buried or ignored. Nyhan says there are “professional incentives” within the media — we’re biased toward a juicy story, or one that seems that way.
Case in point: the IRS scandal. In the week after the story broke, the New York Times ran five front-page articles about it and The Post carried eight; Politico published 66 stories, including a dozen that ran at the top of its home page, according to Nyhan. Most of these stories were pegged to a Treasury Department inspector general’s report and an IRS official’s comment indicating that the agency singled out tea party and other conservative groups in reviewing applications for nonprofit status. Many stories quoted speculation about whether the White House had orchestrated the effort in a conspiracy against its political enemies.
The uproar led to the dismissal of IRS officials and the retirement of Lois Lerner, who oversaw the office that bungled the review of hundreds of applications.
As time wore on, however, new facts drifted in, telling a different story. Rather than exclusively targeting conservative and tea party groups, as many news organizations had first reported, the IRS held up applications from liberal and nonpartisan organizations, too, amid confusion and bureaucratic foul-ups.
The news media slowly picked up on this. In a front-page story in July, the New York Times wrote: “In the more complicated picture now emerging, many organizations other than conservative groups were singled out: ‘progressive’ organizations, medical marijuana purveyors, organizations formed to carry out President Obama’s health care law, and open source software developers who create software tools for computer code writers and distribute them free of charge.” But there was no overkill of coverage on the downside of the scandal — certainly not compared with the overkill at the beginning.
That isn’t to say the media should stop digging and stop asking questions. But in the meantime, don’t expect many corrections or apologies about how the stories are first played.
Paul Farhi covers the media for The Washington Post.