Over the past month, the mainstream media industry has grown obsessed with covering a series of three “scandals” – one involving the IRS targeting tea party groups seeking tax-exempt status, one regarding the White House response to an attack on American diplomats in Benghazi, and the most troubling concerning the Department of Justice seizure of the phone records of almost 100 Associated Press journalists.
In many of the conversations surrounding these “scandals,” critics are failing to acknowledge what is inherently problematic about the political ramifications of “scandals” -- a scandal suggests that corruption in the government occurs in isolated events, when in reality a multitude of corruptions continuously plague the government on a systematic level.
Who benefits from “scandals”? It’s undeniable that Republicans and the media outlets they partner with are benefiting from these sort of sensationalized stories. The Nation called this “The Fox/GOP scandal assembly line.” Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant who worked as a special assistant counsel to Clinton, has described “an industrial-scandal complex that exists in Washington, D.C.”
There is value in noting the ways Republicans have framed these stories. In this week’s column, “Notes on the Scandals”, Peter Kadzis provides a comprehensive overview with essential historical context.
But if Republicans stand to gain something out of promoting these scandals, do Democrats necessarily suffer? The centralizing narratives covering these scandals may reflect poorly on the Obama administration, but they also provide specific points of contention from which to produce coherent talking points and political spin.
Scandals generate a media vacuum that further solidifies the tightly bound relationship between press and politics. The promotion of a scandal isn’t oriented at spurring reform; it’s meant to draw attention and focus to a compelling storyline, often at the expense of harder or less hyped issues. In a battle over competing political narratives, the loser isn’t one party or the other, it’s the political climate that suffers. It’s the sign of a bar being lowered, and observers and critics following suit, and readers and viewers being less informed because of it.
When we take part in a culture of scandals, we lose sight of history, instead emphasizing the ‘exceptional’ status of a particular misstep. This is a political pattern. Politicians are constantly clamoring over how truly fvcked things have gotten, without acknowledging that things have been fvcked for a long time now, and that they are in fact directly responsible for this collective state of fvcked-ness, whichever side of the aisle they choose to sit.
Take for example the scandal surrounding the IRS. Republicans are angry to learn that in 2010 the IRS was targeting specific Conservative groups that were seeking tax-exempt status, specifically searching for groups containing “tea party” or “patriot” in their names. At the time, a large number of campaign groups were seeking tax-exempt status and the IRS was concerned that many of them were too political. By law, the government can restrict political non-profit groups from receiving tax-exempt status – but Republicans are angry because they believe liberal groups have not come under as much scrutiny.
But marginalized groups have long been unfairly targeted by the IRS. “It wasn’t long ago that the IRS inappropriately targeted the NAACP, Greenpeace and a California church that was really progressive called the All Saints Church in Pasadena, California,” US Senator Harry Reid said to reporters last Tuesday. “At that time, we didn’t hear a single Republican grandstand the issue then. Where was their outrage when groups on the other side of the political spectrum were under attack?”
And as the ACLU points out, the AP phone records scandals highlights a more systematic problem: the lack of checks and balances on government access to records. The government currently has different tools in place that allow this sort of snooping to occur: for example, the ACLU cites the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, which “permits the government to obtain exactly the kind of telephone records and other subscriber information that it likely seized from the AP”, and the National Security Letters, which “authorize the FBI to compel a wire or electronic communication service provider to turn over subscriber information and toll billing records information, or electronic communication transactional records in its custody or possession.”
Covering scandals isn’t wrong, but should be done in a greater context of the roots of scandals and the ways they speak to overarching infrastructural problems.
The overemphasis on singular scandals produces a complacence about the enduring state of things. But state-sponsored violence, breaches of privacy, infringement of basic freedoms, and governmental opacity are not exceptional instances. They are scandalously ordinary, and incorporated into the legal structure of our political system. These ‘scandals’ don’t arise out of governmental wrongdoing. They are the government.