year, I’ve been a regular guest on Seattle radio station KUOW-FM’s
Weekday. On Friday mornings, host Steve Scher gathers
a group of columnists—usually Susan Paynter from the Seattle
Post-Intelligencer, Danny Westneat from The Seattle
Times, and me—to review the week’s news. It’s a call-in
show, and the public radio station’s listeners set the agenda.
Via phone and e-mail, they tell us what they think the big
stories of the week are and why.
Frequently, though, the topic is what the week’s big stories
aren’t. A good example: Why aren’t the mainstream media
covering the Downing Street memo? The Downing Street memo
is a secret document prepared for the British government that
offers evidence of high-level American manipulation and deceit
in the run-up to the Iraq war. It suggests that the United
States knowingly lied and manipulated intelligence to get
support to attack Iraq.
The mainstream media have not ignored the Downing Street memo;
in fact, the mainstream media are why we know about it. It
was first published in early May in the London Times,
a paper owned by corporate magnate Rupert Murdoch, who also
owns the odious U.S. Fox News Channel. You can argue that
the mainstream media—especially the White House press corps(e)—have
been slow and incurious about the implications of the memo.
I generally agree. But let’s give credit where credit is due:
Score one for the right-wing robber baron of the mainstream
But the radio listeners are upset at something else: that
the American public doesn’t share their outrage.
the outrage?” is a question you often hear from right and
left. For the right, that was their cry during the Clinton
years, when they were baffled that much of the American public
didn’t share their belief that Bill and Hillary were corrupt.
You hear it echoed by angry Seattle Republicans who are certain
that Dino Rossi is not governor because of King County election
On the left, liberals are enraged that Dubya isn’t being called
to account. The Carpetbagger Report blog (thecarpetbag gerreport.com)
recently listed a litany of Bush scandal stories, all reported
in just the previous week. They included accounts of an administration
official (since resigned) who was rewriting reports to downplay
global warming, an Interior Department plan to overpay a major
GOP donor for oil and gas rights, a damning Pentagon inspector
general’s report on the Boeing tanker scandal, documents indicating
Bush caved on the Kyoto treaty after pressure from ExxonMobil,
and the Justice Department slashing its settlement demands
by billions of dollars in a big tobacco case. The list didn’t
even include the monstrous revelation that Guantánamo detainees
were being tortured with Christina Aguilera’s music!
A lesser administration—Jimmy Carter’s or Gerald Ford’s—might
have been on its knees. But on the bright side, the list offers
evidence that some of the media are doing their job. I think
what upsets partisans is why these stories don’t get more
traction with the public. Why isn’t everyone scandalized by
what you or I find scandalous?
I think there are a lot of reasons scandals have lost some
creep. One of Watergate’s legacies was that it left my
generation of journalists convinced that everything was a
scandal of impeachable proportions. There is a tendency to
tab too many things a “scandal.” Scandal creep may be a major
contributor to scandal fatigue.
are too jaded. Another Watergate legacy is cynicism, the
sense that everything is so corrupt, including the media,
that we’ll never know the truth about anything, so who cares?
press is too jaded. So jaded, we’re even suspicious of
our own motives. This can lead to editors and producers distrusting
their instincts and taking too many cues from the competition
or the circulation department. This can result in overhyping
scandals or ignoring real ones because they require too much
reporting and repetition.
smears. As a modern political tactic, today’s scandals
are forever. Frequently generated by partisans, not the media,
they constitute an endless ground war (see the Swiftboating
of John Kerry or the upcoming hatchet job on Hillary). Operatives
peddle all sleaze all the time, and real scandal can get lost—and
people can tune out.
of media. People are increasingly attracted to media that
reflect their own views. One channel’s mountain is another’s
molehill. If you become used to being told only what you want
to hear, it’s easy to forget that many others may feel very
differently about your favorite scandal.
authoritative sources. There are fewer media outlets imbued
with old- fashioned authority. As audiences fragment, the
big media no longer speak to a credulous center. Without them,
who is left to be moved? When Time magazine and Walter
Cronkite’s CBS audience shifted on Vietnam, the country felt
it. Now those middle-American folks are watching 100 different
channels and can be moved only in smaller increments, if at
I once talked to an editor whose magazine had broken a major
local scandal. I asked him how it felt. Instead of saying
he was a cocky, proud David who had brought down Goliath,
he said it felt “like I was screaming into a hole in the ground.”
I know exactly how he felt. I’ve been frustrated from time
to time that a “scandal” we reported seemed to fall on deaf
ears. It sounds like now the citizenry is getting a taste
of what that feels like.