Magazine article The American Prospect

Will Pseudo-Scandals Decide the Election?

Magazine article The American Prospect

Will Pseudo-Scandals Decide the Election?

Article excerpt


In a pathbreaking study of the mass media and modern culture, The Image, first published in 1961, the historian Daniel J. Boorstin coined the term "pseudo-event." A pseudo-event, Boorstin wrote, is "not spontaneous ... but planned, planted, or incited"--an event whose "occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media," and whose "relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous."

The latest metamorphosis of Boorstin's pseudo-event is the pseudo-scandal, an ambiguous or outright false scandal that acquires the appearance of the real thing in the media through the dogged repetition of charges and investigations. Genuine scandals, such as the Iran-Contra affair and the pilfering by former Democratic Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, have touched members of both major parties in recent years. But likewise, both parties, aided by the media, have helped to perpetuate pseudo-scandals related to campaign finance or other matters of alleged behind-the-scenes financial favoritism. The 1991-1992 pseudo-scandal over the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro and President George Bush's alleged illicit dealings with Saddam Hussein (promoted by, among others, New York Times columnist William Satire and vice presidential candidate Al Gore); the 1992 uproar over the House Bank overdrafts (promoted by, among others, Newt Gingrich); the false Whitewater, Travelgate, and Filegate scandals (promoted by observers and operatives all across the political spectrum, from Jerry Falwell to Christopher Hitchens)--each has exemplified the exploitation, for ideological or partisan purposes, of justified public concerns about the modern nexus of money and political influence.

Of course, negative propaganda stories have been a staple of American politics from the early years of the republic, when Federalist editors denounced the Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson as a Jacobin atheist and traitor. Today's pseudo-scandal retains traits of classic mudslinging; above all, it involves distortion of an opponent's record and public statements. As in the past, many of today's partisan peddlers of pseudo-scandals spread them around through friendly journalists and pundits--modern equivalents of press lords like William Randolph Hearst and vicious colunmists like Westbrook Pegler.

But there are also crucial differences. Recent pseudo-scandals have relied on the manipulation of the courts, congressional committees, and the now-defunct Independent Counsel Act in order to harass elected and appointed officials with flimsy accusations. And the pseudo-scandal masters have managed to gain the subtle and often unwitting but crucial complicity of the independent mainstream news media. Without the credibility provided by law and journalism, the new style of pseudo-scandal might simply be dismissed as partisan maneuvering. Coated with a gloss of objectivity, however, pseudo-scandals gain a respectful hearing, vastly reinforcing the blatant tub-thumpers, fake inside-dopesters, and latter-day Peglers who appear on the cable networks and talk-radio shows as well as in the newspapers.

Although the focus of today's pseudo-scandals primarily political money, the direct historical antecedent is the media-friendly demagoguery pioneered by Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy, Boorstin wrote, showed "it is possible to build a political career almost entirely out of pseudo-events." It is nearly forgotten today that McCarthy worked gleefully and sometimes woozily, during and after hours, cultivating "the boys" of the press over drinks and gossip. News-hungry reporters, in turn, developed a fascination for McCarthy: Love him or hate him, he was great copy. "Newspapermen were his most potent allies, for they were the co-manufacturers of pseudo-events," Boorstin observed. …

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