In the last eight months, we have witnessed the emergence of three important events. One of them – Benghazi – was tragic. All were promptly defined by our news media as “scandals”. If that’s what they were, how is it then that all of them have gone poof? Here’s my answer.
We are now being subjected to a rush to judgment as individual members of the news media (print and electronic; left and right) scurry to one-up the competition in their quest for higher ratings, an expanded readership, more advertising dollars and bigger dividends for shareholders. Before a single Congressional hearing was held or a witness called to testify, the word “scandal” was tossed about absent supporting facts. But, it served as an attention-grabber and an implicit message to “stay tuned”. Politicians eager to keep the faux idea of a “scandal” alive, were given time and space to float innuendo, rumors and outright lies without any challenge. In effect, those same politicians and the media who gave them a megaphone, were engaged in a mutually beneficial game of latching onto the public’s focus and keeping it.
The word “scandal” carries an emotional punch and the implication that someone, somewhere has engaged in a lapse of moral, ethical or legal behavior. When it is employed prematurely, news consumers are victimized and the truth obscured. When the latter finally emerges, the damage done by the rush to judgment has already set in. The best and most recent example of same can be found in the president’s dipping approval ratings which poll respondents have tied to his involvement in the Benghazi tragedy and the IRS targeting of groups seeking tax-exempt status. Has any such “involvement” been proven? No, not in any way. But, the news media “baked that cake” before the truth surfaced.* This was no small matter: Approval ratings reflected people’s level of trust in any president. In turn, that has a negative impact on their ability to lead.
From the framing of the First Amendment, it was understood that the survival of our democracy was intimately connected to freedom of the press and the existence of an informed citizenry. Can we endure if the latter body is constantly misinformed?
*The news media are loathe to apologize for their own lapses in professional behavior. They were complicit in selling the nation on the need for the war in Iraq yet have taken on little if any responsibility for promoting what may well come to be seen as the greatest foreign policy blunder in US history.