«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of ...»
Additionally, standard errors were clustered by year to account for changes to the media and political environment that may have occurred during the period analyzed. Throughout the 1990s there was little coverage of political scandal compared to substantive policy concerns (Morris & Clawson, 2005). But the mass media and political environments have evolved since the 1990s (Bennett & Iyengar, 2008). During the 16 years studied, control of Congress and the Executive branch changed hands several times, the media underwent economic setbacks, and partisan niche audiences were increasingly driving news content (Stroud, 2011), which could result in partisan differences in scandal news coverage (Puglisi & Snyder, 2011). The press has also become more active in seeking out and reporting political scandals over the past three to four decades (Entman, 2013; Lichter & Amundson, 1994; Marion, 2010), and the Internet may only fuel coverage as provocative scandals like that of former New York Representative Anthony Weiner go viral on the Web. There is also unlimited space for stories on the Web, and Web stories may be more likely to cater to “soft” scandal news (Hamilton, 2004).
As shown in Table 4, there was an inconsistent and negligible impact of the control variables on electoral outcomes after scandal accusations have been made. Only three variables – tenure, leadership, and vote share – predicted electoral outcomes following scandal accusations.
lose (b = -0.07, SE = 0.02, p.01) or resign (b =-19, SE = 0.11, p.10) following scandal accusations. Leaders were less likely to lose reelection following a scandal than non-leaders (b =-1.09, SE = 0.53, p.05), although leadership had no effect on resignations. Similarly, representatives with high vote share in the election prior to scandal were more likely to be reelected after being accused of misconduct (b =-0.10, SE = 0.04, p.01). The same effect of vote share did not emerge for resignations, suggesting that popularity within a member’s district was not a key consideration in deciding whether to resign following scandal.
There was a direct effect of scandal type (b = -3.62, SE = 1.38, p.01) and frequency of press coverage (b =1.75, SE = 0.52, p.001) on the probability of resigning. Specifically, financial scandals were less likely than sex scandals to result in resignation. More frequent media coverage also increased the likelihood of resignation. The analysis therefore shows support for H9B, which predicted that frequent media coverage would result in resignations from office.
However, the analysis does not support H9A, which predicted media coverage would result in an increased likelihood of defeat. There was an insignificant direct effect of media exposure on losing reelection. There was also no significant difference between financial and sexual scandals in terms of the probability of losing reelection.
Interaction Between Scandal Type and Press Coverage. H10 predicted an interactive relationship between scandal type, financial or sexual in nature, and frequency of press coverage about the scandal. To explore this possibility, the two variables were interacted in the multinomial logit model. As shown in Table 5, both interaction terms were significant predictors of electoral outcomes. Specifically, there was a significant interactive effect on losing reelection (b =-1.01, SE = 0.48, p.05) and resigning (b =1.12, SE = 0.43, p.05) compared to winning
Note: ***p.001, **p.01, *p.05, †p.10.
Standard errors are clustered by year, to mitigate temporal effects on electoral outcomes. I ran alternative models using CNN transcript mentions of scandal, finding substantively similar results (see Appendix D). For model parsimony, I included only the Washington Post media indicator. A logistic regression predicting post-scandal wins and losses created highly similar results.
members accused of a financial scandal is high (Probability of winning = 0.78) and decreases with media coverage until reaching its nadir at the high end of press coverage (Probability of winning = 0.50). The same effect occurs with sex scandals, but to a greater extent.
Interactive Effect of Scandal Type and Media Coverage on Electoral Outcomes Note: The heavy blue line represents probabilities that U.S. House members accused of a sex scandal were coded “win reelection,” “lose reelection” or “resign” on the electoral outcome variable, by frequency of media coverage. The dashed red line represents probabilities that U.S.
House members accused of a financial scandal were coded “win reelection,” lose reelection” or “resign” on the electoral outcome variable, by frequency of media coverage. These probabilities are generated from Table 5, holding all other variables in the model constant at their mean.
of media coverage is 0.59. The probability that a representative accused of a sex scandal will win reelection at the highest level of media coverage is approximately 0.10.
As shown in the upper right-hand panel of Figure 10 representatives are about equally likely to lose reelection at every level of media coverage. In terms of resignations, coverage of sex scandals led to higher rates of resignation for sex scandals than financial scandals, as indicated by the steeper slope in the bottom panel of Figure 10. As media intensity increases, the probability that a member of the U.S. House accused of a sex scandal will resign increases rapidly, approaching a probability of 0.80 at the highest levels of media attention. The same trend holds for financial scandals, but to a far lesser extent. In the case of financial scandals, high media coverage resulted in a probability of resigning of approximately 0.38.
These results show partial support for H10, which predicted that sex scandals would garner more press coverage than financial scandals, in turn relating to a higher number of early resignations from office. High doses of financial scandal press coverage relate to increases in the probability a member of the U.S. House will resign office. However, the effect of press coverage on post-scandal resignations is more pronounced when the scandal involves some type of sexual misconduct. The overall pattern shows there representatives accused of financial misconduct are more likely to retain their seats, no matter the amount of press attention, whereas media exert powerful effects on whether an official accused of sexual misconduct “survives” electorally.
This chapter demonstrates that, across three time periods corresponding to the Clinton (1996-2000), Bush (2001-2008) and Obama (2009-2012) administrations, U.S. House members accused of a sex scandal received more frequent media attention than did representatives accused
frequency of press mentions was less pronounced, possibly due to widespread financial corruption associated with former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Yet the trend across all three time periods was for sex scandals to receive more frequent coverage than financial scandals (H1).
Press attention to official misconduct, in turn, has detrimental effects on electoral prospects of the accused members (H9A and H9B). Indeed, as media coverage of scandal escalates, the probability that a representative accused of a sex scandal will resign approaches 1.0.
Meanwhile representatives accused of a financial scandal not only do not resign, they often run for and win reelection. Contrary to extant experimental evidence (Doherty et al., 2011), citizens do not appear to make harsh electoral evaluations about representatives accused of financial misconduct. Possibly, this finding is related to the notion that Americans dislike Congress as a whole, but like their own congressman (Gallup, 2013). Popular representatives who offer bribes in Washington may add to widespread public distrust of Congress, but may add to the political cache of the individual congressman. That is, Americans may not like the idea of congressmen stealing, but when their congressman steals, it may be perceived as acceptable.
What is perhaps most striking about the effect of media coverage on scandal is that citizens rarely receive the opportunity to judge officials accused of sexual misconduct at the ballot box, since these officials almost all resign as media coverage – and party pressure – increases (H10). As Hernandez’s (2011) article suggests, sex scandals like Anthony Weiner’s create a media attention “problem” for the party. Political capital is a finite resource, and it appears that party leadership is not willing to burn that capital by supporting likeminded representatives accused of salacious scandals that distract from party goals. Based on these findings, it may “safer” for a representative to steal than score; electoral security is jeopardized
goals, and that must be remedied by the removal of the problematic official.
Importantly, this study considered the possibility that Washington Post coverage may not accurately reflect national attention to different types of scandal, or to individual scandals (but see Herrick, 2000). Substituting mentions of scandals in CNN transcripts, this study found substantively similar results, suggesting that using Washington Post stories was not a limitation (see Appendix D). This chapter does not claim that media coverage of political scandal is uniform across all national media outlets, only that a trend appears to be that more coverage is allotted to sexual transgressions and that this coverage tends to lead to high rates of resignations from public office. It is plausible that there are partisan differences in scandal coverage (Puglisi & Snyder, 2011; Stroud, 2011) that could result in differing electoral outcomes, a possibility that deserves further scholarly attention. Additionally, for parsimony, this study only analyzed scandals affecting members of the U.S. House of Representatives. It is conceivable that U.S.
Senators accused of a scandal receive differing patterns of media attention.
One implication of this study is that the economic rewards that come with increased press attention to congressional sex scandals do not always mesh with democratic norms. By inflating audience attention with entertaining scandal narratives and shoring up their profit margins, it appears that the national media may inadvertently focus more public and elite attention on a type of congressional scandal that is arguably the lesser of two evils (Entman, 2012). The press, placed in this framework, holds great power over the parties, and the public’s ability to fulfill their democratic duty through popular election of representatives. The media cannot defeat an official accused of a sex scandal by literally casting a vote in the next election, but the media can go far in getting the congressman’s name removed from the ballot altogether.
The press has been criticized for being unable or unwilling to fulfill its role as a conduit for accurate, engaging and useful political information. It has been argued that the press focuses too much on political gamesmanship and electoral strategy, contributing little to the substantive discussion of policy and public affairs (Cappella & Jamieson, 1996; Fallows, 1997). It has been said that journalists do not adjudicate competing partisan claims, leaving the audience in the unlucky position of deciding which political claims are factual and which are bogus (Pingree, 2011). Institutional routines that demand journalists pay attention to official statements result in the government “wagging the dog,” sending journalists on wild goose chases for the latest tidbit of newsworthy information and leaving audiences with fragmented views of political and social reality (Iyengar & Kinder, 2010). The press provides much-needed political information to the electorate, but not nearly to the degree it could, or should (Patterson, 2013).
Given the many criticisms hurled at the press, and the many empirical studies that have confirmed the basis of these criticisms, it seems unlikely that the press does an outstanding, or even an adequate job of covering political scandal. Indeed, the evidence presented in this study suggest that the press is not “properly calibrated,” in Entman’s (2012) terminology, to the severity or implications of political scandals affecting the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of federal government, and scandals involving state governors. Rather than provide intense scrutiny to profound forms of criminal political corruption that involve financial scheming, the national media give as much, and often more attention to the trivial but entertaining details of our political officials’ sex lives. Extramarital affairs that were once considered private issues off limits to journalists are now thought to be fair game (Marion, 2010).
generate wall-to-wall coverage until the official’s party forces him to resign.
Ironically, resignations that follow sex scandal publicity are likely premature. Officials accused of sex scandals are not regarded as pariahs by ordinary citizens; on the other hand, the public seems to evaluate these officials more positively than officials accused of extortion, bribery, tax evasion and other forms of financial misconduct. The manner in which the public interprets the severity of political scandals, in other words, is entirely “rational” and in direct opposition to the how the press reports them. Driven by habitual attention to official statements, and by economic incentives to create entertaining and understandable narratives, the press emphasizes the titillating, salacious, sensational but ultimately inconsequential aspects of political sex lives. The public, while interested, do not often find these matters worthy of removing an official from office, especially if the official is otherwise popular and effective. Yet the overwhelming publicity given to sex scandals forces the hand of party leadership, who must put party image and the ability to leverage public opinion ahead of any one party member’s career; the party forces the official to resign, rather than allow him to remain a distraction.