«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of ...»
The press, it seems, wields incredible power to unseat officials accused of sexual misconduct. Journalists could elect to ignore or downplay partisan allegations of sexual dalliance, and focus more intensely on real crimes committed by public officials who citizens have entrusted to their formal representatives. Instead, by focusing on sex scandals, the press allows partisan officials to use these events as political hand grenades, derailing the opposition’s ability to create policy, direct public opinion, and improve its image. Sex scandals are like jokers in the card “game” of politics. They are wild and wooly but understandable narratives that describe events as old as human sexuality itself. They can result in a partisan backfire, damaging the
hanging fruit for news media with dwindling budgets and personnel. They are provocative, dramatic and understandable narratives that pique audience interest. And thus, sex scandals fit snuggly within the economic incentives and institutional motivations of the national press.
If there were any one area of politics that the press should cover well it is the area of scandal. Participatory democracy assumes an active and engaged citizenry who can identify and judge corrupt leaders, removing them by way of the ballot (Clawson & Oxley, 2012). The press could facilitate this process by showing the way for citizens to punish truly criminal leaders, officials who have violated not only society’s sense of personal morality, but what is considered appropriate behavior by democratically elected representatives. Certainly, sex scandals represent transgressions of social mores regulating what is considered “correct” or “deviant sexual behavior. Sex scandals may involve illegal behavior or the breaking of campaign promises about serving as a “moral leader” or “restoring moral leadership” to Washington. The majority of political sex scandals, however, do not break these boundaries. They are private affairs, and relatively harmless when compared side by side with official extortion and bribery. To argue that former New York Representative Anthony Weiner’s “sexting” scandal is on the level of Watergate, or of the Jack Abramoff Indian casino scandal is a wasted exercise. Such scandals are qualitatively different, with the latter scandals representing wider breaches of democratic, ethical and legal norms than events involving the aberrant sexual behavior of Anthony Weiner.
Yet the frequency with which the press covers financial and sexual misconduct indicates that scandal typology is not a major consideration when deciding which scandals to report. This study does not claim that all journalists everywhere ignore such a consideration. Nonetheless, the aggregate data presented in this study do not lie. The data speak volumes about what the press
Below, the major findings of this study are summarized. The study’s implications for citizens, parties, and national news media are addressed. This chapter also sets forth a number of realistic – and radical – recommendations for generating “properly calibrated” scandal coverage. Many of these recommendations may seem impractical in the short term. In the long-term, changes to the news media may be necessary to engage citizens, reduce or eliminate corruption among government officials, and maintain the health and functionality of American democracy.
Chapter 1. The purpose of this study was to investigate patterns of scandal news coverage, paying careful attention to how the press handles scandal typology.
Chapter 1 outlined several overarching questions that guided this study’s empirical analyses. First, does the national news media pay more attention, on average, to egregious political scandals involving financial misconduct than it does scandals involving violations of society’s sexual mores? What effects do patterns of media attention have on the electoral fortunes of accused officials? Finally, how do citizens process scandal news and evaluate officials accused of wrongdoing?
Chapter 2. The first step in investigating these questions was establishing that the press indeed covers different types of scandal – the financial and sexual varieties – in different ways.
Using five and a half years of aggregated Pew News Coverage Index (NCI) data, Chapter 2 demonstrated that the press provides more frequent coverage to sex scandals, on average, than it provides financial scandals. Analyzing over 4,000 news stories and 24 scandal scenarios affecting officials from the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of the federal government and scandals involving state governors, this chapter showed that the press focuses its energies on cases of sexual scandal. Financial scandals like that of former Illinois Governor Rod
is for relatively trivial sex scandals to receive more frequent press coverage, on average.
Frequency of scandal coverage is regulated by the media format. Since cable television and online news have large “newsholes,” must compete directly with pure forms of entertainment programming delivered via the same medium (Fallows, 1997), and cater to “soft news” audiences (Hamilton, 2004), more scandal stories appear on cable and the Internet compared to print newspapers. In the war to grab and maintain audience attention, television and Internet news has attempted to make its programming more entertaining (Fallows, 1997). The same could be said of print newspapers, but no to the same degree. This study shows that print newspapers downplay all types of scandal news, while cable and the Internet thrive on it.
The results of Chapter 2 show that there is one factor that may mitigate the frequency of scandal coverage. If an official retires within two weeks of scandal allegations, it appears that scandal coverage is reduced. A logical explanation for this finding may be that the opposition party no longer has cause to pursue allegations via official statements; the opposition party has received exactly what it wanted, with the official resigning and being stripped of his power.
Institutional norms motivate journalists to rely on official statements to guide their coverage.
Without official statements to point the finger of blame at the official, press coverage wanes.
It was also discovered that liberal- and conservative-leaning cable TV news networks (Morris, 2005; Stroud, 2011) might have their own fragmented, partisan scandal agendas. As predicted, the results suggest that Fox News provides more coverage, on average, to scandals that reflect poorly on Democrats than scandals that portray Republicans in a negative light. Since Fox tends to be more politically conservative than other networks, this result was consistent with previous research on fragmented partisan agendas (Stroud, 2011). Counter to this study’s
Republican scandals. It is possible that other elements of scandals, in particular, the entertainment value of sex scandals, led to more coverage of Democratic scandals. Since CNN is a for-profit news organization, they may focus heavy attention on any type of scandal, involving Democratic or Republican officials. In other words, partisan considerations may not be the only considerations when determining the frequency of scandal news coverage.
Chapter 3. The press may give more credence to sex scandals by giving them more frequent coverage than financial misconduct.
Do patterns of scandal coverage match patterns of public evaluations? Using a survey-based experiment administered to an Amazon Mechanical Turk subject pool, this chapter replicated evidence from previous studies showing that the public is relatively unconcerned about allegations of sexual misconduct (Doherty et al., 2011). Rather, the public appears to process scandals rationally. Citizens assign harsher evaluations to officials accused of severe forms of financial misconduct, in this case, an official who used his office to commit fraud. The public punishes financial misconduct; the press punishes sexual misconduct.
There were several factors that regulated how citizens gauged evaluations of accused officials. First and foremost, no scandal had a main effect on evaluations. All officials accused of scandal were evaluated negatively. A key differentiating mechanisms in scandal evaluation was partisan group affiliation (Huddy, 2013). Conservatives protected a scandal-plagued member of the Republican Party, whereas liberals protected an identical likeminded Democratic official. All else equal, human beings are likely to protect members of their group (Tajfel, 1982), including their political group. In the case of scandal, ideology drives patterns of evaluations.
Second, the impact of ideologically motivated moral values on scandal evaluations was assessed. Conservatives tend to rely on the value dimension of sexual and bodily Sanctity /
al., 2009; Haidt, 2012). Liberals do not. Instead, liberals make moral evaluations on the basis of the Fairness / Cheating moral value dimension, suggesting that liberals will process scandal information within the context of fairness. The expectation, then, is that liberals will be more critical of financial scandals and conservatives will be more critical of sex scandals. Nevertheless, this chapter did not support hypotheses associated with ideologically driven values and scandal typology. Liberals and conservatives appeared more motivated to judge officials accused of scandal on the basis of partisan affiliation rather than the type of scandal involved.
This chapter also examined the role of political knowledge in moderating the effect of scandal information on official evaluations. Individuals with large stores of political knowledge were hypothesized to process scandal news differently than individuals who don’t know much about the political world. Specifically, individuals with high levels of knowledge were hypothesized to either (A) be more able to gauge scandal severity, providing harsher punishments to more sever financial scandals than sex scandals, or (B) be more able to connect prior beliefs with partisan scandal information, providing harsh evaluations to officials accused of both financial and sexual misconduct. Evidence was found supporting the second hypothesis.
Even controlling for frequency of church attendance as a proxy for participant religiosity and the participant’s level of ideological attachment and concomitant moral values, this chapter found that individuals with high levels of political knowledge judge officials involved in sex scandals more negatively than do individuals with low levels of knowledge. Financial misconduct engenders almost equally negative reactions from low and high knowledge participants. These findings suggest that rather than helping citizens to grasp the ramifications of scandal and dole
to consider the “game” of politics and connect scandal information to prior political beliefs.
Chapter 4. Having established that the press pays more attention to the average sex scandal than it does the average financial scandal, Chapter 4 investigates the electoral ramifications of press coverage.
Using aggregated data on the U.S. House of Representatives from 1996 to 2012, this chapter explores the impact of scandal typology and press coverage by scandal type on the electoral fortunes of accused members. It found that officials accused of sexual misconduct overwhelmingly resign their office, and resign quickly, rather than generate media coverage that may distract from their party’s agenda or damage their party’s image.
Financial scandals, meanwhile, received less press attention, and House members accused of financial misconduct were unlikely to resign. Voters did not often punish financial misconduct by “throwing the bastards out” of office. Yet the likelihood an official accused of financial misconduct losing an election following allegations was higher than the likelihood of losing an election, mainly due to the fact sex scandals result in high rates of resignation.
Popularity within one’s district, as measured by accounting for vote share in the previous election cycle, insulated House members from losing the election following scandal. However, vote share had no effect on resignations, suggesting that public opinion of an official had little effect on his likelihood of resigning or staying in office. Party leaders who were involved in a scandal were also better insulated from electoral defeat, possibly because of their standing in Congress and ability to fundraise for political ads and other messages that could deflect scandal.
Again, party leadership status has no effect on resignations following scandal, indicating that standing in the House had no direct effect on whether a scandal resulted in leaving office early.
found that more press coverage was given to sexual scandals than financial scandals, on average, across a sixteen-year timeframe. This finding builds on the results of Chapter 2. It suggests that the national news media has been focused on political sex scandals at least since 1996. While corruption like that of the Jack Abramoff scandal isn’t ignored, such scandals are often not the focus of press coverage. Moreover, patterns of press coverage have real-world electoral outcomes. Intense media scrutiny in the wake of sex scandals forces party leadership to make officials resign their positions, as was the case with Anthony Weiner (Hernandez, 2011), Mark Foley (Halloran, 2011), Gary Condit (Standora, 2001), and Eric Massa (Benjamin & McAuliff, 2010). Media scrutiny of financial malfeasance also leads to resignations from office, but it is much more likely that officials accused of financial wrongdoing win reelection.
This dissertation contributes to the literature by illuminating the complex interplay of communication and decision-making transpiring in scandal scenarios. Rather than taking an “all scandals are created equal” approach, this study shows that different types of scandals – of the sexual and financial variety – have different effects on press coverage and public interpretations.