«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of ...»
While the press often pursues accusations of sexual misconduct, the public focuses on financial misbehavior. And since the press downplays official financial misconduct relative to sexual dalliances, the public has a reduced likelihood of receiving information that would allow them to make critical decisions about elected officials accused of financial malfeasance. Meanwhile, the media firestorm following a sex scandal is so relatively intense that officials resign quickly in order to avoid unwanted publicity. In essence, this study contributes the literature by showing
officials to steal from their own constituents than to have sex with their secretary.
The results of this study have implications for democratic citizenship, political parties, and the press. It is important to address, however, an important limitation in the argument put forth in this study: not everyone conceptualizes the national press as a “political institution” or an “intermediary” “Fourth Branch” of American government designed to act as another set of actors in the political sphere (Cook, 1996; 2005; Schudson, 1981; 2002; 2011). Crucially, the press may also be conceptualized as economic organizations, “businesses” that sell news “products” and are beholden not to citizens but to their own “customers” (Hamilton, 2004). If we accept that the national media are simply business organizations out to make a buck, then very little of the preceding argument matters since the press cannot be held responsible for actions that shore up its financial bottom line at the expense of an under- or ill-informed citizenry.
Compelling theoretical arguments have been made concerning the role of the press as a democratic institution (see especially, Cook, 1996; 2005; Schudson, 1981; 2002; 2011) and the failure of that institution to address political scandals and lesser controversies (Entman, 2012).
Yet these arguments, influential as they may be, are not without criticism. Equally persuasive arguments have been offered, mainly by members of the journalism community, that the press is merely an organization in the business of selling information to consumers (see Fallows, 1997;
McChesney, 2004; Schudson, 2011). When cries of partisan bias or objections about the perceived failures of the press to inform the citizenry are made, the response from the journalism community is that news is a business, one that depends on audience interest for financial sustainability. Media professionals argue that their business will go under if the news doesn’t continually alter its format and patterns of coverage to compete for audience attention with “soft
such as professional football games or HBO dramas. While print newspapers may maintain a loyal base of “hard news” readers, market competition on cable and the Internet keeps news production moving at a breakneck pace, with the more sensational and titillating, but not necessarily more substantial topics, making headlines. A “scandal-minded” (Fallows, 1997, p. 3) press with an eye on ratings rather than informing the electorate makes for entertaining news programming. If the press is merely a conglomeration of businesses that convey political information to the public, then an entertaining press is sufficient and acceptable.
A second limitation of this study rests in another normative assumption: that the average sexual scandal is not worthy of the volume of coverage it receives. An argument could be made that sex scandals are not only highly relevant to moralizing politicians who make promises to be ethical leaders, but to anyone holding high public office. Additionally, it could be suggested that a sex scandal may reveal something more sinister about an official’s character, particularly if the official makes efforts to deny accusations of actual sexual misconduct. Character traits matter to voters, and if a sexual scandal reveals a defect in an official’s character, it may therefore be important for journalists to pursue accusations of sexual misconduct (Entman, 2012, p. 49).
Yet this argument relies on its own set of assumptions. First and foremost, it makes a slippery slope assumption that the official’s action in the private realm (e.g., an extramarital affair) has a direct influence on ethical decision making in general or on policy decisions in particular (e.g., voting on a gender equality bill). This is a problematic leap, since the assumption is that other, competing forces like the official’s ideology or external party influence do not also shape decisions about, for instance, whether to vote on a bill protecting equal pay for men and women. The inverse of this relationship also illustrates a problem with the argument. Consider a
consistently votes on bills that members of the public deem unethical – for example, pro-abortion or pro-death penalty bills. In such cases, the politician’s private and public behavior is distinct and compartmentalized in an inverse fashion, with the ethical private behavior seemingly having nothing to do with the “unethical” policymaking behavior. Second, the argument that sex scandals may reveal something important about an official’s character commits a moralistic fallacy in that it assumes that since philandering is deemed wrong by the society we live in, it must therefore be absolutely wrong. Social mores governing sexual deviance have changed drastically throughout history. In ancient Greece, senators could legally own slaves and concubines. Just fifty years ago, it was illegal and “immoral” in many U.S. states for an interracial couple to marry. As times change, social constructions of proper and deviant sexual behavior change. What may deemed improper sexual behavior by an elected official today may have no bearing on what is considered improper ten, twenty or fifty years from now.
Recognizing the caveat that the implications of this study depend on how one conceptualizes the media’s role in democracy – as a political institution or business – and on whether one deems a sex scandal as revelatory of defect in an official’s character or judgment, this study proceeds by outlining broad consequences for citizens, parties, and the press.
Citizens. Democracy functions through the popular election of leaders who represent the public will (Clawson & Oxley, 2012). For democracy to function properly, citizens must have the necessary information to elect leaders who best represent their interests. No matter how one conceptualizes the news media’s role in democracy, the press has assumed the task of delivering political information to citizens. And if the news media does its job poorly, if it gives credence to political minutia while overlooking corruption, then citizens may unable to fulfill their duties.
image of political reality, and that leave citizens with a distorted view of the political world (Kinder & Iyengar, 2010). When news media play partisan games, audiences are routinely left with false or underdeveloped perceptions of politics, including which political issues should be considered “most important” to address (Morris, 2005; Stroud, 2011). Likewise, by giving credence to the sexual liaisons of elected officials through frequent coverage, the press may create the illusion that citizens should care more about what goes on in their representative’s bedroom than about the shady transactions their representative is making in his office.
In fact, citizens who possess high levels of political knowledge may be especially susceptible to this kind of perception. Politically sophisticated individuals may biased processors of scandal information, having the framework necessary to connect news about trivial sexual affairs to the “game” of partisan politics. Knowledgeable citizens are typically more tolerant of the rights of minority political groups (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996), have more consistent and well-defined policy attitudes, and are better able to assign credit or blame to the responsible political officials (Gomez & Wilson, 2001; Sturgis & Smith, 2010). However, knowledgeable individuals are also better able to connect their pre-existing store of political knowledge with news media cues and frames, siding with even weak arguments if they are in favor of their party or ideological persuasion (Chong & Druckman, 2007a; 2007b; Druckman et al., 2013). Evidently individuals with high levels of knowledge are also more susceptible to news about sex scandals.
If the news media harps on a sex scandal, it appears to have a stronger, negative effect on evaluations provided by politically sophisticated citizens. Financial scandals, while receiving far less media attention, are viewed as more damaging by citizens at all levels of sophistication.
image to be constantly improved or at least maintained. Image is power in the world of politics, at least symbolic power. When scandal accusations are made about a political official, group objectives appear to be prioritized above the career objective’s of an individual party member.
Scandals that generate intense publicity may reflect poorly on party image, potentially damaging reputation and weakening party trust (Marion, 2010; Thompson, 2000). Nevertheless, it may be possible for an official accused of a sensational scandal, even a sex scandal, to weather the media firestorm and retain their office without simultaneously sacrificing the party’s image or having public attention shift from the party’s policy agenda to the scandalous activities of its members.
In the past, political parties appear to force official resignations to reduce scandal publicity and put party business on track. One assumption underlying this strategy is that publicity will remain constant or increase as time progresses. Indeed, as opposition party officials release statements regarding the scandal, or new information is leaked to journalists, it is possible that even trivial scandals will remain in the public eye. And yet institutional routines and economic incentives dictate that the press cannot focus too intently on any one scandal (Entman, 2012). Journalists are in constant search of the new, the timely, and the entertaining.
While provocative scandals may pique initial interest and generate intense media scrutiny, the press is motivated to keep stories fresh. At some point, the press must move on.
The implication is that political parties should not be so quick to force the hand of officials accused of trivial scandals. Former Representative Anthony Weiner provides a good case in point. Weiner was widely considered a rising force in the Democratic Party. He had earned the trust of his constituents and maintained the reputation of an official who would confront members of the Republican opposition in the House. Following his “sexting” scandal
It may have seemed to party officials, at the time, that the wall-to-wall media coverage would never end. However, the press cannot and does not focus on events for inordinate periods of time.
As national and world events occurred, as the media agenda became more “congested” with more pressing issues, it is unlikely that Weiner’s sexual escapades would have remained in the headlines (Boydstun, 2013). In other words, the Democratic Party might have retained Weiner had they not acted on the increasing publicity. How could this have been accomplished?
One strategy may involve impression managing the scandal coverage. Publicly, parties could place pressure on a likeminded official to resign. This gives the impression that the party is concerned with the misbehavior of one of their members and is willing to penalize the official.
Behind closed doors, however, the party could draw ranks and provide support for the accused rather than forfeiting the official’s office. From the official’s perspective, it is never wise to admit to engaging in scandalous activities (Sigal et al., 1988). Denials of misconduct are more persuasive and reduce damage to the official’s reputation. Yet evidence of official wrongdoing, for instance photographic evidence of sexual misbehavior, will motivate admission of guilt. In this case, it is wise for the official to admit guilt, apologize and suggest he will seek help. After making such claims public, the official should remain silent unless new charges are made. Public statements should only refer to policymaking and the regular business of serving constituents.
The logic underlying this strategy is made apparent by the foregoing analyses. Citizens appear unwilling to punish official’s accused of salacious sexual misconduct at the ballot box, especially if the official is otherwise popular and effective (Fischle, 2000). Citizens may also resist, and even resent, intense scrutiny of sex scandals, placing more blame on press for seemingly unfair coverage than on the accused official (Marion, 2010). After the media
how much attention the press can give to the sexual activities of its elected leaders. The press is aware, in other words, that it must turn its attention away from a scandal eventually. New events will demand press attention turn elsewhere. Citizens may be initially interested in coverage of sex scandals, but will become frustrated if the media lingers too long on a particular scandal. The implication is clear: unless a sex scandal involves illegal activity, the official should remain in power. The official’s own constituents will likely be willing to forgive him; only the media holds the power to act as an overzealous conduit for opposition party claims about the official’s wrongdoing, and bring the official’s career to a close. This power can be mitigated, with time.
The Press. There has been debate over whether the press has any real power, or whether it acts merely as a channel through which the power of officials is exercised (Schudson, 2011).