«A Dissertation Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfillment of ...»
Anthony Weiner was a rising star in the Democratic Party. Known for delivering fiery speeches on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, Weiner was considered a passionate legislator, well liked in his home district, and a shoe-in to be the next mayor of New York City (Barbaro, 2011). Weiner placed his political career in jeopardy, however, on May 27, 2011, when he used a public Twitter account to send sexually suggestive photos of himself to a 21year-old college student living in Seattle, Washington. Partisan bloggers soon discovered the photos and began distributing information about Weiner’s online indiscretions (Peters & Preston, 2011). The mainstream media picked up the story, describing in full the intimate details of Weiner’s “sexting” antics– including explicit photos and messages Weiner sent to several women living in the United States. Press attention increased, becoming so intense that Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi called on Weiner to resign, which he did in a nationally televised press conference on June 16, 2011 (Hernandez, 2011). Anthony Weiner’s Twitter escapades had resulted in electoral defeat, not to mention a sullied reputation that he could not escape from in subsequent elections (Durkin & Brown, 2013). Importantly, Weiner had been removed from office and stripped of his political power, not by his constituents, but by the influence of a national press determined to publicize the sordid details of his private life.
Cases like Anthony Weiner’s make it clear that the press is willing to expend considerable effort reporting events that may reflect poorly on the moral character of government officials. Also clear is the real or perceived threat that scandal publicity poses to party image and policymaking activity, and to the leadership quality of individuals like Nancy Pelosi (Hernandez,
Weiner’s raise important questions about the interplay of party action, press coverage and public response following scandal accusations. Some of these questions are straightforward and can be answered using empirical approaches. Other, normative questions delve deeper into political ethics, the roots of democracy, and the role of the press and citizenry in a free society. Guiding all of these questions, which are delineated in the subsequent sections of this chapter, is a single overarching query: Does the press take a socially responsible position in the treatment of official misconduct, providing more frequent coverage to more severe (i.e., financial) scandals?
The national news media has been charged with exercising too much power in the electoral process, leveraging undue influence over candidate nominations and elections (Patterson, 1994). Scholars and pundits have also alleged that the press does a lackluster business of informing the electorate (Patterson, 2013); that the press portrays national events through a distorted, partisan lens (Morris, 2005; Stroud, 2011); does not “adjudicate” factual disagreements, or tell audiences which political figures are telling the truth (Pingree, 2011); focuses too much on less informational “soft news” (Hamilton, 2004) and political strategy (Cappella & Jamieson, 1996; Fallows, 1997); and reports issues in an “episodic” rather than a “thematic” fashion, leading to superficial and fragmented accounts of national problems that make it difficult for officials to govern and citizens to act (Iyengar & Kinder, 2010). In short, the press has been accused of failing to channel political information to the public, the one group in a democracy that, theoretically, needs the information in order for democracy to function.
Citizens have noticed the shortcoming of the press. In poll after poll, the American public takes national news media to task for its increasing focus on infotainment and sensationalism and inability to provide a comprehensive picture of the day’s political events (Patterson, 2013). It is
confidence in newspersons and television news has declined over the last two decades (see Figure 1). If the press remains focused on trivial celebrity gossip rather than substantive policy, crime waves instead of the causes of crime, and international athletes at the expense of international affairs, it risks alienating citizens who rely on it for crucial political information.
American Confidence in Newspapers and Television News, 1993 – 2013 Note: Nationally representative Gallup surveys asked American adults “how much confidence” they had in various institutions. The blue trend line represents the percentage of respondents who, when asked how much confidence they have in newspapers or TV news, said they have “A Great Deal” or “Quite a Lot.” The red trend line represents the percentage of respondents who, when asked how much confidence they have in newspapers or TV news, said they have “Very Little” or “None.” Events that may impact the public’s confidence in news are noted.
government corruption and scandal, information that citizens need to make important electoral decisions, then it stands to reason that the press may hold undue influence over the process of removing dishonest or criminal persons from elected office. The question guiding this study is therefore broad but subtle, and significant. It asks about the ability of the press to address official misconduct by gauging accurately the scope and severity of allegations, about activities the press considers to be the private business of public officials, and about the power of reporting to sway public opinion and political support against an accused official. Understanding how the press reports scandal allegations is to understand both the political influence of the press and the power of elected officials and parties to mitigate damage, deflect blame, and restore reputation.
By pursuing this line of inquiry using a multimethod approach, this dissertation contributes to the literature by establishing that (1) the type of political scandal – sexual or financial in nature – influences how journalists and voters interpret the alleged misconduct, with journalists tending to focus on sexual misconduct and voters on financial misconduct, (2) even as voters care more about financial misconduct, economic incentives and institutional motives engender more press coverage of sex scandals relative to financial scandals, and (3) this pattern of coverage results in electoral losses, typically in the form of high rates of early resignations following accusations of sexual misconduct and firestorms of unwanted media attention.
Political scandals can be defined as “actions or events involving certain kinds of transgressions which become known to others and are sufficiently serious to elicit a public response” (Thompson, 2000, p. 13, italics original). Scandals can occur in a variety of contexts involving a wide range of actors and differing degrees of complexity (Marion, 2010; Thompson,
may be impossible, given the potentially infinite number of factors unique to each scandal – this study focuses on two prevailing types of scandal scenarios: scandals involving officials accused of engaging in illegal or unethical financial conduct (“financial scandals”), and those involving officials accused of sexual impropriety (“sexual scandals” or “sex scandals”).
Financial and sex scandals both engender struggles over symbolic political power, in which the resources of reputation and trust are at stake. Both are considered “scandals” insofar as the “transgressions” “become known” to the public through news media. Financial scandals are distinctive, however, in that they “generally involve hidden linkages between economic and political power which are regarded as improper” (p. 121) whereas sex scandals represent “a transgression of prevailing norms or codes governing the conduct of sexual relations” (p. 120).
While contextual aspects of financial and sex scandals may vary in terms of the actors involved, the culpability of the accused, the complexity of the events and so on, financial scandals can be conceptualized as independent from sex scandals, although certain cases may involve aspects of both types (e.g., paying a prostitute for services rendered using taxpayer dollars).
From normative democratic, ethical and legal perspectives, financial scandals also cause more damage than do sex scandals (Entman, 2012; Thompson, 2000). Theoretically, the public elects officials who will represent their economic interests, who will help them compete for a stake in state or federal resources, and who will conduct business in an ethical and legal manner.
When financial scandals occur, for instance, when a politician uses taxpayer dollars to purchase personal items, they signify a severe breach of public trust. Financial scandals reflect negatively on the official’s honesty and fairness, as well as their ability to fulfill their democratic role as an elected official. Sex scandals, on the other hand, are often limited to private indiscretions that
breach of moral norms, but not democratic or (rarely) legal norms. Sex scandals may reflect negatively on an official’s character, including their honesty, but the misconduct involved is typically limited to the private judgments of the accused and do not, in and of themselves, constrain an official’s ability to fulfill their democratic role representing public interests.
There are, of course, cases that prove to be exceptions to the assumption that financial scandals are more damaging to democracy than are sex scandals. Improper sexual activity involving the misuse of public funds or property, or that involve illegal actions, may cross additional normative barriers. Officials that make promises to be “moral leaders” and later break those promises by engaging in a sexual misconduct may also commit violations of honesty and trust (Nelson, Dulio, & Medvic, 2002). Yet the vast majority of sex scandals do not involve violations of democratic or legal norms (Thompson, 2000). Instead, sex scandals involve a breach of society’s codes regulating the range of sexual activities that are considered proper or “right.” They are set in the personal sphere of the official, involve a small number of actors, and typically have little bearing on campaigning or policymaking. Why, then, does the press cover sex scandals? And why does the press seemingly cover sex scandals like Anthony Weiner’s with such zeal? Is the same intensity directed at financial scandals? Should it be? Assuming that financial scandals are more damaging, should the press give them relatively more attention?
A free and responsible press is the lifeblood of democracy. The news provides the public with a window into the inner-workings of politics, delivering the information necessary for citizens to fulfill their roles as active and knowledgeable democratic participants. The press also acts as “Fourth Branch” of government and a “watchdog” on government activity, alerting
However, the press may not be “properly calibrated” to the severity of political scandal (Entman, 2012, p. 2), raising the possibility that relatively trivial but sensational ethical lapses like extramarital affairs become front page news, while serious but less sensational offenses like bribery or tax evasion go underreported. If institutional and economic concerns motivate frequent press coverage of salacious government affairs rather than normative concerns about the severity of the scandal (Hamilton, 2004; McManus, 1994; 1995), there is a risk that citizens will not have the information necessary to address severe government malfeasance at the ballot box.
Institutional, economic, partisan and individual-level journalistic concerns have the potential to propel relatively trivial personal matters like former Democratic Representative Anthony Weiner’s “sexting” scandal into the national spotlight for weeks, while isolated cases of financial wrongdoing may receive little press attention. Given the option, journalists may give easy-to-understand and dramatic sex scandal narratives “legs,” whereas the often-tedious and complex details of financial malfeasance do not receive prolonged attention. This dissertation demonstrates that the choices journalists make about how much attention financial and sex scandals receive affect how the public perceives scandal, and ultimately has legitimate electoral consequences for the representatives involved. Sex scandals like extramarital affairs, which may have a negligible impact on governing, receive more press attention than do financial scandals, and officials accused of a sex scandal often resign rather than face the media spotlight.
Political sex scandals should receive more coverage than financial scandals for a variety of reasons. First, the press is not obligated to consider normative arguments regarding the effects of different types of political scandal – financial or sexual in nature – on governing, public opinion, or democracy writ large. Media outlets cover issues that they believe will appeal to their
(Hamilton, 2004; McManus, 1994; 1995; Patterson, 1994). The press does grant primary consideration to the severity of a scandal, or its normative implications. Even though sex scandals may be “personal indiscretions with little impact on society” (Entman, 2012, p. 13), the press nonetheless treats them as noteworthy events, as much or more so than financial scandals.
Sex scandals may also garner more coverage than financial scandals because they fit perfectly within the framework of institutional news norms and routines, as well as aspects of the contemporary media environment. While all types of political scandals may possess elements that appeal to a news organization’s audience- and profit-seeking motives, sex scandals contain particularly compelling, sensational elements that make them attractive to journalists and media organizations. Specifically, sex scandals almost always involve dramatic narratives, a common prerequisite for stories in modern journalism (Cook, 1996; 2005; Gans, 2004; Patterson, 1994).