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Hullabaloo


Thursday, June 26, 2014

 
Smell the scandal. Smells like smoke!

by digby

Brian Beutler points out one of the defining characteristics of a bullshit right wing scandal:

No less a figure than John Boehner (who's not a scientist) says the IRS' version of events—that the emails were lost in a hard-drive crash and the backups wiped off the servers after six months, per the agency's old protocol—"doesn't pass the straight-face test."

But here's the thing nobody covering the latest incarnation of the IRS feeding frenzy can bring themselves to say clearly: It is unconnected to the "scandal" that gave rise to the feeding frenzy in the first place. And that reflects the basic illogic underlying the right's embrace scandal politics. Republicans are no longer investigating allegations. They're assuming the conclusion that a scandal is afoot, and working backwards to prove it.

Actually, this is a standard "smell test" scandal (also known as "where there's smoke there's fire") wherein a coincidence or innocent explanation is used as proof that something nefarious must have happened because it's "too good to be true." Logic, facts, even simple chronology are rarely relevant. The hysteria takes over and it all becomes a vague melange of suspicion and innuendo until most people just assume something must have happened or so many people wouldn't be talking about it.

And the press often eagerly plays along because it's just so juicy.

Here's my favorite explanation of how this works in the press from New York Times in 1994 called "Is the Press Being Too Hard On the Clintons -- or on Itself?"

On balance, Whitewater looks like the garden-variety political scandal that no President since Roosevelt has escaped during his tenure, save John F. Kennedy, who died in office, and Gerald Ford, who served but a year. The primary issues dogging Mr. Clinton -- the hints of political graft, sexual misbehavior, coverup -- meet any modern journalist's smell test. The admonitions that they are old news suggests, improbably, that Robert A. Caro's juicy revelations about Lyndon Johnson's rise to power would not be news were Mr. Johnson President today. They would make front-page headlines. L.B.J.'s era, like Harding's, is an age of innocence passed.

If Whitewater coverage seems excessive it is because the scandal is unfolding in what has become a journalistic hall of mirrors. The explosion of news outlets -- from the shrill "Hard Copy" to the ubiquitous CNN -- has created a hunger for news, any news, to fill the electronic maw. Stories that are unfit for the breakfast-table press, especially about Mr. Clinton's private life, now surface in the National Enquirer and its brethren and become the subject of soul-searching analysis by serious journalists. Stories the mainstream press stamp as serious -- Mrs. Clinton's stunning success in cattle futures, for example -- become such ready fodder for Leno and Letterman and McLaughlin and Limbaugh that they soon become larger, and more irritating, than life.

"We're like a too-powerful amplifier, running through old speakers," said Tom Rosenstiel, the media writer for The Los Angeles Times. "Anything that runs through it comes back with feedback and distortion. There are just too many of us blaring too loud."

And, there is another plausible explanation for Whitewater's grate on some ears: Perhaps some columnists support Mr. Clinton's policies and are offended by the ceaseless accusations. This new crop of analysts is a different breed of journalist, highly valued not for daily reporting but for the ability to express thoughtful opinions in attention-grabbing ways.

Mr. Clinton is not being pilloried with falsehoods. Putting aside White House fury over Newsweek's report that Mrs. Clinton risked nothing in her $100,000 cattle-trading venture (she risked $1,000), investigative reports on the Clintons by mainstream journalists have by and large been accurate. Most backtracking has come from the White House.

One could argue, of course, that this is just egg beater journalism -- froth whipped up by prize-hungry sensationalists. After all, who cares if Mrs. Clinton made a killing in high-risk commodities futures?

But as Mr. Nixon once said about hush money, that would be wrong. "It's a great story, in part because of the incongruity of Ms. Politics-of-Meaning playing the commodities market, and in part because of the real suspicion that there's more to it," said Michael Kinsley, the omnipresent broadcast and print analyst who also calls himself a Clinton sympathizer. "If Barbara Bush had made $100,000 on the commodities market, do you think anyone would argue that it isn't news?"

You just have to laugh at the sheer volume of self-serving rationalizations in that piece. Has anything changed much since then? Not really. It's bifurcated into a more partisan press, but truly it's only a matter of time before one of their "smell test" scandals grabs the attention of ambitious mainstream journalists. (I'm going to guess it's when Hillary Clinton really takes center stage...)

The good news is that Michael Kinsley is still in there, all these years later, illuminating the bankrupt ethos that drives much of modern establishment journalism. It's nice to see that some traditions never die.


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