Scandalicious: Why Political Reporting Feasts on Drama and Trivia

Arun Gupta Nov 15, 2008

During the 2008 election cycle, which dragged on for almost two years, every week seemed to bring a new scandal: Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Pastor John Hagee, $400 haircuts, fist bumps, flag flaps, lipstick on a pig, ACORN, palling around with terrorists, $150,000 wardrobes and many more.

Some were real, many were invented, but most were irrelevant. The scandals swamped nearly every other issue: the housing bust, global warming, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, White House lawlessness. At times they even eclipsed the global market meltdown.

The scandals persisted despite pundits decrying the intense coverage devoted to them and despite a survey a year before the election showing that 77 percent of voters wanted to hear more about the candidates’ positions on the issues.

Why, if journalists dismiss scandals as distractions and voters claim they want to hear more about the issues, does the corporate media latch onto each new scandal like a drunk clutching a bottle of Night Train?

Because of money. Scandals serve a critical function in the political economy of the corporate media: they are the “widgets” the mainstream news outlets produce to generate revenue and profits.

Every company has a widget, the product it manufactures. For ExxonMobil it’s petroleum products; for Microsoft it’s software; and for the media outlets that drove election coverage — talk radio, websites and most of all, cable news channels — it’s scandals.

Scandals mean more viewers. More viewers result in better ratings. Better ratings mean higher ad rates, which brings in more money and hence more profit. And profit-making is the main purpose of the corporate media.


There is a basic formula. The scandal is introduced. If it gains viewers, then it gets more coverage. The news media devote hours to dissecting the “latest developments” in the scandal, as if some profound event occurred. They demand official responses, which generates new content, and further rounds of analysis. Then the media conduct polls about the scandal, which itself becomes a news item to draw in more viewers and revenue. And so on, until interest wanes and attention shifts to a new scandal.

One only needs to examine ratings and content of cable news programs to find the evidence. Ratings for the three main cable news stations boomed in 2008, whether compared to 2007 or the last presidential election in 2004. What network executives obsess over is the “25–54 demo,” that is, viewers between the ages of 25 and 54. These are the most important numbers as they are used to set advertising rates.

According to the Oct. 20 issue of Media Week, CNN saw a 69 percent jump in the 25–54 demo during prime time from March 31, 2008, to Oct. 15, 2008, compared to 2004. MSNBC had a whopping 146 percent increase in such viewers over 2004. Fox News, the category leader with an average of 500,000 viewers a night this year, recorded a drop of 9 percent from 2004. Media watchers expected Fox to take a hit this year because of the unfavorable climate for Republicans, but it increased its overall viewership by 21 percent in 2008, so it did well.

The difference is even larger compared to 2007. This year, from Oct. 17 to 23, MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olberman
and Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor ranged from half-a-million to a million viewers aged 25–54. The following week, Oct. 24–30, they both averaged more than a million viewers a night in the same demographic. For Fox, this is up to three times the number of viewers the network had during prime time in 2007, and for MSNBC the increase is nearly fivefold.

To build audiences and ratings, the media compete to be first with a story. To 24-hour mediums like cable news, the web and talk radio, scandals are a quick fix. Understanding the health-care crisis requires devoting time and attention to detailed analysis. It’s not that the broadcast media can’t do it, it’s that thoughtful debate on global warming or the Iraq War is not as likely to draw viewers as video of a preacher damning America or the absurdity of a $150,000 clothing budget. Loud, extreme positions, often coming from the right, grab the most attention. With so much competition for viewers, a media outlet can distinguish itself by catering to partisan leanings and broadcasting lurid reports.

McCain’s chief strategist, Steve Schmidt, who knows a little about hyping scandals, said a few days before the Nov. 4 election, “The news cycle is hyperaccelerated and driven by new players on the landscape, like Politico and Huffington Post. He explained because “there is a high premium on being first … this hyperaccelerates a cable-news cycle driven to conflict and drama and trivia.”

This is not to say the media’s obsession over trivial issues is inevitable. Investigative reporting can grab market share, but it’s resource intensive and fares best in an informed political culture. However, the U.S. public is generally poorly educated about politics, history and economics, so many voters accept the canard that what matters more is “character” issues, which scandals play on, rather than issued-based reporting.

Last year, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press surveyed 48 media outlets and found that 86 percent of reports dealt with horse-race coverage like “fundraising, tactics and polling.” Pew noted that as part of the media’s fixation on tactical questions, it watches for “misstatements and gaffes,” which is the essence of many scandals, whether Obama’s comments about bitter voters, Palin’s disastrous interviews, McCain’s statements on the economy or pretty much anything that came out of Biden’s mouth.


The right-wing echo chamber serves a role as an incubator of scandals. There are so many powerful right-wing media outlets that they can fabricate scandals out of thin air, like “lipstick on a pig.” Republicans use the echo chamber to create a groundswell of outrage. Either the corporate media ignore the fabrication, which then is presented by the right as proof of liberal media bias, or the noise leaks into mainstream discourse, such as the fabricated ACORN voter-fraud charges.

None of this would be possible if the two parties actually talked about the issues. But they don’t want to since there was little difference between McCain and Obama on many issues. Both supported the Wall Street bailout and favored tax cuts and free-trade treaties. Both opposed universal health care and backed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Talking politics means talking about winners and losers. Obama and McCain could never admit their policies don’t benefit the poor, workers and middle class because they needed those voters. And they wouldn’t endorse policies of economic redistribution because they needed the rich and big corporations to fund their campaigns.

All that is left to discuss are issues of image – message discipline, character, stagecraft and most of all, branding. Modern politics is a creation of the advertising industry. The congressional and presidential
races cost $2.7 billion this cycle. Campaigns use money to create an emotional bond between voters and candidates through branding, packaging and marketing. This is why campaigns need scandals. They are a powerful weapon to demolish an opponent’s brand.


Obama’s team is more cautious and better disciplined than Clinton, whose presidency was mired in scandal before he even assumed office. But Obama did not change this system; he used it almost flawlessly to get elected.

Don’t be surprised if Obama is under assault before he takes office. The public now favors a stronger government role in the economy, thus it will be difficult for Republicans to oppose progressive policies on their merits. The right will try to use scandals to sap Obama’s political capital. If any scandal gains traction, the broadcast media will join the mob. Everyone gets what they want: The Republicans get to reclaim some power while the news media get to reclaim viewers. The only losers are the public. So, despite all the talk about change, it’s still a long time coming.

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