Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Shockingly, No One Cares About Your Scandal ...

The Pew Research results are in and ... turns out no one cares about 'Bridge-gate' (the term which was chosen by Twitter over 'Bridgeghazi'--The Omnivore pines for a post-'gate' era ... but it'll never come).

This is upsetting to people who hoped that Christie's nomination ambitions would be derailed by the scandal. It's also prompted some ... what's the reverse of soul searching?  Active denial by the GOP factions that believed that Obama's teflon-grade resistance to scandal (Benghazi! Fast and Furious! IRS Investigations ...) was entirely driven by the media.

After all, the media has been non-stop against Christie and ... it hasn't moved the dial.

What's This Mean?
It means that people who blame The Media for Obama's escape from the myriad of scandals have some  'splainin to do. The media covered the Christie scandal 17x more than the IRS Scandal (if the linked article is correct, anyway). If media coverage alone (which was, uh, not favorable to Christie) could move the dial then we should expect to see the results in the Pew poll.

What if media coverage isn't what moves the dial, though? What if the GOP's (and the Tea Party's) perception problems have more to do with the actors involved than the reportage? If that's true then an entire world-view that is built around blaming the institutional power of the media and academia for the lack of traction conservatives have is in jeopardy.

Why Might People Not Care?
The story conservatives typically tell themselves is that conservative ideas are vilified by a liberal media that, by its own admission, votes 80-90% Democrat. In addition to this, academia--from early education where progressive ideas are injected into young minds--to tenured leftist professors in their ivory towers--churns out boiler-plate thinking followers that pull the lever for Democrat without actually thinking for themselves.

Maybe that is true. Certainly, on an 'anec-data' basis we can find examples of super-left-wing professors and stupidity in the media (NBC's George Zimmerman edit?). The question is whether the media is really able to have that much of an impact. Tim Groseclose, who wrote Left Turn, argues that, without the left-wing bias of the media, America would vote a lot more like Texas than New York. He crunches a lot of numbers and, ultimately, makes at least a passable case that (a) the media's coverage really is further left than right and (b) that coverage probably has some impact.

But in the Bridgeghazi / IRS test case where the structure of the scandal is pretty similar (something happened, it was clearly done by the administration, there is no smoking gun to link the behavior to the executive, and the executive claims he "was not informed") why doesn't 17x media coverage sink Chris Christie like the Titanic?

Some Possibilities
Here are some possibilities that we should consider:

  1. No Smoking Gun: In the absence of a linking email or other hard evidence maybe people just aren't convinced no matter how much media coverage there is or isn't. This isn't unreasonable: people may think Obama lied or Christie lied (or both)--but they may not make any kind of personal decision to feel one way or another without "the evidence." This would be nice and sane--but it isn't the way people work. True: a smoking gun would demand action--but it doesn't appear that the lack of an email is making people think that Jersey politics are run under Queensberry rules either.
  2. Not A Real Scandal: What if it's just plain true that the IRS thing is the real-deal and the press saved Obama from it--But Bridge-gate is bullshit and even at 17x volume that dog just won't hunt? This is the emotionally safest possible interpretation of the data but it is also the most questionable. No one now thinks that the bridge wasn't closed for retaliatory purposes. Maybe no one died (although, uh, maybe someone did)--but it's dirty politics that hurt not just political players but "ordinary people" (who voted, it turns out, for Christie ...). This is a real scandal and should be enough to make you think worse of someone if you were inclined to.
  3. The Outrage Machine Is Broken: A frightening possibility is that in a partisan world no one now cares about scandals of any sort. Could this be the Politicos that Cried Wolf? Could it be scandal fatigue? Fortunately even tacit examination of the media proves this isn't true: scandals are great viewing and the drama of the Christie press conference was hardly boring. Late night comedians love scandals and they wouldn't if they weren't funny. No, we still like scandals. We still like being outraged. But for some reason our current crop isn't cutting it.
So why doesn't anyone "care?"

The Real Reason: Charisma
Conservatives have 'forgotten' what they once all knew--the real, scary reason that no one cares about IRS-gate or Bridge-gate--or whatever is the same reason that no one (really) cared about Iran-Contra: Charisma. Both Christie and Obama have it--and it provides a distinct defense against allegations that are not carefully handled and properly documented.

Against a charismatic target you must prove your allegation beyond a shadow of a doubt. Not just a "reasonable doubt" (although, maybe--depending on your stretch of the term 'reasonable')--but you have to prove they did it. No smoking gun? The allegation-mud slides right off the teflon target.

There is also one other reason that people are less arsed about these scandals: they don't directly and internally empathize with the victims. In the Christie case we can sort of generally connect with people stuck in traffic. That's true--and they were innocent--but there were too many of them and no clear damage for us to hang our emotional hat on.

For the IRS scandal, it's even worse: the Tea Party has not done itself favors with its public relations activities and, worse, some of the organizations on the list (9/12 organizations, I am looking at you) are out-right whacko. When your organization is dedicated to blocking the world-controlling "Agenda 21" you (rightly) sound more like a tinfoil hat-fashion group than a patriotic movement.

Additionally, if people look closely at the IRS thing, it becomes clear that they were trying to get away with a loop-hole that everyone else was getting away with too ... or you have to buy into bizarro-world logic that the Tea Party groups were not really "political." The fact that everyone else was, in fact, getting away with the tax-status shenanigans (yes, yes, I hear there were some liberal groups on the list--not in significant numbers)  does make it scanalicious behavior to just target them ... but to think that it won't also erode some emotional sympathy is simply denial.

In short, there is a charisma gulf between the accused and the victims and with no hard evidence to breach it, it's simply not going to get traction with people who aren't already bent out of shape.

What Next?
The obvious question is: will something link Christie to the scandal directly. If it does, even his historic attempt at damage control (I swear I saw Olivia Pope in the background somewhere) probably won't save his rep. On the other hand, I doubt any such thing will come out: Christie is, if nothing else, probably careful enough not to put illegal directives in writing. 

Someone may accuse him--but it'll be he-said/she-said. If the apparently pending investigation uncovers misuse of campaign funds, again, that's not emotional fuel for most people ... but it'll certainly create for-real legal hassles.

For Obama, the outcome may be more mixed: the self-inflicted failure of Obamacare has hurt his telfon rep and that makes other scandals more likely to stick. While it seems unlikely there are still significant revelations out there for IRS-gate or Benhgazi, I suspect that the climate that created those will continue to find more scandals or semi-scandals--if not by his hand directly, in the massive Federal Government which, we can be sure, is doing something bad somewhere at any hour of the day. 

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