Bridgegate: Thoughts on the Nature of Scandals

Posted in: Politics

Several people have mentioned to me that the “Bridgegate scandal” appears to have lost its legs. One person noted that Chris Christie was not asked a single question about it at his recent New Jersey town hall. Another pointed out that, first the unusually bad East Coast weather, and then the winter Olympics in Sochi had largely pushed the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal from serious news coverage.

Then a friend who knows that I am something of a student of scandals told me that Christie should send a thank-you note to Vladimir Putin for his headline-hogging power play in the Crimea, since it may replace the scandal plaguing him. As I explained to my friend what was happening, it occurred that I might share these thoughts with others.

Bridgegate is not only far from over; it is just getting started. Understanding how scandals work might be helpful information. Not only are scandals fascinating events, they occur regularly. I must note at the outset that while I have a shelf filled with studies on scandal, my longtime bible is John B. Thompson’s Political Scandal: Power And Visibility In The Media Age. As I told Professor Thompson, a Cambridge sociologist, some years ago, his research and analysis go way beyond academic inquiry, for he has developed a real-world matrix.

Types of Scandals

Scandal has been defined as “an occurrence in which people are shocked and upset because of behavior that is morally or legally wrong,” or as “a disgraceful or discreditable action.” Even more broadly, scandalous activities are those which society finds reprehensible and unacceptable.

Some sandals, however, are more scandalous than others. In other words, not all scandals are equal, for some attract little—or only local if any—attention, while others find a global audience. For example, former teacher Mary Kay Letourneau’s affair with her twelve-year-old student became a world-wide media story, although both male and female teachers are arrested with remarkable regularity for similar offenses, which never become more than a local story.

Scandalous behavior occurs every day, if not every hour of the day, but not all such behavior becomes recognized as a scandal. The distinguishing feature in scandals is twofold: (1) When morally or legally wrong behavior, or disgraceful or discreditable actions attracts media attention, the conduct is reported and addressed in newspapers, radio, on television and on the Internet, the scandal takes on a different dimension. It has become a mediated scandal. (2) When that mediated scandal includes what we consider to be the mainstream media, it reaches a wide audience, and it can go viral, thus becoming a lead story.

When a scandal goes viral, it means that the general public has become interested in it, if not intrigued by it. The story has become part of the public conversation. This, in turn, means that media outlets will put more resources into reporting the story, and compete with others to get more information, because the story is selling newspapers, or attracting viewers, which makes it profitable reporting. Increased reporting means that the scandal will begin feeding on itself as it feeds the interests of others, those curious about who did what and why and how it will all end.

Stages of Scandals

While I have seen other breakdowns of the stages, Professor Thompson’s four main phases for a mediated scandal succinctly set forth the typically recurring stages of most high profile scandals: (1) Pre-Scandal; (2) Scandal; (3) Culmination; and (4) Aftermath. This, indeed, is the way all the major scandals I have looked at play out, time and again. Let me explain each with examples.

Pre-Scandal: Thompson notes that a mediated scandal does not begin with the offending behavior itself, rather with the public allegation of such conduct, or its disclosure. Thus, the Lewinsky Affair scandal did not begin with President Bill Clinton’s liaisons with his young intern, rather when the information became public. Similarly, Bridgegate did not begin when Governor Christie’s aide engineered a retributive multiday traffic jam, but when this fact became public.

Scandal: Thompson explains that the “scandal proper begins with the public disclosure” of the offending conduct, which, in turn, results in “the process of claim and counter-claim” which is the stuff of a scandal. Thompson finds that the mediate scandal “is literally played out in the media.” The media frames the story, and the key characters. Allegations are met with denials. It becomes unclear how the battle will unfold, as those involved try to deny their involvement, plug leaks, or hide with the hope the story will go away, and accuse journalists of muckraking and unethical conduct hoping to gain the better in public opinion. Remember Enron, how Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling (falsely) denied charges and (falsely) accused the media. This, of course, is where we still are with Bridgegate, with federal and state prosecutors still actively investigating the scandal, as well as a special committee of the New Jersey legislature. This scandal has just started.

Culmination: Thompson describes the culmination, “or denouement,” as the time when the scandal is finally brought to a head. This may be an admission of guilt, a resignation, a firing, or a criminal prosecution. These can often play out in courtrooms or televised hearings, and even impeachment proceedings, as happed with Nixon and Clinton. But Thompson points out the culmination can also end with a whimper, no resignation, no admission, no trial, simply growing public disinterest until the scandal peters out. It is my observation that seldom do high profile scandals end with a whimper, however.

Aftermath: Thompson reports the final phase follows the denouement, when the drama inherent in the scandal has passed, and the speculative uncertainty of the story gone. This is when the players involved, those who sought to uncover, report and punish those involved in misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance, if not those involved in the offending conduct, as well as students of the scandal, reflect on what has occurred and its lasting implications, if any. We are a long way from understanding Bridgegate, not to mention reflecting on it.

Thoughts on Bridgegate

Bridgegate is a mediate scandal which has gone viral. Few scandals that have gone viral is the protagonist, here Governor Christie, vindicated. Highly mediated scandals become so for a reason. Public interest that drives these scandals occurs because the public senses, notwithstanding vehement denials by the protagonist(s), that the charges underlying the scandal have merit. The public wants to see how the perceived guilty culprit(s) deal with the spotlighted scrutiny in which they have been placed. Rarely is this public instinct wrong.

Recall, if you will, how conservatives tried mightily to make Whitewater into a Clinton scandal, but the public did not buy it. Similarly, Republicans have tried to make Benghazi and IRS into scandals, but they can only convince the rightwing ideologues. Like obscenity, most thinking people know a true scandal when it arises.

Long before Governor Christie’s thank you note could find its way to Putin, the Bridgegate story will be back in the headlines, as we continue with stage (2). This is a real mediated scandal in progress. If I were a gambling man, I would bet on the wisdom of the crowd that has made this story a scandal, which means it is not going to end well for Chris Christie.

Posted in: Politics