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

9 responses to “Bridgegate: Thoughts on the Nature of Scandals”

  1. Benjamin Barron says:

    In line with your excellent point about the importance of whether the public buys it, however hard a scandal is being promoted, I think it’s critical that the alleged scandalous behavior reinforces the impression the public already has about the individual. And what supports that impression needs not be negative, either, which is why a scandal can really turn peoples’ evaluations of the person around.

    A lot of Christie’s early appeal lay in his straightforwardness in calling out those whom he felt were talking nonsense, like the woman who took him to task for sending his kids to private school, or those who complained about his associating publicly with Obama at the time of Sandy. But a tendency to slap down that seemed refreshing looks a lot different when innocent bystanders get hurt under that hand, like Fort Lee commuters and ambulance riders. And yet the allegation is more credible because of the characteristic that’s been observed, even if that characteristic was previously seen in a more favorable light.

    Richard Nixon and John Edwards spring to my mind quickly as two other examples of individuals who had obvious characteristics admired by many, yet which also made the allegations against them quickly believable to many of those same admirers.

    • shanen says:

      I very much disagree with the claim about “straightforwardness” as regards the woman reporter who asked him about his children. It was absolutely NOT “nonsense” to wonder if Christie had any personal stake in improving the public schools. Why should he care if public schools provide quality education or custodial care and preparation for future lives in prison as long as his own kids (and the kids of his wealthy supporters, of course) aren’t in those public schools?

      He was not “calling out” someone for nonsense. He wanted her name, he wanted to get in her face, and he wanted to intimidate or even threaten her or anyone like her who dared to ask awkward questions. This was the specific incident that convinced me he really is a mean-spirited bully and not just pretending to be one to appeal to the lowest of his supporters.

      The straightforward answer to her question was “No.”. The honest answer was “No, and too bad for you suckers who have to put your kids in those pre-prison prep schools I’m running.”

      • Benjamin Barron says:

        Shanen, I think your reply actually echoes my point, and that we agree rather than disagree. I used “straightforwardness” not to endorse Christie’s feeling that the woman’s criticism was “nonsense” — in fact, I personally agree with you that it wasn’t.

        Instead I was remembering the fact that a lot of people, at the time, expressed the feeling that it was refreshing to see a politician slap down a questioner who made him angry rather than trying to conceal how he felt. There were a lot of comments about his being “authentic” as an “in-your face Jerseyite.” Presumably, most of the people making those comments agreed with Christie’s views on her question.

        But as you point out, there’s a fine line at best, if there’s any at all, between what he did and bullying, and that had to register, at least subconsciously, with a lot of those who agreed with him on the issue at hand and and identified with his calling out the questioner. That prepared them, later when any substantive issue they agreed with him on was absent from the Bridgegate incident, to readily accept the allegation that the tie-ups were the result of Christie bullying rather than buying the alternatives he proffered.

  2. Tracey Anne Miller says:

    Great article! I have been caught in a scandal that is just now coming to fruition in our brain injury industry involving corruption in our legal/medical systems, along with workman’s compensation who perpetuates this in continuing to pay for below standard care resulting in harm of loved ones.. Aught to be interesting as we shed light into some of our darker corners of society in the abuse of our disabled.

    • Tracey Anne Miller says:

      How does one go about getting lawyers involved in Congressional hearings as was done back in 1992 in shutting down facilities in brain injury for exploitation of family members and insurance fraud? What transpired back then is still ongoing from a government oversight in allowing this to continue in my opinion and is partial cause of the rising of health care costs in the industry and insurance companies not paying for the services that are now proving to be beneficial. I would so appreciate some feed back on this. Thank you!

  3. Victor Grunden says:

    First and foremost, discussing a local traffic and political situation as a major scandal demonstrates two things, 1)how far we have slipped as a citizenry in our political acumen and concerns, and 2)news media coupled with overeagar prosecutors often create scandals. To me, the latter is often the greater scandal. Secondly, as a big rig driver I avoided the GWB if at all possible. If not, the local radio stations, 511 phone and CB radio would give traffic conditions. Since the GWB is part of the NY-NJ port and monitored by Homeland Security, I’ve never understood how the lane closures occurred in a vacuum and one state government official could arbitrarily take action without repercussions from all parties involved, including the toll workers. Most people, myself included, would blame NY, NJ, the Port Authority, but not a local mayor. So if that was the intent, it has to be one of the dumbest political moves ever conceived. Usually, the only charges filed are “lying under oath” when someone tries to conceal a politically embarrassing action. Somehow the “Bridgegate” scandal moved to Hurricane Sandy rebuilds and if misuse of funds occurred that is a scandal. To me, the tolls paid to cross the bridges, travel the toll roads on the East Coast and their condition is scandalous in itself. When I first heard the term Bridgegate, I thought it would be about kickbacks, overbilling or embezzlement. But, traffic jams? That’s just a part of life on the GWB and approaches and the current construction on GWB and Tappan Zee doesn’t help. For me, if this takes Christie out as a Presidential candidate, it is a good thing although costly taxpayers and may involve abuse of power.

  4. Dr. Al says:

    How may I get permission to re-send this article to a group of religious leaders in my denomination.

  5. kevinl4000 says:

    So… wait… Gov. Christie ordered the bridge closure (or concurred with it) and then went on TV denying he had anything to do with it? I’d like to see or hear the evidence on that. Otherwise it smells like smear by a political opponent.

    • shanen says:

      Mr Dean is not saying anything like that. The lesson the neo-GOP learned from Nixon (and Mr Dean knows a LOT about President Nixon) is that the guy at the top must NOT be told any of the dirty details. It isn’t even a matter of plausible deniability these days, it’s more a matter of dragging things out long enough for a pardon to be politically safe–as long as you were sure that the big boss would have approved your crimes. (In the worst case, you may have to settle for commutation and a pretty parachute, as in the case of the big dick Cheney’s buddy the convicted felon.)

      The joke version starts with “Do as I say, not as I do.” Today’s neo-GOP version (as they learned it from Nixon’s implosion) is “Do as I want, but don’t tell me about it.”