< Forecasting Political Scandals


Friday, April 13, 2012

BOB GARFIELD:  This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. Last week the Obama administration got smacked with a scandal. Reports surfaced that members of the General Services Administration, a federal agency tasked with, among other duties, minimizing government costs, wasted 822,000 dollars on a conference in Las Vegas for 300 GSA workers. Among the expenses, a mentalist, a clown, $7,000 in sushi and, apparently, to wash down the raw fish, lots and lots of, of course, margaritas. In a video that circulated online, drunk GSA employees clutch cocktails and mangle Frank Sinatra songs.


Professor Brendan Nyhan teaches at Dartmouth College and studies political scandals. Before the GSA fiasco, he’d written that Obama had the longest streak of scandal-free coverage of any president he’d studied. But he thinks there will be plenty more to come. Brendan, welcome to On the Media.

BRENDAN NYHAN:  Thank you for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:  For the purposes of this conversation, what is the definition of a scandal?

BRENDAN NYHAN:  The definition of scandal I use in my research is a controversy that’s called a scandal in The Washington Post by the reporter themselves, so not quoting a source. And the story has to appear on the front page of The Post to insure that it’s a salient controversy. It’s – it’s a matter that The Post editors have decided is of high importance.

BOB GARFIELD:  That’s interesting because the GSA scandal is, in terms of cost to the taxpayer, obviously, quite trivial. Yes, 822,000 dollars is a lot to spend on [LAUGHS] a – on government employees conducting business. But it’s less than a rounding error on the budget of the Executive Branch. So it’s scandalous, why?

BRENDAN NYHAN:  Well, the argument that I’ve made is that the President is especially vulnerable to scandal when there aren’t many competing news stories. And I think the day the GSA scandal broke happened to be a relatively slow news day. So it’s in the period where Mitt Romney was assumed to be on his way to the Republican nomination, but Rick Santorum hadn’t yet dropped out. And there weren’t a lot of competing news stories.


So this controversy ends up being the lead story in The Washington Post, not just A1 but top-right. And that placement helped vault it into the national consciousness as a story, when on other days, if there were other more interesting or important stories in the news, it might have been buried and forgotten.

BOB GARFIELD:  But if that’s true, then Mitt Romney’s ascension as the presumptive Republican nominee for the presidency will create a news vacuum in the absence of any Republican primary campaigning that will be filled by other stories that rise to the level of scandal, even if the stakes are not particularly high.

BRENDAN NYHAN:  That’s right. There are going to be a lot of bored political reporters between now and the conventions who have to fill space, and there’s only so many content-free vice-presidential nomination stories you can file. So eventually, they’re going to turn their attention –


- to the Obama administration. One of the reasons that Obama has avoided scandal for so long, at least by the terms I use in my research is the economy’s been so bad that there’s been very little incentive for Republicans to push scandal allegations. But as the economy’s improved, that incentive has changed.

BOB GARFIELD:  Okay now, I’m going to do you a great favor here. I’m going to save you from criticism that your research is entirely premised on the idea that presidential scandals are a function of external factors, like the general news environment, than they are about the intrinsic worth of the story. You’re not saying, are you, that the intrinsic worth of the story is immaterial and that it’s just what else is going on the news that matters, are you?

BRENDAN NYHAN:  Absolutely not. And I appreciate you clarifying that and protecting my reputation. I’m not saying that the content of a scandal doesn’t matter. What I am saying is that on the margin the political and media context in which an allegation is made can make the difference between a controversy fizzling and going onto the front page. So context matters. It’s not the only factor.

BOB GARFIELD:  So let’s just assume for a moment that the President and nobody high in his administration has done anything that falls into the category of high crimes and misdemeanors for which, you know, the nation is going to be torn to pieces, but that there is more to come, per your prediction, any guesses as to what sort of thing is to come?

BRENDAN NYHAN:  If I had to guess, I would say something in the Executive Branch, like we’ve seen with the GSA scandal. The Executive Branch is so – huge that an enterprising reporter can probably find something, if they look hard enough. And if they dig into the GAO Reports or other investigations going on within the Federal government of itself.

BOB GARFIELD:  Or Inspectors General or something like that.

BRENDAN NYHAN:  That’s right. The government is a huge target when the President is held responsible for everything it does. So that seems like the most likely place to start, but it’s very hard to know. One of the things we’ve learned about scandals is they’re hard to anticipate, right? Who could have predicted Dick Morris and the toes incident or any of these other –


- things that pop up along the way.

BOB GARFIELD:  I see no need even to remind listeners what – that was all about. I think we’re just going to let that pass.

BRENDAN NYHAN:  Yes, that’s what Google is for, I guess.

BOB GARFIELD:  Google it. [LAUGHS] Brendan, thank you very much.

BRENDAN NYHAN:  Thank you for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:  Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of political science at Dartmouth College.


Brendan Nyhan

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