< The Three-Headed Scandal Monster


Friday, May 24, 2013

ANDREA TANTAROS:  When Brian Williams is talking Watergate, Jon Stewart stops covering for you, and even tax cheat Charlie Rangel won’t stick up for you, things are not looking good at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  So why hasn’t it affected the President’s approval ratings? From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media.

I'm Brooke Gladstone.

A cell phone video of Toronto’s mayor allegedly smoking crack has dominated Canadian news this week, but only three journalists have actually seen it.

ROBYN DOOLITTLE:  Then, you know, about 90 seconds in the phone rings and he looks right at the camera and says, “That better not be on” and then it shuts off.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Plus, a group of Catholic priests and nuns are blowing the whistle on sexual abuse in the Church. One of the founding members is a very determined Brooklyn nun.

SR. SALLY BUTLER:  I’m just sick of waiting.


SR. SALLY BUTLER:  Very impatient [LAUGHS], yes. But, I mean, I’ve been waiting for 20 years. [LAUGHS]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  All that and more on this week’s On the Media.



BROOKE GLADSTONE:  From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

JOE SCARBOROUGH:  I’ve never seen anything like this in my 18 years covering tornadoes here in Oklahoma City. This is, without question, the most horrific – I’ve never seen –



BROOKE GLADSTONE:  For a little while, the Oklahoma tornado sucked the oxygen from the firestorm of coverage of what's been portrayed as the three-headed scandal monster that's plaguing the White House. That’s the impact of devastating weather. At once mysterious and straightforward, personal and public, it commands coverage. And the media can do a good job just by showing up. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin:

GOVERNOR MARY FALLIN:  I want to say thank you so very much to the media. The media has done a superb job over the last couple of days of keeping people informed….

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  But the monster roared back. The IRS scandal centers on a feckless, unsupervised, overworked office in Cleveland tasked with assessing a group's nonprofit status. That office targeted Tea Party groups with intrusive questionnaires and long delays. The IRS Chief, later fired, said that the profiling wasn’t political. Keywords were used to shortcut the process. And it turns out some liberal groups with “progress” in their names were mistreated too. But eggs still splashed copiously over the face of the IRS and the President. Here's Fox News’ Andrea Tantaros:

ANDREA TANTAROS:  When Brian Williams is talking Watergate, Jon Stewart stops covering for you and even tax cheat Charlie Rangel won’t stick up for you, things are not looking good at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  True, Democrats and the media have embraced the IRS story but conservative legislators and commentators have really put pedal to the metal in pressing the charge that the administration lied, or worse, in connection with last September's attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi. The most extreme view holds that the President ignored warnings that could have saved four American lives because it was election season and he'd have to admit al Qaeda was still a threat. That's the take of retired Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters.

LT. COL. RALPH PETERS:  This O – the Obama administration in this case was cowardly, duplicitous and they sacrificed American lives for politics.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Fox News showcased that view, as well as the claim that soon after the attacks the White House edited out of its talking points all references to al Qaeda. Some objected to the President not calling it terrorism. He did call it an “act of terror” but apparently that's not the same thing. On such minutia this scandal has revolved. But it didn’t get much traction until ABC reporter Jonathan Karl leapt in with an exclusive report about the government's talking points.

JONATHAN KARL:  I have obtained 12 different versions of those talking points that shows they were dramatically edited by the administration. Take a look at two of them: on the left, a draft initially written by the CIA, on the right one that was used by the White House, the final version. What was taken out? All references to al Qaeda and all references to CIA warnings before the attack about the terror threat in Benghazi.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Even more important than those 12 versions was Karl’s proof that they had been rewritten by the White House, proof supplied by an email about the talking points by White House Aide Ben Rhodes. Karl quotes the smoking sentence, which read, “We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department,” the implication being that the White House itself intervened to shape the narrative for political advantage.

ALEX SEITZ-WALD:  I think you can't overstate the importance of Jon Karl’s report.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon’s political reporter.

ALEX SEITZ-WALD:  That report catapulted to the top of the news cycle. It became the biggest issue in Congress. The White House was rocked back on its heels. They held a series of deep background calls with reporters to try to spin the narrative again. And it forced them to eventually release the entire 100 pages of emails the next week, which they had said for weeks and weeks and months they were not going to do. So this was a really explosive report, and it turned out to be wrong.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  It turned out Karl only had a summary of the Rhodes email, leaked by a Republican staffer, not the email itself. The actual email didn't mention the State Department or even talking points. All Rhodes, the White House guy, wrote was, quote, “We need to resolve this in a way that respects all relevant entities, particularly the investigation.”

ALEX SEITZ-WALD:  That one email was what showed that the White House was being political, was being nefarious, was trying to massage the narrative and once you remove that, the entire story falls apart.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Whether Karl’s source made a mistake or intended mischief, we’ll never know. But the ensuing brouhaha spurred Karl to send a statement to CNN's Howie Kurtz. Why him?

We’ll never know, but he read it.

HOWIE KURTZ:  “I regret the email was quoted incorrectly, and I regret that it’s become a distraction from the story, which still entirely stands. I should have been clearer about the attribution.”

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  By which Karl means he and his network shouldn't have lied about it, which provides a sort of segway to scandal number three, the threat to journalism. First, the Justice Department, investigating a leak, obtained the phone records of the Associated Press, and then in another probe got phone records for Fox News and its reporter James Rosen. In the course of getting the information it sought, the investigators labeled him an aider and abettor and/or co-conspirator in an espionage case involving an intelligence leak on North Korea's nuclear program. Court documents filed in the prosecution of Rosen's alleged State Department source included what appear be at least five Fox News phone numbers and Rosen's parents’ number in Staten Island. This is the scandal that most seems to outrage journalists. Here’s Cokie Roberts, with Joe Scarborough on MSNBC's Morning Joe.


COKIE ROBERTS:  This reporter being prosecuted for what? Apparently for –

JOE SCARBOROUGH:  For, for what?

COKIE ROBERTS:  Apparently for – apparently for receiving stolen information, like he's a fence or something - stolen property.

JOE SCARBOROUGH:  So are you – this is –

COKIE ROBERTS:  So it is, it is –

JOE SCARBOROUGH:  This is Daniel Ellsberg –

COKIE ROBERTS:  Right, it’s basically –

JOE SCARBOROUGH:  - like 40 years later. I’m – I, I –

COKIE ROBERTS:  He’s basically being prosecuted for - if he is prosecuted - for doing his job. This is something that is – that has unified Democrats and Republicans on MSNBC and Fox.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  The Justice Department denied it tracked Rosen's parents’ calls and says it doesn't plan to prosecute Rosen. It has acknowledged reading Rosen's emails. The President said Thursday that the Justice Department will review its policy for investigating media leaks so that journalists are not at legal risk for doing their jobs. But all this sent a chill through news outlets, reporters and sources and, in the long run, that’s not good for the public… like it cares!

CARROLL DOHERTY:  Well, I mean, Washington scandals don't attract a lot of interest, for the most part.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Carroll Doherty, of the Pew Research Center, which conducted a poll between May 16th and 19th, found that only about a quarter of respondents were closely following the Benghazi and IRS scandals and only 16 percent cared about the DOJ’s subpoenas of AP phone records. The wall-to-wall coverage of the affair between President Bill Clinton and intern Monica Lewinsky and the ensuing impeachment inspired much more interest, but also contempt. According to Gallup, three-quarters of the public said that the coverage was way overblown.

CARROLL DOHERTY:  I mean, in fact, Clinton's approval rating went up famously through the impeachment scandal, and it was one reason why, you know, that, that the Republicans themselves were accused of overreaching on it. But in this case, so far, and the emphasis is on “so far,” there’s been no apparent effect on Obama's job approval rating.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  The public cares about the economy. Even during those polling days in May when economic news was scarce, it beat the scandals. And the perception is the economy is getting a little better.

PROFESSOR BRENDAN NYHAN:  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 allegation. But as the economy’s improved, that incentive has changed.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  That's Dartmouth Political Science Professor Brendan Nyhan, back in 2012. He defines scandal as, quote, “a socially constructed event in which the pundit class decides that a public figure has acted in a manner that contravenes established moral, political or procedural norms.” In other words, a news anchor calls something a scandal without quotes, a newspaper puts it in a headline and it's a scandal because we say it is.


Of course, some scandals are real. They’re huge, they’re news. Not every scandal is made up. The content matters. But:

PROFESSOR BRENDAN NYHAN:  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.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  In the meantime, as current scandals lose their “new car smell” the people who write and the people who speak, especially on MSNBC, are nominating their own.


KRYSTAL BALL:  There is a real scandal this week. We learned that for the second time in two weeks, a military member who was specifically tasked with preventing sexual assault in the military had himself been charged with sexual assault.

LAWRENCE O’DONNELL:  Any organization with the name of a political party in its title, from Democratic Party to the Tea Party to the Socialist Workers Party, every single such application should have been rejected for 501(c(4) status as a matter of law. The real scandal here is not that those applications were delayed but that they were ever approved.

AL SHARPTON:  You’ve got to hand it to the Republicans. In a week when they’ve obsessed over scandals, they’ve managed to miss an actual scandal! That’s their 37th vote to repeal the President’s health care law.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  But the right is in on it too. The real scandal, suggested Chuck Bentley in the Washington Post, is

unbridled government spending, which he dubbed “profligate.” The real scandal, wrote the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol, is the Obama administration, which, quote, “degrades popular self-government and embraces American decline.” The real scandal, wrote Washington Times columnist Jeffrey Kuhner, is the President himself, quote, “a political thug masquerading as a progressive reformer.” Hey, try it yourself. It’s fun. No, it isn’t.


The real scandal, of course, is that on Capitol Hill scandal mongering masquerades as righteousness and marinates us all – in muck.


BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Coming up, talking about whistleblowing on pedophile priests, with a Dominican sister who’s fought church stonewalling for decades.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  Have you ever thought of leaving the Church?

SR. SALLY BUTLER:  The Church – no, the Church is mine. They should leave.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  This is On the Media. 


Carroll Doherty, Brendan Nyhan and Alex Seitz-Wald