That Elusive Outrage

The media are reporting plenty of scandals, but no one seems to care.

This year, I've been a regular guest on KUOW-FM's Weekday. On Friday mornings, host Steve Scher gathers a group of columnists—usually Susan Paynter from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Danny Westneat from The Seattle Times, and me—to review the week's news. It's a call-in show, and the public radio station's listeners set the agenda. Via phone and e-mail, they tell us what they think the big stories of the week are and why.

Frequently, though, the topic is what the week's big stories aren't. A good example: Why aren't the mainstream media covering the Downing Street memo? The Downing Street memo is a secret document prepared for the British government that offers evidence of high-level American manipulation and deceit in the run-up to the Iraq war. It suggests that the U.S. knowingly lied and manipulated intelligence to get support to attack Iraq.

The mainstream media have not ignored the Downing Street memo; in fact, the mainstream media are why we know about it. It was first published in the London Times in early May, a paper owned by corporate magnate Rupert Murdoch, who also owns the odious U.S. Fox News Channel. You can argue that the mainstream media— especially the White House press corps(e)—have been slow and incurious about the implications of the memo, as Geov Parrish did last week (see "Memo to Mainstream Media," June 8). I generally agree. But let's give credit where credit is due: Score one for the right-wing robber baron of the mainstream media.

But the radio listeners are upset at something else: that the American public doesn't share their outrage.

"Where's the outrage?" is a question you often hear from right and left. For the right, that was their cry during the Clinton years, when they were baffled that much of the American public didn't share their belief that Bill and Hillary were corrupt. You hear it echoed by angry local Republicans who are certain that Dino Rossi is not governor because of King County election "fraud."

On the left, liberals are enraged that Dubya isn't being called to account. The Carpetbagger Report blog ( recently listed a litany of Bush scandal stories, all reported in just the previous week. They included accounts of an administration official (since resigned) who was rewriting reports to downplay global warming; an Interior Department plan to overpay a major GOP donor for oil and gas rights; a damning Pentagon inspector general's report on the Boeing tanker scandal; documents indicating Bush caved on the Kyoto treaty after pressure from ExxonMobil; and the Justice Department slashing its settlement demands by billions of dollars in a big tobacco case. The list didn't even include the monstrous revelation that Guantánamo detainees were being tortured with Christina Aguilera's music!

A lesser administration—Jimmy Carter's or Gerald Ford's—might have been on its knees. But on the bright side, the list offers evidence that some of the media are doing their job. I think what upsets partisans is why these stories don't get more traction with the public. Why isn't everyone scandalized by what you or I find scandalous?

I think there are a lot of reasons scandals have lost some punch:

Scandal creep. One of Watergate's legacies was that it left my generation of journalists convinced that everything was a scandal of impeachable proportions. There is a tendency to tab too many things a "scandal." Scandal creep may be a major contributor to scandal fatigue.

People are too jaded. Another Watergate legacy is cynicism, the sense that everything is so corrupt, including the media, that we'll never know the truth about anything, so who cares?

The press is too jaded. So jaded, we're even suspicious of our own motives. This can lead to editors and producers distrusting their instincts and taking too many cues from the competition or the circulation department. This can result in overhyping scandals or ignoring real ones because they require too much reporting and repetition.

Ongoing smears. As a modern political tactic, today's scandals are forever. Frequently generated by partisans, not the media, they constitute an endless ground war (see the Swiftboating of John Kerry or the upcoming hatchet job on Hillary). Operatives peddle all sleaze all the time, and real scandal can get lost—and people can tune out.

Niching of media. People are increasingly attracted to media that reflect their own views. One channel's mountain is another's molehill. If you become used to being told only what you want to hear, it's easy to forget that many others may feel very differently about your favorite scandal.

Fewer authoritative sources. There are fewer media outlets imbued with old-fashioned authority. As audiences fragment, the big media no longer speak to a credulous center. Without them, who is left to be moved? When Time magazine and Walter Cronkite's CBS audience shifted on Vietnam, the country felt it. Now those middle-American folks are watching 100 different channels and can be moved only in smaller increments, if at all.

I once talked to an editor whose magazine had broken a major local scandal. I asked him how it felt. Instead of saying he was a cocky, proud David who had brought down Goliath, he said it felt "like I was screaming into a hole in the ground." I know exactly how he felt. I've been frustrated from time to time that a "scandal" we reported seemed to fall on deaf ears. It sounds like now the citizenry is getting a taste of what that feels like.

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