Frozen Scandal

I thought, “My God, she’s not going to get away with this.” But you have got away with it….
—Gethsemane

Scandal is our growth industry. Revelation of wrongdoing leads not to definitive investigation, punishment, and expiation but to more scandal. Permanent scandal. Frozen scandal. The weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist. The torture of detainees who remain forever detained. The firing of prosecutors which is forever investigated. These and other frozen scandals metastasize, ramify, self-replicate, clogging the cable news shows and the blogosphere and the bookstores. The titillating story that never ends, the pundit gabfest that never ceases, the gift that never stops giving: what is indestructible, irresolvable, unexpiatable is too valuable not to be made into a source of profit. Scandal, unpurged and unresolved, transcends political reality to become commercial fact.

We remember, many of us, a different time. However cynically we look to our political past, it is there that we find our political Eden: Vietnam and its domestic denouement, Watergate—the climax of a different time of scandal that ended a war and brought down a president. In retrospect those events unfold with the clear logic of utopian dream. First, revelation: intrepid journalists exposing the gaudy, interlocking crimes of the Nixon administration. Then, investigation: not just by the press—for that was but precursor, the necessary condition—but by Congress and the courts. Investigation, that is, by the polity, working through its institutions to construct a story of grim truth that citizens can in common accept. And finally expiation: the handing down of sentences, the politicians in shackles led off to jail, the orgy of public repentance. The exorcism of shame, the purging of the political system, and the return to a state, however imperfect, of societal grace.

It is a myth, of course, but a lovely one. It relies on images of power, the press, and the people that fit our collective longing—for justice, for heroism, and for ultimate goodness residing in a people who, once alerted to wrongdoing, insist on its rectification. The obstacle to this natural self-cleansing of our political life can only be the people’s ignorance. For if they know, and the corruption and scandals persist—well, how can the people be good? No, what must be missing then—so the myth implies—is clarity, revelation. What is missing is the gatekeepers of our ignorance whose duty it is to draw the curtain back from scandal and show the people everything, thereby starting the polity on the road to inexorable justice. Information is all. Information, together with the people’s natural sense of the good and the right, leads to expiation and society’s inevitable cleansing.

However tenaciously the mythmakers of our society—and especially journalists, who are after all the stars of this idealized drama—cling to this happy scenario, recent history has not been kind to it. For it rests on an image of journalists and journalism that has become, to put it …

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