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May 05, 2011


Congratulations on the paper, Brendan. I'm not qualified to comment on it. However, since you solicited comments, here are a couple of thoughts for what they're worth about scandals in general.

It would be very difficult to make an objective, quantitative evaluation of how bad an event was that gave rise to a scandal (or didn't give rise to a scandal.) However, I think that's an important consideration. E.g., regarding the Bush administration’s connections to Enron and tactics during the 2000 Florida recount, neither turned into a scandal, because IMHO both sets of accusations had no factual basis. OTOH the John Edwards scandal persisted because there was a factual basis, and it was pretty easily discoverable.

Secondly, I think the media can play a huge role, even in the absence of opposition party activity. The quintessential example was the yellow journalism of the Hearst papers. They ran article after article in a way that helped drive us into the Spanish-American War.

Today, we sometimes have seen that kind of yellow journalism from the New York Times. They (and other media) successfully made Abu Graib an enormous scandal, even though the misdeeds at Abu Graib were far from the worst misdeeds alleged in Iraq. E.g., some American soldiers were accused of multiple murders, yet those cases got less attention than Abu Graib. As I recall, the Times had 40 or more articles about Abu Graib -- many more than were warranted by the facts.

The Times (and other media) succeeded in making the Duke rape accusation case a scandal. We now know that the accusations were total fabrications. IMHO it should have been obvious at the time that the accusations were extremely flimsy at best. Nevertheless, the Times and other media ruined the reputation of three innocent Duke lacrosse players and almost helped railroad them into long prison sentences. Duke University has already paid many millions of dollars in settlements on these false accusations. The City of Durham and Duke are likely to pay many more millions from a pending lawsuit. In a way, it's too bad that it's so difficult to sue a newspaper, because the Times' was also very negligent.

Fortunately, the Times' yellow journalism doesn't always succeed. They tried and failed to make it a scandal that a major golf tournament was conducted at a men-only golf club. They ran a huge number of articles about women not being accepted as members of the club, but they couldn't make that into a scandal. Instead, that paper was ridiculed for its campaign.

Though the Times's Augusta coverage was, I think, not the type of scandal Brendan has written about, it was highly entertaining. The effort to keep the story alive, driven by Executive Editor Howell Raines, reached its absurdist apex when the Times ran a 1500-word story (starting on the front page if memory serves) headlined, "CBS Staying Silent in Debate On Women Joining Augusta." Comedy gold!

Jack Shafer of Slate has further details.

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