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Winter 1999

The Character Question
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Scandal is nothing new. Abuse of power and privilege has long been a rich subject for writers and storytellers -- a central subject in the Greek myths and Homer, in the Bible and from Shakespeare. And American history is replete with dirty dealings in high places, from Teapot Dome to Watergate. But scandals today, according to UCLA's Thomas G. Plate, seem to be far more frequent, persistent and visible. Those who behave badly now receive, for better or worse, much more attention than those who don't.

"All cultures have been interested, and are interested, in the fall of the gods," says Plate, an adjunct professor in the Department of Policy Studies and the Department of Communications Studies, a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times. "That is an element in the human condition and the human sensibility that hasn't changed. What has changed, at least it seems to me, is the omnipresence of the technological mass media. What used to be whispered or spread through word-of-mouth is now available instantaneously to millions of people."

With each new scandal, Plate added, the press and public's appetite grows, and the downward spiral away from issue-oriented reportage and toward scandal-dominated news accelerates. The trend may have begun after Watergate, when the Washington Post almost single-handedly brought down a sitting president. Investigative reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward became superstars and journalism overnight became a celebrated profession.

"Certainly since the '70s, the East Coast media has continued to look for another Watergate," Plate says. "But in doing so, it has all but disgraced itself. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the polls continually showed the public's disapproval with the way the story was being covered. But that didn't stop the press -- they continued to flex their muscles."

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