The Character Question
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is an increasing number of scandals appended with the suffix "gate"
-- the Clinton administration, alone, has given us Nannygate, Filegate,
Travelgate (neither Monicagate or Zippergate caught on). According
to Georgetown University professor Deborah Tannen, the average citizen
is now confronted with what she calls "scandal inflation," in which
smaller indiscretions -- the failure to pay social-security taxes
for domestic help, for example -- are equated with dangerous criminal
activities. In her latest book, The Argument Culture, Tannen cites
a CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll in which 44 percent of respondents describe
Watergate -- a White House scandal that included a string of felonies,
subversion of the judicial process and plans for actual terrorism
-- as no worse than any other political scandal before or since.
All of it is, according to the respondents, "just politics."
has happened since Watergate is that many journalists feel that
the best thing they can do for their careers is catch some prominent
person doing something they shouldn't," says Tannen, a linguist
whose previous books include You Just Don't Understand and Talking
from 9 to 5. "You might call it 'gotcha journalism.'"
Plate and Tannen emphasize their own support of aggressive investigative
journalism; neither want reporters to overlook wrongdoing. But Plate
and Tannen feel the media's emphasis on bringing down the mighty,
as opposed to exploring real-world issues, give short shrift to
the vast complexity of contemporary American life. The lack of balance
and dialogue in the scandal-driven brand of journalism, both agree,
threatens our democratic system.
prevalence and persistence of scandal as a front-page story is leading
to a weariness of the American people -- they are tired of scandal
and tired of the press," Plate says. "When is the last time you
remember a piece about a politician who was doing good work, who
was pressing for positive social change? The mass media is so steeped
in negativity that they have created a kind of psychosis of scandal,
where the only news is bad news."