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Winter 1999

The Character Question
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A by-product 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."

"What 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.'"

Both 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.

"The 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."

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