Scandal! Oh, Nevermind

As the general election dawns, a few fewer -Gates, please!

This is Part One of a series on the start of the 2008 presidential election’s general campaign. See the accompanying graphic here. Links to the rest of the series can be found at the bottom of the article.

On Thursday, March 20, big news broke: Barack Obama’s passport file at the State Department had been breached, on three separate occasions. By Friday morning, we’d learned that Hillary Clinton’s and John McCain’s files had been breached, as well.

The State Department chalked each case up to “imprudent curiosity” on the part of three different low-level employees. Ho-hum. Yet a State representative, discussing the breach in a conference call with reporters on Thursday evening, also assured them, “We are not being dismissive of any other possibility.” Any other possibility, he very vaguely suggested, being that the break-in may have been politically motivated. That the breach may have had the makings of Watergate II.

Wow! Watergate II? How exciting!

Per the possibility—if not the proof—of Scandal, the Huffington Post gave news of the breach a rare banner headline. So did the Drudge Report. On TV on Thursday night, MSNBC ran “special coverage” of Passport-gate. “Breaking News” chyrons, interrupting normally scheduled newscasts, shared the sparse-but-dramatic details of the breach. That night’s Countdown dedicated itself almost wholly to Passport-gate, with Keith Olbermann promising “full coverage of all angles of this developing story this hour.” So urgent was the desire for new information that Andrea Mitchell, guesting on Verdict with Dan Abrams, talked to the camera as she held a phone to her ear, listening in on the conference call with the State spokesman, promising to share new details about the breach as soon as she learned them. Abrams, for his part—using the low-octave and vaguely conspiratorial tones suggestive of Scandal—filled the air by assuring us that Passport-gate “is really an amazing story.”

But, um, wait a second, you might be thinking to yourself, sheepishly. Passport-gate? I don’t remember that one at all…

Well, don’t start questioning your Political Junkie Cred just yet. Because the Huge Scandal, the one that interrupted newscasts and consumed our attention with all its Dramatic Possibilities, didn’t even make it through the weekend. The Scandal element of Passport-gate effectively ended on Saturday, March 22, when The New York Times ran a front-page, 982-word story on the breach—which framed the break-ins not as political snooping, but as, simply, “an embarrassing revelation” for the State Department, which had failed to make the breaches public on its own accord. The scandal’s tempest, brewed in the teapot of the cable pundit shows on Thursday night, had fizzled. Just kidding! most of the media might have said, had they corrected the record rather than simply change the subject and move on. Watergate Redux, such as it was, had no legs.

The phantom limbs of the scandal-that-wasn’t offer some insight into the many—many—Scandals That Were in the 2008 primary season. As Passport-gate’s coverage made all too clear, the appendage of “-gate” to all manner of political minutiae, both metaphorically and literally, is, at this point, basically a matter of nervous impulse on the part of a Drama-loving media. (Obama doesn’t know what Yuengling is? Gate! Clinton showed a millimeter of cleavage while speaking on the Senate floor? Gate! There’s a picture of Obama wearing a Somali turban? Gate!)

The knee-jerk Gate-ization of campaign-trail developments—perpetrated in particular by everyone’s favorite media villain, the twenty-four hour cable news networks—may be attributed, in part, to a media-specific strain of social Darwinism: technology having lifted the barriers to participation in the political conversation, the competition for audiences’ eyes and ears has both expanded and, paradoxically, become more crowded. Which leads to increased desperation to entice audiences, which leads to increased focus on melodrama, which leads to a heightened tendency to spice even the most banal of political events with a sprinkling of Scandal. The circle of life, and all that.

To the extent that journalists are storytellers as much as they are purveyors of information, this focus on drama and conflict makes perfect sense: journalism’s audiences aren’t just Citizens Of A Democratic Society Who Rely On Rigorous Reporting To Make Informed Decisions About That Society. We’re also, simply, consumers who love a juicy scandal. All the drama keeps us emotionally engaged in our politics. Broccoli, like most things, tastes better with cheese.

And yet. There comes a point, of course, when tastiness and goodness stop being one and the same—when the incentive of added flavor begins to compromise nutritional value. And many—most—of the scandals we’ve seen in the 2008 primary season have crossed that line.

Yet some Gates do have legs—see Bitter-gate, Wright-gate, NAFTA-gate, etc. And most of those have deserved their scandalous classification not just ipso facto, but because they force us into discussions of topics—race, gender, class, what it really means to be “patriotic”—that are in need of frank discussion. Wright-gate, after all, isn’t really about Jeremiah Wright; it is about the relationship of patriotism to dissent, the line between race and religion. Arugula-gate isn’t really about spicy greens; it is about elitism, and the complex (and often hypocritical) ideas and assumptions wrapped up in that word. Dramatizing our scandals isn’t always a mere gambit for ears and eyeballs; sometimes the shorthand of scandal provides a helpful vehicle for the discussion of otherwise awkward topics. In that sense, our teapot-tempests can be blessings in the guise of melodrama. Not all Gates are created equal.

As we move into the general election, here’s hoping that our Gate-ed community gets a little less crowded, and that we find more important things to get all worked up about. Toward that end, in the coming days will publish a series called The Turning Point, which will spotlight fertile and important terrain for the press to plow in the months leading up to November. From Supreme Court appointees to immigration to energy, there are substantial differences between the policies John McCain supports and those supported by Barack Obama, and voters need the press to parse and explain those differences and what they mean for the nation and the world. After a Democratic primary between two candidates whose policy positions differed very little—leaving the press to manufacture drama and run with it—it’s time to tuck in.

But before moving on to the work at hand, and inspired by New York magazine’s Approval Matrix, we give you our 2008 Primary Season’s Gate-rix: your one-stop guide to the Scandals That Were—and the Scandals That Shouldn’t Have Been—during the primary phase of the presidential election. Enjoy.

[click here for a larger version]

Turning Point:

Part One: Scandal! Oh, Nevermind

Part Two:Let’s get serious

Part Three:The Supreme Court

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.