Notes on a Pseudo-Scandal

OK folks, if you have the patience for some meta-blogging on the subject of Benghazi, let me share with you some of the thoughts that have been running around my head as I struggle with how to talk about this story. Whenever a topic like this comes up, you have to ask yourself a couple of questions. Do I have something worthwhile to contribute to this discussion? Is there something that needs to be said but hasn't been yet? Is this thing even worth talking about? Much as I'd like to be immune to the consideration of whether I'm doing a favor for those pushing the story for their own partisan ends by keeping the discussion going, it's hard to avoid that question popping into your head from time to time.

There's an objective reality out there, hard though it may sometimes be to discern—either there was or was not actual wrongdoing, and the whole matter is either trivial or momentous—but everyone's perception of that reality is formed within the context of a partisan competition. Irrespective of any facts, Democrats would like this story to just go away, and Republicans would like it to become The Worst Scandal In History. I'll be honest and say it's hard to avoid thinking about that when you're writing about it. Even doing something like refuting the latest crazy thing someone on the right is alleging does, to at least a small degree, help maintain the story's momentum.

To step back to the big picture, a "scandal" can proceed regardless of whether any wrongdoing is ever found. If you have your own media system, you can keep talking about it (combined with, always always always, accusations that the mainstream media are ignoring it not because of a reasonable news judgment but because of their liberal bias) until the mainstream media start doing their own reporting on it, pushing the story ahead. This is a routine conservative media are practiced at, and they seem to be having some success yet again. If you have control of one house of Congress, furthermore, you can start investigations and hold hearings, which may not uncover anything incriminating, but it creates news events and produces information, which can be spun to be something nefarious even if it's utterly mundane.

For instance, conservatives continue to froth at the mouth over whether a set of talking points the administration produced contained the words "terrorism" or "Islamic extremists" or "extremists," as though one answer means everything was above-board and another answer means there was a cover-up so sinister that impeaching the president is the obvious response. You may be shocked to learn that talking points on national security matters are routinely edited by representatives of different agencies! Or maybe you're not shocked, but just in case, Republicans are going to act as though it's shocking. If you're an Obama partisan, the fact that your opponents think that the key to the President's undoing will found in some Microsoft Word "track changes" should make you feel pretty secure, since those opponents are plainly a bunch of buffoons.

Trouble is, that may not stop the "scandal" from continuing to generate momentum. Brendan Nyhan just put out a paper in which he posits a theory of scandals, arguing that they are a "co-production" of the media and the opposition party. Specifically, the less popular a president is with the opposing party, the more likely a scandal is to emerge.11Other factors have an impact as well, including competing news stories, the time a president has been in office, and the time since the last scandal. This is essentially what Jamelle noted yesterday, that while there may not be much of a supply of actual Obama administration wrongdoing, the demand for scandal on the right is intense and unflagging. That demand is met by the conservative media, whose coverage pushes Republican lawmakers to get involved, which generates more coverage, which generates more demand in the Republican rank and file, and on and on.

I hesitate to even use the word "scandal" to describe Benghazi, because so far we haven't learned of anything scandalous anyone did. Conservatives themselves don't seem to be able to say exactly the Obama administration is supposed to have done wrong, particularly since lethal attacks on American diplomatic mission are a frequent occurrence, even under Republican administrations. "Talking points were edited to make the attack sound less terrorist-y" isn't exactly a high crime. "Some different decisions in those first chaotic hours might have made a difference" isn't much of an indictment either; that's always true of any tragedy. Yes, there are some people on the right who will speculate that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton actually said, "Go ahead and let those people in Benghazi die, because even though we could save their lives, doing so might harm our re-election, so screw 'em." But those people are obviously nuts, and everybody knows it.

It may well be that, as it was during the Clinton years, even many of the people pushing the alleged scandal realize there's not much to it, but they find political utility in keeping the president under siege. If he's worried about this, he'll have less time to devote to his other priorities. Spend tens of millions investigating a failed land deal, and even if you don't find that he did anything wrong there, maybe along the way you'll discover that he got a blow job from an intern.

As reluctant as I am to feed that beast, in the end I suspect they'll be punished for their obsession with Benghazi, assuming that they fail, just as they have so far, to uncover any actual wrongdoing. And that'll happen whether people like me write about it or not.

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