We have officially entered the “summer of the shark” phase of the Obama administration — where nearly any political event is liable to be swept up in the rip currents of the Beltway media’s favorite theme: scandal.
In the local news version of shark summers, one surfer gets bitten, then a swimmer nipped and before you know it, we’ve got ourselves a genuine epidemic of toothy menaces snacking on human bathers. Statistically, there may have been no more shark bites than any other summer, but the media temptation to create a narrative is nearly irresistible.
In politics, the already-brittle relationship between the Washington press corps and the Obama administration broke wide open when not one, not two, but three “scandals” got dorsal fins wagging.
First came Benghazi, the Republican-led, Fox News-fed and right-wing, blog-fueled conspiracy extravaganza born of a very real tragedy: the killing of four Americans in terrorist attacks on a CIA/diplomatic compound in Libya on Sept. 11, 2012. The GOP hoped to make Benghazi Obama’s Waterloo last November, culminating in the “please proceed, governor” moment during the second presidential debate when Mitt Romney parroted the false conservative talking point that the president had failed to call the attacks “terrorism.”
But it was a dramatic report by ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl that catapulted the story from the fever swamps of the right — where the dark theories ranged from the president leaving our diplomat in the region and his cohorts to die, to a nonexistent video feed to the White House — into the mainstream. Karl reported on May 10 that a White House deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, attempted to shape talking points for U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice’s appearances on the Sunday talk shows after the attacks, to give cover to the State Department (which, because it was led by potential presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the time, was a prime target of Republicans.)
When it turned out Karl’s bombshell was a bust, and the “exclusive emails obtained by ABC News” were really summaries of emails fed to him and The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes, with some creative license, by a Republican congressional source, Karl apologized for calling the summaries “emails,” but not for the bogus story itself.
Most of Karl’s media colleagues, already in the throes of outrage over scandal No. 2: the genuinely unnerving Justice Department seizure of phone records from the Associated Press as part of an investigation into who leaked (and blew) an operation to infiltrate al Qaida, have shrugged off the notion of a Republican member of Congress, or someone close to them, providing false information to a reporter in order to inject a fake scandal into the media bloodstream.
The third “scandal,” over the IRS scrutinizing applicants for tax-exempt status, in some cases by asking about their political activities and donors, and sifting through the sudden surge of 501(c)(4) requests by using key words like “tea party,” “patriots,” and “making America a better place to live,” was the one that really took off.
It turns out several tea party groups who got extra IRS attention did engage primarily in politicking during the 2012 election, including handing out Romney fliers, with a tax exemption tucked neatly under their belts, as belatedly reported this week by The New York Times. Fancy that. But in the first, thrilling days of the scandal hunt, reporters and members of Congress could hardly contain their enthusiasm for cuddling the tea party “victims,” and painting the White House, which no one has shown had anything to do with the bureaucratic bungling in Cincinnati, as Nixonian villains.
Maybe we’re all just bored.
Or perhaps we’ve lost our scandal perspective. After all, it’s tough to find a reporter who still remembers Iran Contra (selling arms to Iran to fund an illegal war in Nicaragua) or 16 Reagan administration officials, including Interior Secretary James Watt, convicted of rigging Department of Housing grants to favor Republican donors; or a half dozen Reagan EPA officials resigning en masse after it was revealed they had awkward ties to the industries they were regulating.
You know, scandals . . . I guess they just don’t make them like they used to.
That’s not to say the administration is without fault. They’ve got a ham-fisted way of dealing with negative news cycles that’s akin to waving a bandaged, bloody hand in a piranha tank.
But Washington’s scandal culture is doing little to reverse the cynicism of a public that increasingly sees its leaders feasting mindlessly on their political opponents, while the media gleefully chum the water.