When There Is No There There

Scandals are so hot right now – it seems bizarre to think that anyone in the media has an incentive to pass up an opportunity to report one of them.

However, Roy Unz details several scandals or rather incidents of non-scandal in “Our American Pravda.” Unz alleges that the media has ignored their investigative role in the cases of the 2001 anthrax mailings, John McCain’s role in covering up the Nixon administration’s decision to abandon Vietnam POWs, and claims that a State Department official sold nuclear weapons secrets. To Unz, the lack of attention paid to these cases is a sign of media failure.

I can’t hold myself out as an expert in any of these cases, but the broad argument of media failure seems flawed. Unz conflates attention paid by investigative reporters with coverage. Unz blames the lack of coverage in these cases of government “disasters” on “bipartisan” concerns over blame. Neither of these claims hold up under scrutiny.

Lack of headlines shouldn’t be used as a measure for investigative attention because media outlets face a file drawer problem similar to the one that affects scientific researchers. When allegations are in the news and facts are still unfolding, any information either damning or exonerating an official can be worth announcing. But when investigations are aimed at older issues, the failure to uncover information is a kind of null result. And the absence of news which might change public perception of a politician or an administration probably won’t result in three inch headlines. The lack of new findings even after a considerable allocation of investigative resources might result in no headlines at all.

If the media sleeps, do politicians as well?. My friend and co-author Brendan Nyhan argues that scandals are a “co-production” of the media and the party likely to benefit from the tarnished reputation of their rival. While it seems likely that bipartisan culpability could play a role in dampening media attention paid to a scandal, it’s hard to imagine ambitious politicians willing to ignore an opportunity to pin blame on their rivals. Few who look at US political elites today see much bipartisanship.

These particular three cases of government “disasters” singled out by Unz for further investigation don’t appear to be welcoming to bipartisan cover-ups. Each case involves allegations against Republican administrations (one for Nixon’s, two for Bush’s) which arose (and were allegedly ignored by the media) during 2008. A year featuring intense campaigns and a Congress controlled by Democrats doesn’t strike me as a period likely to generate a quiet bipartisanship favoring the G.O.P. Instead, the 2008 presidential campaign season seems like it would have been a good time for Democrats to heap any and all insults against the opposition, particularly when one of the targets is not a rank-and-file Republican, but the party’s candidate for president. Would Unz have us believe that the much heralded Obama 2008 campaign failed at opposition research? Or that David Axelrod & Co. weren’t playing to win?

I don’t mean to suggest I have complete faith in the ability of the media-partisan-scandal complex to investigate every possible failing of government and certainly some incidents may deserve more media attention than they get. But it’s hard to say how much reporting attention an incident has already received based on claims of missing coverage. And the timing involved in this particular set of cases requires heroic assumptions about profit motives and political ambitions. Tyler Cowen writes, “Maybe some parts of this essay are totally, completely wrong, so I urge you to read it with caution…. [as] a situation [which] can look ‘very guilty’ even if perhaps it is not.” To make this situation look “very guilty” one needs a model with a very peculiar set of incentives: a variety of media outlets must have been willing to forego potential gains from increased ratings following scandal coverage and many Democrats would have had to pass-up potential gains at the polls from the public airings of Republican mistakes.


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