Why Washington feeding frenzies aren't what they used to be.
Of course the most entertaining and explosive scandals involve sex, which reporters and pundits will ride all day and night. But you’ve got to give them something to work with. As far as we know, the president, the vice president, the top White House staff, and the Cabinet members are either committed family men and women or single. Nowadays you need flagrant adultery— or Anthony Weiner-style weirdness—to get some traction with sex. Barack Obama and an intern? Highly unlikely. The first lady would kill him, cover it up, look fabulous at the state funeral—and no one would be any the wiser.
THE OVER-THE-TOP-OVERSIGHT THEORY
When scandals aren’t about sex, they’re usually about money. In Obama’s Washington, the real money is in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), better known (to the dismay of the White House) as “the stimulus.” The stimulus totaled more than $787 billion, an enormous sum and far more in constant dollars than Franklin Roosevelt spent in his first year in office. But where FDR’s early New Deal spending programs were so wasteful that a word was coined for them—“boondoggles”—Obama’s stimulus, while much maligned for not producing more jobs, has been astonishingly clean so far.
The explanation lies in two complementary areas: tough management and transparency. Obama assigned Vice President Biden responsibility for supervising the stimulus, and Biden has performed well, working closely with Earl Devaney, who runs the ARRA oversight. Devaney is a former Secret Service agent and crimebusting investigator for Treasury, Interior, and the EPA who helped put Jack Abramoff away. His Recovery Board includes twelve fellow inspectors general (with seventeen others helping), an oversight structure that didn’t exist during the New Deal and has often been weak in the past.
So far there’s been no major fraud—only a couple million dollars stolen out of the $787 billion. That’s sure to grow, but the 270,000 contractors know that there are a lot of eyes on them. “If you’re a burglar and one house is well lit, you’ll go instead to one that’s not well lit,” Devaney likes to say.
The way he’s lit the house is with Recovery.gov, a Web site with the subtitle “Track the Money.” If entities that have received stimulus money don’t file quarterly reports on how they’ve spent their awards, they will see their names publicized on the site. Sure enough, you can click on “Non-compliers” and learn the names of the 367 wryly named “Non-Compliant Award Recipients.” Almost all the other recipients of grants and loans have spelled out how the money was spent. That doesn’t mean it was spent wisely, but at least there’s less of a chance that it was stolen.
Of course, we can’t know for sure. The decimation of reporting at the state and local levels mean there are few reporters anywhere who make it their business to scrutinize stimulus spending.
THE DISTRACTED-REPORTER THEORY
This is true at the national level, too. Except for a brief moment after Watergate, investigative reporting has never been especially fashionable in Washington. But it has reached a low ebb today. Talk is cheap and reporting is expensive, which means that cable networks, blogs, and even newspapers are moving away from working the streets to working the TV studios. Even experienced reporters often find big chunks of their days consumed by tweeting and trying to get on television. It’s awfully hard to break a scandal that way.
The old business model for journalism is dead, and a new one is still struggling to be born. “There’s less manpower working full-time on investigative reporting on this White House and Congress,” says Mark Feldstein, an investigative reporter turned journalism professor. Investigative reporters, who often work months on a single story, “are the most expensive to hire and first to go.” Feldstein’s recent book, Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture, depicts a time when politicians like Nixon and reporters like Anderson had no scruples about lying, cheating, and stealing to enhance their power. (Were Anderson alive, Feldstein says, he wouldn’t hesitate to hack voice mails for a good story.)
Scandals in the old days were juicy and full of names, thereby increasing demand for them. By collecting scalps, yesterday’s tabloid reporters galvanized change faster than many of today’s worthy media projects, which data-mine effectively but often feel more like GAO reports than sexy scoops. Today, Anderson and other inside-dope columnists like Safire and Rowley Evans and Robert Novak have been replaced by … almost no one. That’s a good thing in terms of improved accountability and accuracy, but it means fewer stories challenging powerful interests. For every Dana Priest, Seymour Hersh, or Michael Isikoff breaking rocks in a painstaking process, there are 200 journalists for whom “shoe leather” means, well, shoe leather. To them, “Digg” is a popularity-based news aggregator, not a way to find stories.
THE INVESTED-INVESTIGATORS THEORY
Even at its peak, investigative reporting depended on officials with subpoena power. These sources in law enforcement and on Capitol Hill fed various reporters, who had few tools for uncovering wrongdoing on their own. But this system depended on sources who were, if not nonpartisan, at least committed to some version of the truth that stood above blatant political ax grinding. Nowadays everyone has an agenda, which makes the information offered the press more suspect.
For instance, Issa, who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has no credibility in his probes of the Obama administration. As the New Yorker and the New York Times have amply demonstrated, Issa is a sketchy character with shady business interests that he has used his public office to enrich. He promised a new investigation of Obama every week, but each area of inquiry looked like chicken feed even to Fox News, which always stands ready to inflate the tiniest story about the Obama administration into the new Watergate.
Even when Fox and its allies in the powerful conservative media establishment get traction on a supposed scandal, it doesn’t grip the nation like scandals of old because of its origins in partisan reporting. The stories are combated by fierce blogging on the liberal side. For instance, when Van Jones was wrongly accused on Fox of believing 9/11 was a U.S. plot, a counterassault by liberals kept the mainstream press from taking up the story in a big way. It was seen in a partisan context, which had the effect of protecting the president from a feeding frenzy.
This is a paradox of our hyper-partisan culture. On cable, noise gets the ratings. But at the networks and big papers, some of the old rules still apply. Disinterested journalism makes for more interested readers. The stories they report have more heft when they seem motivated by nothing more than a commitment to good government.
THE OBAMA PARADOX THEORY
An even bigger paradox involves Obama and the power of the presidency. The essence of power is getting people to do what they don’t want to do with carrots and sticks. The carrots can morph into bribery and the sticks into blackmail and extortion, as earmarks and campaign contributions become catnip for corruption.
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