It is a myth, of course, but a lovely one. It relies on images of power, the press, and the people that fit our collective longing—for justice, for heroism, and for ultimate goodness residing in a people who, once alerted to wrongdoing, insist on its rectification. The obstacle to this natural self-cleansing of our political life can only be the people's ignorance. For if they know, and the corruption and scandals persist—well, how can the people be good? No, what must be missing then—so the myth implies—is clarity, revelation. What is missing is the gatekeepers of our ignorance whose duty it is to draw the curtain back from scandal and show the people everything, thereby starting the polity on the road to inexorable justice. Information is all. Information, together with the people's natural sense of the good and the right, leads to expiation and society's inevitable cleansing.
However tenaciously the mythmakers of our society—and especially journalists, who are after all the stars of this idealized drama—cling to this happy scenario, recent history has not been kind to it. For it rests on an image of journalists and journalism that has become, to put it charitably, outdated. Journalists as the self-abnegating seekers after truth, defenders of society's conscience: had this happy description ever been true, even during Watergate, it now bears little resemblance to the scandal-mongering world of cable news shows and gabfests, for which scandal, the gaudier the better, provides the vast and complicated narratives that are the lifeblood of the twenty-four-hour news cycles. As the first Persian Gulf War begot CNN so did Monica Lewinsky's pouty lips beget Fox News.
Scandals, the more complicated and richer the plotlines the better, have above all to endure. Scandals provide the fodder for on-air confrontation, the verbal slash and parry—which is what television, a terrible medium for conveying information of any complexity, does best, and does most cheaply. Scandals provide subplots and minor characters and spin-offs. They offer, to the post-Watergate, high-profile, well-coiffed, colleague-of-the-powerful journalist hero of today—could anything be further from the deeply irreverent working stiff cracking wise in Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday (1940)?—the true venue for the highest practice of his art, the television studio.
That art relies on, or anyway thrives on, scandal. Scandal denotes success. Scandal shows he is doing his job. Scandal means pay dirt. And scandal represents that media-age dream, the perpetual story. Scandal can be rehashed, debated, photographed, from initial leak, to perp walk, to hearing, to trial, to appeal. Scandal offers an endless stream of what the business is after all supposed to be about: news. As in: what is new. Scandal brings the heart-pumping, breath-gulping surge of stop-the-presses excitement, letting us know that into our fallen world the Gods of Great Events have finally come down from on high to intervene. Scandal represents movement, the audible cracking of the ice. And yet it is all an illusion, for beneath the rapidly moving train of gaudily hyped "breaking news,"beneath all the grave and breathless stand-ups before the inevitable pillars of public buildings, beneath the swirling, gyrating phantasmagoria of scandal lies a kind of dystopian stasis. Everything changes and nothing does.