Political Scandals as a Democratic Challenge: From Important Revelations to Provocations, Trivialities, and Neglect Introductionons



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Allern and Sikorski (2018) Political Scandals as a Democratic Challenge


International Journal of Communication 12(2018), 3014–3023 1932–8036/20180005 Copyright © 2018 (Sigurd Allern and Christian von Sikorski). Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial No Derivatives (by-nc-nd). Available at http://ijoc.org.

Political Scandals as a Democratic Challenge From Important
Revelations to Provocations, Trivialities, and Neglect

Introduction

SIGURD ALLERN
1
University of Oslo, Norway

CHRISTIAN VON SIKORSKI
University of Vienna, Austria
This Introduction provides the conceptual and theoretical context fora Special Section on political scandals in the International Journal of Communication. Mediated political scandals area worldwide phenomenon and are not limited to liberal democracies only. A main aim of this Special Section, drawing on articles and studies about scandals in the US, China, and Europe, is to discuss the mediation of scandals in countries with different political institutions and media systems. We point to the contradictory status of journalism as an important watchdog institution for democracy, holding leaders to account, and a scandal machine that often ignores serious political misdeeds and inflates the importance of trivial norm violations. Another aim of this Special Section, discussed in the Introduction, is to shed some light on the effects of political scandals on both the individual and institutional levels.
Keywords: mediated scandals, scandal journalism, democracy, effects of scandals

Mediated scandals area worldwide phenomenon and can occur in all areas of society—in politics as well as in business and finance, culture and the arts, academia, religious institutions, and sports. Over the past few decades, there has been a steep increase in worldwide news coverage of political scandals
(Allern, Kantola, Pollack, & Blach-Ørsten, 2012; Kumlin & Esaiasson, 2012; von Sikorski, 2017), often Sigurd Allern: sigurd.allern@media.uio.no Christian von Sikorski: christian.sikorski@univie.ac.at Date submitted 2018‒07‒02 The authors would like to thank the Department of Media Studies, Stockholm University, for funding support that has made this Special Section possible to organize. Many thanks also to our anonymous reviewers, whose critical comments and suggestions have increased the scholarly quality of the articles—
and to Arlene Luck, managing editor of the International Journal of Communication, for her friendly guidance and effective overseeing during the editorial process.

International Journal of Communication 12(2018) Political Scandals 3015 depicted in a personalized manner Individuals, rather than ideologies or parties, are usually in the eye of scandals (Tumber & Waisbord, 2004, p. 1036). Current research suggests that scandals have become a regular feature of election campaigns (e.g., Kumlin & Esaiasson, 2012), influencing election outcomes such as the 2016 US. presidential election involving Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. Other examples include the more recent national election in Austria, with its scandal about negative campaigning, and the scandal concerning misuse of public funds surrounding François Fillon, a candidate in the 2017 French presidential election. In 2017 and 2018, the #MeToo movement against sexual assault and harassment showed that scandals can develop quickly across societal sectors and national borders, from film studios and media organizations to political institutions and civil organizations, and indifferent parts of the world. Actions and behavior that had been passively accepted years ago—or at least looked upon as private matters—were suddenly exposed and condemned. The #MeToo scandals remind us of two general lessons confirmed by international scandal research. First, actions and types of behavior that are deemed as scandalous depend on historical context second, norms and the interpretation of norm violations may changeover time. Modern political scandals also require public reports that may elicit criticism and other reactions. Inmost countries, the news media play a central role real or conjectured norm transgressions must be reported on (Esser & Hartung, 2004) and framed as scandals through news headlines, images, and journalistic angles, and thereby threaten to undermine the reputation and standing of politicians and others in positions of power and influence (Entman,
2012). The aim of this Special Section, drawing on articles and studies about scandals in the US, China, and Europe, is to discuss the mediation of political scandals in countries with different political institutions and media systems. We adhere to a definition of political scandals as real or conjectured norm violations of political actors or institutions that are repeatedly reported on and framed by the news media and other actors as scandalous. A central topic is also the contradictory status of journalism as an important watchdog institution for democracy, holding leaders to account, and a scandal machine that often ignores serious political misdeeds and inflates the importance of trivial norm violations. Attempts of scandalization may also be launched by rival power groups and competitors.
Markovits and Silverstein (1988) argued fora narrow definition of political scandal, restricting it to acts that, in the quest for political power, violate due process and procedure (pp. 6–7). Their reasoning was based on liberal theory the political game must be open and accessible, based on a firm institutionalization of the process of decision making. According to this view, political scandals by definition occur at the intersection of power and process. Economic scandals and other personal norm violations by politicians may therefore only be considered rising to the level of political scandal if they are primarily linked to an abuse of power at the expense of process and procedure. Another of their postulates, related to this view, was that political scandals can only take place in liberal democracies (Markovits & Silverstein, 1988, p. 6). In his seminal study of political scandals, John B. Thompson (2000) criticized this model for being unnecessarily restrictive, as it excludes a range of scandalous phenomena in which politicians are involved and which may have far-reaching consequences in the political field (p. 93). Scandals related to a violation of process and procedure, or power scandals is not the only form of political scandal. Exposure of financial


3016 Sigurd Allern and Christian von Sikorski International Journal of Communication 12(2018) irregularities in the public sector and politicians personal attempts at tax evasion are economic scandals with severe political consequences. Provocative utterances, lies, and hypocrisy are other well-known causes of scandalization. Politicians violations of personal behavior norms can lead to political scandals because they trigger discussions of trust (Isolatus & Almonkari, 2014). It is equally problematic to unilaterally link political scandals with one type of political system liberal democracies. It is true that important features of liberal democracy, such as the organized and institutionalized competition for power and the relative autonomy of the news media, render it prone to scandal (Thompson, 2000, p. 94) compared with one-party states and authoritarian regimes where such revelations are more easily suppressed. However, as Francis L. F. Lee underlines in an article is this Special Section, the dichotomy of liberal democracy versus dictatorship is apolitical simplification that tends to overlook that, most contemporary societies are neither full-fledged democracies nor extreme dictatorships Lee, 2018, this Special Section. The People’s Republic of China, a one-party state, has experienced several political scandals over the past few decades—for example, the slave labor scandal (2007), the milk scandal
(2008), and along range of corruption scandals since 2008. Scandals are also a regular phenomenon in countries like Turkey and Russia, with such authoritarian practices as suppression of journalists and stifling press freedom. In practice, political scandals take place in societies with limited or varying levels of freedom of speech, media diversity, and public debate however, they are less frequent and manifest in other forms compared with mediated scandals in liberal democracies. Political and structural societal differences around the world influence how scandals are launched, constructed, and framed. In professional journalism, rooted in the Anglo-American tradition, investigating powerful institutions and public figures is a central goal, related to the Montesquieu-inspired notion of the press as an unofficial fourth branch of government, scrutinizing legislative, executive, and judicial powers on behalf of the people. Journalists maintain the norms of public life and the values of political conduct (Ettema &
Glasser, 1988). According to this view, scandal journalism is healthy for democracy. News organizations increase their legitimacy by exposing norm violations and circumstances that can become political scandals
(Allern & Pollack, 2012). The revelations of international corruption and money laundering known as the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers, organized by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, is a recent example. An optimistic view about the media’s role is also highlighted in the Durkheim-inspired functional theory about scandals because journalists expose norm transgressions, they help to restore and renew the moral order of society. In the immediate post-Watergate period, a heightened sensitivity to the general meaning of office and democratic responsibility did indeed lead to heightened conflict and to series of challenges to authoritative control writes Jeffrey C. Alexander (1988, p. 213). Scandals may help distinguish between the guilty and the innocent, expose shameful conduct, and ensure that those who violate norms are punished (Girard, 2007, p. 318). Also, certain forms of norm violations maybe prevented in the first place—for example, when political actors fear that malfeasance maybe discovered by investigative journalists searching for potential misconduct with the aim of turning it into a public scandal. Mediated scandals are therefore opportunities to validate social norms (Jacobsson & Löfmark, 2008, p. 212). In general, the functional sociological theory underlines the positive effects of scandal journalism. Scandals

International Journal of Communication 12(2018) Political Scandals 3017 enable an interrogation of the collective moral code, and public opinion is used to punish the deviant behavior of politicians, contributing to the maintenance of a healthy democracy (Brenton, 2012). However, while this benevolent interpretation of scandal journalism sometimes fits well, the functionalist perspective tends to overlook several more problematic aspects related to the role of the media in scandalization processes (Verbalyte, 2018). First, only a selection of norm violations is made public and condemned to make mediated scandals out of every misdemeanor is impossible (Ehmig, 2016). The strength of scandalization is not directly related to the significance of the violated norms (Kepplinger, 2009). Even limited norm violations and minor scandals can sometimes lead to media frenzies. An analysis of scandal reporting shows that serious norm violations may not be reported, while more trivial matters are blown up to become large scandals (Allern et al., 2012; Entman, 2012). The media organizations own interests and relationships to those in power also influence the scope of scandal reporting. Political actors also use scandalization as apolitical weapon (Jenssen & Fladmoe, 2012). Those in power can use strategic communication to shape what is framed and mediated as a scandal. Staged scandals can be used to influence the public agenda and smear competitors. Politicians may also intentionally trigger scandals through provocative slogans and remarks to influence the political media agenda, as in the case of some right-wing populist parties (Wodak, 2015). The complexity of such scandalization processes underlines the need of critical, interdisciplinary research that examines the various roles and effects of political scandals. Scandals can influence political processes in many ways and on different levels. Scandals can affect citizens political behavior (von Sikorski, Knoll, & Matthes, 2017) and may end in resignations or other formal reactions sometimes they only result in public debate or criticism. In other cases, scandals can significantly influence citizens satisfaction with democracy (Kumlin & Esaiasson, 2012) and their trust in the political process (Bowler & Karp, 2004). First, and not surprisingly, data show that scandals may negatively affect citizens attitudes toward politicians involved in scandals (Carlson, Ganiel, & Hyde, 2000; von Sikorski & Knoll, 2018). However, there are also apparent boundary conditions for negative scandal consequences. That is, under certain conditions, even longstanding public accusations of misconduct may have little consequence for the accused (Kumlin
& Esaiasson, 2012; von Sikorski, 2018). A clear example is the case of former US. President Bill Clinton, whose approval ratings were at some of the highest levels they reached during his tenure in office (Shah, Watts, Domke, & Fan, 2002, p. 339) during the period in which he was repeatedly under intensive questioning for his role in the so-called Clinton–Lewinsky scandal, probably one of the best known political scandals in the world. Second, scandals may affect certain forms of political participation like voter turnout and may influence election outcomes. This is fairly intuitive. Nevertheless, competing views have been debated in this context. On one hand, it has been argued that voter turnout may decrease in light of a scandal because citizens withdraw from the political process (Chong, De La O, Karlan, & Wantchekon, 2015). Others have debated that scandals may affect voter turnout in quite the opposite way, by mobilizing the vote for the opponents of politicians involved in scandals. That is, voters are mobilized and motivated to vote for


3018 Sigurd Allern and Christian von Sikorski International Journal of Communication 12(2018) alternative political candidates to hold actors involved in scandal accountable (Praino, Stockemer, &
Moscardelli, 2013). Third, political scandals can affect citizens political trust and satisfaction with democracy more generally. Again, two competing hypotheses maybe formulated. Political scandals, aside from negatively affecting the reputation of individual actors, may also generate spillover effects, fostering skepticism about the political elite as a whole influencing the image of all political parties (Maier, 2011, p. 285). In contrast, holding politicians accountable for serious wrongdoing can help to create a more positive view toward the political system. Put differently, scandals demonstrate that societal institutions, as well as democracy as whole, functions well by penalizing political misdeeds and thereby fostering satisfaction with democracy among individuals (Kumlin & Esaiasson, 2012; Maier, 2011). Fourth, news reporting on political scandals may influence the public’s perceptions of the news media itself. This aspect has—so far—only rarely been reflected on (Bennett, Rhine, & Flickinger, 2001). However, it maybe especially important given that news outlets increasingly report about minor and even trivial norm transgressions of political actors. Experimental results point exactly in this direction. When news media report about a relatively minor corruption scandal involving small sums of money (compared with an identical case reporting about a high sum, news recipients tended to evaluate the news outlet and its credibility more negatively (von Sikorski, 2018). Therefore, another aim of this Special Section is to shed light on the effects of political scandals by compiling empirical evidence from different research fields (i.e., political psychology, communication science, political science) and conducting a meta-analysis of findings from individual studies.

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