You call that a scandal?

By Dominik Matusik

We’ve always enjoyed a good scandal involving politicians. The media has too — it makes their job so much easier. Without microphone gaffes, sex scandals and hissy fits caught on tape, they’d have to resort to actually reporting policy, analysing debates and doing their job. But who wants to read about that?

The latest Ottawa scandal consisted of Conservative mp Bob Dechert sending amorous and flirtatious emails to a journalist working for the Chinese state news agency Xinhau. Is it a sex scandal, a spy scandal or a little of both? Coverage of the story seemed to suggest the latter but it seems to be presented insincerely — as if journalists are almost ashamed of creating a massive news story out of a largely trivial scandal. Undoubtedly, it is extremely unlikely that Canada’s national security was at any point threatened. Still, it had the makings of a great story — sleazy politician, communist villains, female spies. You would think that a story with those ingredients would involve more than a middle-aged man sending emails to a younger woman about how cute she looks with her cheeks puffed. Unfortunately, with the advent of the “new” media, the “old” media seemed to have lost track of what’s notable and what isn’t.

Think of all the scandals, controversies and gaffes that have befallen politicians in the past few years. How many of them have involved technology that wasn’t around 10 or 15 years ago? Of course politicians made mistakes before Twitter and of course the media dwelled on them just as vigorously, but never has so much of what politicians say and do have been on display for everybody to see. Unfortunately, journalists seem to have a hard time separating meaningless nonsense that would be mundane if it happened to somebody not reliant on public support from real displays of incompetence, corruption or immorality.

So what makes a story about a public figure actually worth reporting to the extent that most scandals are? Of course, serious breaches of ethics and abuse of power should not go unnoticed. But some perspective should be offered rather than senselessly attempting to destroy a person’s credibility. Hypocritical behaviour largely serves as a humorous subtext in these types of stories. For example, discovering Ted Haggard, the American pastor and hardline social conservative, had been engaging in gay sex for several years is ultimately just a punchline to a joke. When congressman Anthony Weiner resigned from the American House of Representatives for posting sexually explicit images of himself on Twitter, it was, for me, hard to find anything notable about the story other than perhaps his surname. Sure, he acted in a way that grown men probably shouldn’t, especially married men who are in the public spotlight, but I’m hard-pressed to figure out how his penchant for “sexting” adversely affects his performance as a member of the legislature.

Journalists know very well that people aren’t drawn into stories about public figures being unfaithful husbands or the resurfacing of a secret past drug habit because of the ramifications of these characteristics on the ethical character of the people who are supposed to represent us. For the most part, people just want to hear about how politicians are also humans who make dumb mistakes, have affairs and curse at people. People are drawn to these stories for the same reason we’re drawn to every story: it makes us feel better about our own lives. We can continue being offended by these things while (not so) secretly being entertained, but the media needs to be held to a higher standard when reporting on these things. If I don’t hear about how a politician caused controversy by using the term “foreigner” or referring to “hot chicks” on his Twitter account, I’ll be infinitely more entertained when another Monica Lewinsky comes along.

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