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Something about scandal

A little over a month ago, as the 2020 election came to a head, “October surprises” from fake news stories in the New York Post to the affairs of Senators captured attention. These scandals — real and fictional — are often used to diminish a politician’s fitness for office and tarnish their character. As Princeton students, I can guarantee we all sometimes consume scandalized news as a form of entertainment.

So, what is it that the news is supposed to give us? The news is a town hall of ideas and should encourage an intellectualism that supports that, not a critique of character based on isolated instances of wrongdoing. Critiques of character may not even be relevant to political aptitude. I believe we should reevaluate the privileged position media holds as an educator in our lives, as well as the place of news based on stories of scandal. Scandalized news should be reserved for tabloid papers. Their inclusion into political journalism goes to show both how unaccountable news has become and how we need to be wary of where we spend our attention.

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To be clear, I am using scandal here strictly in terms of adulterous affairs, mental health, or other personal affairs. Sexual assault is not scandal; it's criminal. What is criminal is worth reporting about, as it is something the public needs to know to judge their democracy and embrace their own political power.

Politics, then, became scandalized in 1987, at least according to the writer Matt Bai, when Democratic presidential nominee Gary Hart's campaign fell apart after he was revealed to be having an affair. Bai takes a magnifying glass to the story, tracking how the reporters from The Miami Herald, trying to emulate Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, stalked Hart in order to expose him.

Bai's piece is worth reading not just for his account of Hart's downfall, but for his examination of scandal in political journalism and the decisive moment it became relevant. Hart writes that “the finest political journalists of a generation surrendered all at once to the idea that politics had become another form of celebrity-driven entertainment, while simultaneously disdaining the kind of reporting that such a thirst for entertainment made necessary.” It also marked a shift in political journalism towards showing "politicians for the impossibly flawed human beings they are: a single-minded pursuit that reduced complex careers to isolated transgressions."

Journalism focused on character and moral clarity doesn't necessarily make media a better watchdog of crooked figures. Instead, it allows charismatic characters into office without judging them on actual policy merits. As Bai puts it, this journalism drives politicians with “complex ideas away from the process, making it easier for a lot of candidates who know nothing about policy to breeze into national office, because there are no expectations that a candidate is going to say anything of substance anyway.”

The journalism on our own campus can also occasionally be too focused on the outrageous or scandalous. Because many at Princeton write glibly, it is easy for us to couch scandal in intellectualism; we as students can't help but see topics that boil down to the personal or incite anger through a moralistic and theoretical lens. This is something that has occasionally appeared in the Opinion section, and by my own doing. The old adage — scandal sells — remains true.

As consumers, we should be more deliberate about what we choose to pay attention to and what we choose to give value. If we and others choose to read about scandal, we inadvertently support that type of journalism by rewarding it with our attention. If we excessively write about scandal, we codify it in tiny black (or orange) letters, creating more scandalized news to wade through to find the news that needs to be read.

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Furthermore, if the watchdogs of society are reporting on unimportant matters, then they have failed as good educators. Moreover, sensationalized stories blur the ethics of journalism by misrepresenting facts and making unfair claims about character and even mental health when they have never personally interacted with or physically examined a figure. The unfairness that emerges from a combination of journalism such as this does not empower us, but instead monetizes our attention.

If it is true that scandals, as I have laid them out, have no bearing on political aptitude — and that is a claim worth more discussion and positioning than one small opinion article can give — then we should devote our attention to sources that don't cover them, to “real” newspapers like Tortoise Media. These sources are deliberative and piercing in their coverage of what drives the news and provide careful analysis of the facts while also not misusing intellectualism. Even if the first claim isn't true, the ethics of journalism demands that journalists be aware of the impact of their writing and its use for the public. We should hold them to that standard.

There's no need to eliminate the news. Indeed, a free press is fundamental for democracy, and it is crucial that we are informed about our representatives. However, the need to be informed should be balanced against the problem of being over-informed: of being so super-saturated with information that you can barely make heads or tails of what's going on, let alone have a coherent opinion about it. That is something that needs to change, and that change begins with how we read and how we write. It is easy to be fed when we read the news, but not nourished.

Ethan Magistro is a sophomore from Morristown, New Jersey. He can be reached at magistro@princeton.edu

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