SCANDALS. U.S. history is filled with stories of political, financial, and sexual misconduct. The general public has always been fascinated with the lives of those in power, including politicians, entertainers, and business leaders, particularly when these people fall from grace. Before Watergate (1972–1974), the mainstream media did not rush to expose the shortcomings of influential people. Beginning in the 1970s and intensifying with the advent of the Information Age, however, the national media, under the guise of exposing dishonesty or hypocrisy, focused on sensational stories, ultimately making misconduct and public scandal a part of everyday life.
The Vietnam War and Watergate changed journalism forever. The combination of an unpopular war and criminal behavior in the president's office expanded the scope of what broadcasters chose to expose about their leaders. The Internet also fueled the sensationalist aspects of society, since people now have almost instantaneous access to news and opinion. The public no longer expects movie stars, politicians, athletes, chief executive officers, or even the president of the United States to remain free of scandal. The idea that everyone has skeletons in their closet waiting to be exposed is pretty much universal.
Political scandal remains a constant reminder of human frailty. After Watergate forced President Richard M. Nixon to resign from office in 1974, investigations into political misconduct expanded. The Iran-Contra scandal of the mid-1980s not only destroyed the careers of several high-ranking officials in the Ronald Reagan administration, it caused a national crisis of confidence in the democratic system.
A number of scandals during the presidency of Bill Clinton (1993–2001), from the Whitewater real estate scheme to the president's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, revealed the way public opinion about misconduct had changed. Initially, scandal focused primarily on criminal or financial wrongdoing. During the Clinton years, however, presidential scandal turned more intimate as the press reported on the president's numerous sexual liaisons, including open discussions of oral sex and semen-stained dresses. Many pop culture experts agreed that salacious television programs, such as The Jerry Springer Show, which featured crude behavior, incest, fistfights, and the glorification of the lowest common denominator, fueled the public craving for this kind of detail.
As a result of ever-intensifying media coverage and instantaneous access to information, the United States now thrives on a culture of scandal. Many individuals ride to great heights of fame based on disgrace, and infamy now seems part of an overall plan to increase the "buzz" around a given entertainer, politician, or public figure as part of a campaign to make the person even more well known.
The fruits of the scandal culture are an increase in public distrust and cynicism and fewer figures that people can look to for strong leadership in times of crisis. In an increasingly competitive media landscape and the twenty-four-hour information age, however, a culture of scandal seems to be here to stay.
Garment, Suzanne. Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics. New York: Anchor Books, 1992.
Kohn, George C. The New Encyclopedia of American Scandal. New York: Facts On File, 2001.
Ross, Shelley. Fall From Grace: Sex, Scandal, and Corruption in American Politics from 1702 to the Present. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988.