The world economy is tottering on the brink, while violence flares around the globe. At home, there is rancorous partisanship and a crippling lack of moral leadership. But all you see in the newspapers is sex, scandal and endless gossip.
Don’t people have more important things to worry about?
The scenario may be familiar, yet the time was 1919 and the place was Paris. Although you’d expect people to focus on the Versailles Peace Conference, which was redrawing the map of a devastated postwar Europe, Parisians couldn’t get enough of Henri Desire Landru, a swindler on trial for murdering 10 women and scattering their charred remains on country roads.
“The newspapers, bewildered at the sudden absence of a war communique, flung themselves on this,” wrote historian William Bolitho. “The mob in cry after their murderer did not notice, or were delighted to notice, the concomitant shortness of news about the Peace Conference.”
Then, as now, scandal has played a central role in modern culture, and Americans who think sensational stories began with Monica S. Lewinsky and O.J. Simpson need a history lesson. Indeed, salacious tales of sex, murder and corruption date back to the founding of the republic. What is new, however, are the scope and intensity of these media spectacles. America has entered what some observers are calling an Age of Permanent Scandal--an era when marathon stories like Clinton-Lewinsky and the Simpson murder case are beamed into homes 24 hours a day, for months and even years at a time.
To be sure, the Simpson and Clinton stories have touched raw nerves in American life, dealing with race, fame and murder in one case and the president’s truthfulness and sexual behavior in another. Yet these scandals take over your home like house guests who initially seem amusing, and then stubbornly refuse to leave.
“The stories go on forever and they have a numbing effect . . . They invade your life and you really can’t get away from them,” says columnist Molly Ivins. “This is the same blockbuster mentality that you see in publishing, in Hollywood and other entertainment arenas.”
It’s an unprecedented development, and some experts believe there are dangerous consequences to this quantum leap in media saturation. While earlier spectacles may have told grand tales of good and evil--allowing audiences to gossip over celebrities and reaffirm a common sense of right and wrong-- today’s permanent scandals may be driving Americans apart--and creating the world’s first “scandal-immune” culture.
“We all want a grand narrative, a lesson underneath these stories, but America is a fractured society, with so many divisions, and it’s hard to tell one tale that everybody can agree with,” says Herman Gray, a UC Santa Cruz sociologist. “When you lose that consensus, the story line can provoke anger because no one agrees.”
A New Era of Permanent Scandal
In years past, the press and public had a symbiotic relationship on scandals. Media profits rose and common values were celebrated as stories were told of Hollywood celebrities like Fatty Arbuckle standing trial for rape and murder. The sensational Lindbergh case focusing on the kidnapping and murder of the aviator’s son united the nation in outrage, as did the tales of congressmen accused of sexual escapades in the 1970s. Yet most of these stories dominated the news for a few months and flared out, as national attention waned.
“People are fascinated but they have a limited attention span,” says Carol Wallace, managing editor of People magazine. “Most scandals end pretty quickly. . . . Someone like Rita Jenrette says she and her congressman husband once made love on the Capitol steps, but then you forget it all a week later.”
Now, scandals last a lot longer, mainly because they are driven by new information outlets--like all-news cable TV and the Internet--which pump out information around the clock, even if there is nothing new to report. There is a burgeoning economic stake in such stories, which feed supermarket tabloids, radio talk shows, TV confessionals like “Jerry Springer,” conventional newspapers and proliferating network news magazines.
While it is impossible to put a dollar value on scandal, some recent data give a clue: From July through September, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and Fox News Network enjoyed a ratings surge, due to heavy coverage of the Lewinsky saga. Compared with the same period a year ago, prime-time audiences for CNN were up 17%; MSNBC and Fox News Channel, which have a smaller share, were up 105% and 539% respectively, according to recently released Nielsen statistics.
“You can’t underestimate the media’s ability to inflate these stories, as long as there is a financial reason to do so,” says Michael Kinsley, editor of Slate, an online magazine. “When you see that a large number of subscribers are checking out stories about Monica Lewinsky on the Web, you’re going to ride that story as long as you possibly can.”
On television, permanent scandals are less costly to cover than more traditional news, and this increases their allure for media organizations, according to Danny Schechter, a former producer for CNN and ABC and author of “The More You Watch the Less You Know,” a scathing critique of television news.
“Opinion is cheap and information costs money, as the British put it, which is why you see pundits gabbing away on Monica and so little coverage on TV of Kosovo and other hot spots,” he said. “Today, information culture is at war with entertainment culture, and real coverage is losing.”
Dishing the Dirt Plays Cultural Role
But there is more at stake than news values. As the media continue their carpet bombing approach to the Clinton-Lewinsky story, some fear that the role traditionally played by scandal in American cultural life may be slowly eroding.
Although lurid tales of crime and corruption can titillate or provoke society, underneath they often have a conservative effect, reinforcing the public’s sense of right and wrong and underlining traditional values, according to James Lull, a professor of communications studies at San Jose State University. Scandals can infuriate people, provoking anger and the taking of sides, he says, but they also bring stories to a “righteous” conclusion, restoring a sense of order.
For example, the tale of Olympic skater Tonya Harding hiring a thug to wound rival skater Nancy Kerrigan and the bizarre Long Island affair featuring Joey Buttafuoco and Amy Fisher all had good guys and bad guys, Lull notes. “The message was clear,” he adds, “since most Americans felt justice was done in both cases.”
More important, some anthropologists believe gossip over scandalous stories has been a ritual way for Americans to dish the national dirt--around the water cooler, on talk radio or during chance meetings--in a world starved for human contact.
There is a clear link between the rituals of many primitive cultures and the Great American Gabfest, says Marvin Harris, professor of anthropology at the University of Florida in Gainesville. In all cases, members of the tribe delight in throwing mud at the high and mighty--or at neighbors who stray from accepted morals.
During the Roman Saturnalia, servants and masters changed places, and masters suffered verbal abuse. In Haitian villages, residents sing “scandal songs” at working bees, slinging insults at local leaders. Eskimos convene gossip sessions where two men chasing the same woman engage in a contest, singing satirical songs about each other. The loser is expected to slink away. In all of these cases, people relish the experience of “living through” the travails of others, and they breathe a sigh of relief that their own lives are not so troubled.
Too much scandal, however, threatens that bonding. In her book “Scorpion Tongues,” Gail Collins suggests that national lines of gossip may close down when scandal fatigue sets in. “Ultimately, you create a culture that is not shockable,” she says. “You surf channels on TV and hear about Monica, so you go to the next channel and it’s Monica again; then there’s a talk show about someone with a senior citizen diaper fetish, so you keep switching channels, and finally you give up.”
As Patience Thins, Public Becomes Weary
As public patience with the scandal nears an end, one of the few avenues left for new discussion is humor, much of it focusing darkly on the media itself. On a recent edition of Comedy Central’s “Daily Show,” host Craig Kilborn opened the show saying: “We now continue our endless, ceaseless, won’t-stop-if-you-beg-us coverage of ‘Make it Stop ’98': To Dream the Impeachable Dream.’ ”
At some point, even the jokes fall flat, and the public exhibits a blase attitude toward scandal that was explored by German sociologist Georg Simmel in a 1904 essay about “The Metropolis and Mental Life.” Simmel noted that as the drumbeat of daily life becomes too intense, “an incapacity emerges to react to new sensations with the appropriate energy.”
The pressures of daily life--work, family and the fight for leisure time--have not changed all that much since then, and people have only so many hours a day to process media information, says Michael Schudson, professor of political science at UC San Diego.
“We have too much media bombardment now, and you simply can’t expect people to watch the same story over and over,” he says. “The public begins to screen things out on its own.”
Yet that doesn’t mean the scandal ends, says sociologist Gray. If one portion of the population believes that others are not reacting to a story with appropriate outrage, he explains, “moral panic” can result.
Millions of white Americans experienced this when, contrary to their expectations, Simpson was acquitted of murder, and many African-Americans rejoiced. Today, commentators like former drug czar William J. Bennett are in a moral panic of their own over Clinton’s high job ratings. Bennett’s book, “The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and The Assault on American Ideals,” strongly criticizes those citizens who don’t share his anger and disgust at the president’s behavior.
“We needed Clinton to be the first father and not a carouser,” says radio talk show host Laura Schlessinger, echoing this concern about laxness in the body politic. “We needed to count on him, and his lies took a great toll.” She agrees, however, that it’s hard for such a message to get through in a culture of nonstop scandal, which distracts attention from more important news and cheapens the national discourse.
“It’s easier to be titillated by Monica’s underwear than the story [last month] of a Russian soldier who nearly hijacks a nuclear submarine and causes a catastrophe,” she says. “Human nature responds more naturally to sleaze and gore. It always has.”
Some may wring their hands, yet others believe there are important lessons to be learned from scandals, no matter how tawdry. The public has traditionally devoured stories about the rise and fall of the famous, taking an almost sadomasochistic pleasure in their travails, says essayist Camille Paglia.
“What is ‘Hamlet’ if not a scandal on the highest level?” she asks. “The king is murdered by his brother, who lusts for the king’s wife. It’s a high, canonical story. You can’t say these things are merely bread and circuses for the masses.”
More like a glass of wine, perhaps. As Americans wait for the next Big Scandal, they can gossip to their heart’s content--and swap jokes with each other at cocktail parties.
‘We’re All Addicted’
“If I run into you somewhere, I can’t count on your having read DeToqueville or Melville,” says Lewis Lapham, editor of Harpers. “But we can certainly talk about Monica Lewinsky. It’s the froth we share in common, like a glass of wine. In times like this, the media is the great American butler.”
And scandal, with apologies to Karl Marx, may be the opiate of the people. Kinsley takes a dim view of the Clinton-Lewinsky saga, suggesting that Permanent Scandal results from an attention-deficit disorder plaguing American culture.
“It began with the Gulf War, because 15 minutes after it was over, nobody remembered it,” he said. “The war begat O.J., and O.J. begat Monica. These stories create an adrenaline rush that wears off--and we’re all addicted. We need another fix.”
Times researcher Lisa Meyer contributed to this story.
* JURISTS FOCUS ON LEWINSKY: Judges suggest Lewinsky matter might have to be part of a renewed Jones suit. A18