Home Media Scandals vs. Shaggy Dog Stories

Scandals vs. Shaggy Dog Stories


Virginia Republicans have tried to neutralize the corrosive effects of the Star Scientific scandal by making noisy claims that Terry McAuliffe has been engaged in tons of scandals of his own.  Not surprisingly, the media has latched on to this bone like a pack of hungry dogs.

But this only reflects the media’s careless failure to define what it calls a “scandal.”  Right wingers happily exploit this weakness as they have so successfully since the 1990s, when they spent millions to spread nasty rumors about the Clintons.  As radio legend Garrison Keilor told the National Press Club in 1994, the so-called “Whitewater Scandal” was not a scandal but a “shaggy dog story” whose “point is its pointlessness”:  

“What apparently is a long, winding circumstantial joke that the teller keeps complicating by tossing in new, unrelated elements […] The American people are sitting on the bleachers waiting for the elephant to come out and all we see are the guys selling cotton candy,” he told the assembled press: “That’s you.”

Today in Virginia, Cuccinelli’s right wing supporters — led by the Koch-funded Franklin Center and its affiliates Watchdog.org and Cause of Action, to whom he has outsourced his opposition research — are spreading a bunch of shaggy dog stories about Terry McAuliffe and declaring them “scandals”.  And the media, as in this shameful reiteration of Franklin Center innuendos by the Washington Post, are doing little more than adding their bylines and publishing this dreck.  

The mark of these stories is that they are long and rambling, implying lots of sinister things through innuendo, but never coming right out and clearly accusing the candidate of a specific crime or nefarious act.  It’s like that gossip at the office who’s always whispering behind other people’s backs but never has the cojones to stand up and confront anyone directly.  

Take all the blather over Global Crossing, for instance.  The WaPo irresponsibly mimicked the misleading language of Cuccinelli’s Swift Boat campaign, claiming that “McAuliffe sold some of his Global Crossing shares before the stock price plummeted and made an estimated $8 million before the company went sour.”

How terrible!  But here are the facts: McAuliffe was simply one of many investors in the company with no management role.  He made his money, as many successful investors do, by selling most of his shares when the company went public, in 1999.  The company did not fail until THREE YEARS LATER, in 2002.  So how in the world is it fair to blame him for the management problems that caused this company to fail?  

But you’re not supposed to think, or check the facts, when confronted with the meandering shaggy dog tales through which one person (company, investment, etc.) is linked to another and then to another, and on and on through six degrees of separation until you’ve managed to make the definitive link between, say, Attila the Hun and your mud-slinging target.   You’re just supposed to be lulled into a mindless revulsion against this person without any substantive charges ever having been made against him.

Here’s another example: the Cuccinelli campaign and its stooges have made breathless claims that somehow Terry’s former company, Green Tech Auto, endangered national security.  How?  Well, one of the proposed investors from China supposedly was linked with another company which in turn has been accused of cyber spying.  Yep, that vague and indirect relationship is the entirety of the “evidence” of our national security being threatened.  For this reason, Republicans say, we need to “keep investigating” — so these shaggy dog stories can keep droning on and on.

If the Republicans and their underhanded allies want to clearly accuse Terry of specific charges based on evidence that they have, let’s hear it — or even better, take it to the police or the courts, since that is where crimes are supposed to be adjudicated.  And if the media wants to write stories about “scandals”, let them define what they mean by such a term, use it consistently, and publish facts, not meandering swamps of gooey slime pretending to be journalism.  

Shaggy dog stories are basically practical jokes on the listener, whose reward for listening to boundless piles of details is an ending that makes the whole trip turn out to be a waste.  So please spare us any more of this empty hype, and let’s focus on plain, verifiable facts.


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