What makes a Washington scandal? It all depends on who's involved

May 10, 2007|By THOMAS SOWELL

Now that ABC News has the list of phone numbers given to it by the "Washington Madam," the question is: Whose names will it publicize if it finds out that there are public figures on there?

Let us suppose, just for the sake of argument, that these names include Karl Rove and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Are both names equally likely to be revealed?

That is the problem with Washington scandals. In fact, the very definition of a "scandal" varies radically depending on who is involved. That is a bigger scandal than any particular scandal the media report.

Before the Washington Madam surfaced, the big scandal in town was the Bush administration's firing of eight U.S. attorneys. But it was not a scandal, as far as the media were concerned, when Bill Clinton fired every single U.S. attorney in the country.

Everybody knew then - but seems to have forgotten now - that all U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president. He can fire any of them or all of them, at any time, for any reason.

In the case of Mr. Clinton, U.S. attorneys back in Arkansas had been investigating corruption in his administration as governor before he became president. Firing all of them covered the fact that he was getting rid of those who were investigating him. But that was no scandal, as far as the media were concerned.

It was treated as a scandal in the media when Newt Gingrich received a large advance from a publisher while he was speaker of the House. But it was no scandal when each of the Clintons received larger advances from publishers.

For conservatives, the media standard is not "innocent until proved guilty" but "the appearance of impropriety." But when Democratic Sen. Harry Reid received a million dollars from a questionable real estate deal involving property that he no longer owned, but whose owner had gotten favorable treatment from the government, that was apparently not even an appearance of impropriety as far as most of the media were concerned.

We have heard a lot of outrage being expressed because under the Patriot Act, the government can find out what books you have checked out of a public library. That is considered a scandalous invasion of privacy. But it was not considered a scandal when hundreds of confidential FBI files on Republicans were turned over to the Clinton White House, in violation of the law.

One of the reasons FBI files on individuals are kept confidential is that anybody, anywhere can make an unsubstantiated charge about anybody to the FBI. People can anonymously accuse you of being anything from a petty thief to a pedophile. Can you imagine how valuable it is to a politician to have hundreds of such files on his enemies?

As for the FBI discovering whether you checked out a cookbook or an X-rated novel from your local library, does anyone seriously believe that it has the time, the manpower or the motivation to look into the reading habits of 300 million Americans, when it has all it can do to try to keep up with the terrorists?

It was a scandal when shock jock Don Imus made a cheap remark about black girls on a college basketball team. But it is no scandal when black "leaders" such as the Rev. Al Sharpton or the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson make racist remarks. Yet who has more influence - most of it bad - on race relations in this country? Outrage at Mr. Imus by people in the media who give Mr. Sharpton and Mr. Jackson a free pass is a little much.

But that isn't a scandal, since the media determine what is and isn't a scandal.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun. His e-mail is info@creators.com.

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