Staying in grace: Why some people are immune from scandal – until they’re not

Harvey Weinstein arrives at the Manhattan Criminal Court, on February 24, 2020 in New York City. On March 11 he was sentenced to 23 years in prison for criminal sexual acts and rape. Timothy A. Clary/AFP

Scandals are violent shocks to social systems in which public figures may “fall from grace.” Societies have long been captivated by scandals embroiling powerful people – film producer Harvey Weinstein and financier Jeffrey Epstein come easily to mind, as does American actor Johnny Depp, whose libel case against a UK tabloid has attracted significant attention. Politicians also populate this list, including failed Paris mayoral candidate Benjamin Griveaux, former US senator Larry Craig and Silvio Berlusconi, now member of the European Parliment despite an endless list of scandals.

Yet not all scandalous acts result in a scandal or produce the same consequences. How can we explain the fact that some prominent figures seem able to resist the consequences of their own behavior, and to be seemingly immune from scandals?

Two schools of thought

The traditional view on scandals in social science, the “objectivist” perspective, holds that there is a direct, linear relationship between the severity of behavior in question and its social consequences. To casual observers as well, scandals are usually perceived as naturally resulting from severe transgressions: “Where there is smoke, there is fire.”

In contrast, a more recent “constructivist” perspective sees scandals as social-cultural events driven in large part by media reporting (see the work of John B. Thompson, Ari Adut and Robert Entman). Here, misconduct is neither necessary nor sufficient for a scandal to occur: some scandals result from rumors, while much bad behavior never gets activated into scandal. It is not the act itself, therefore, but rather the media that distinguishes transgressions that remain private from those that make a stir.

The front pages of major daily newspapers in Rome on August 2, 2013, after Italy’s top court upheld a jail sentence against former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi for tax fraud on August 1. Neverthe less, Berlusconi remains in politics. Gabriel Bouys/AFP

As the fourth estate, the media publicize salient behavior, activating public opinion and disapproval. Media attention problematizes the behavior in question, pressuring other institutions to react. Media coverage also ensures that the reputations of scandal protagonists are assailed, leading to potential stigmatization. In sum, one could say “no media, no scandal.”

Bad behavior and social consequences

Why then do some seem immune from scandal? We take a constructivist perspective on what drives media reporting and the consequences of this attention. We outline five factors that influence how scandals get activated, which in turn explains why some figures fall from grace while others remain untouched.

First, the media are more likely to create a scandal when transgressions disrupt established norms. When public figures who hold themselves up as paragons of morality are revealed to violate the social order they purport to uphold, a scandal is sure to follow. In 2007, conservative US senator Larry Craig was arrested for lewd conduct in a Minneapolis airport bathroom. He subsequently pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and resigned. It was not his behavior per se, but the inconsistencies with social rules he openly supported that the media problematized. Even figures whose appeal lies in their ability to flout norms – like Silvio Berlusconi – will find themselves enmeshed in scandal when they broach norms that affect their supporters personally and negatively.

Second, media coverage of wrongdoing only activates a scandal when it speaks to powerful and interested social groups. Audiences are not homogeneous: what is an egregiously offensive to some is unremarkable to others. Those who operate at the intersection of multiple, diverse interest groups may seem immune from scandal because only some constituencies find a particular behavior objectionable. A scandal is only likely to emerge if the most powerful audiences are willing to act upon the transgression.

Consider a political figure, like presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who was accused by conservative politicians and media outlets of securing seats on the boards of international firms for his son Hunter. However, the intelligence community, Democratic party, mainstream media and especially voters did not agree, and the issue fizzled.

Heinz-Christian Strache, Austria’s former vice-chancellor and former leader of Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ), speaking in front of the press on October 1, 2019. In May Strache resigned after a compromising video surfaced. Joe Klamar/AFP

Heinz-Christian Strache, Austria’s one-time vice-chancellor and head of the Freedom Party (FPÖ), did not receive similar support in May 2019 when a video was released of him proposing to offer government contracts to the supposed niece of a Russian oligarch. In the ensuing corruption scandal, he forced to resign, new elections were held and the support for the far-right FPÖ collapsed.

Media status counts

Third, the relative status and credibility of a media outlet also impact attempts to publicize scandalous behavior. The media not only publicize transgressions but also shape scandal narratives. Attempts to delegitimize the media (for example, by calling them “fake news”) may help transgressors reduce the impact of their wrongdoing. Both Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi regularly attack the media (an irony in Berlusconi’s case, given his media-driven fortune).

Not all outlets enjoy equal reach or credibility: scandals typically emerge from the most prestigious outlets (think the New York Times, Le Monde , or Corriere della Sera). While public shaming is common practice on social media, it typically damages individual reputations without rising to the level of scandal unless picked up by more prestigious outlets.

This may be changing given shifting news consumption patterns. On social media it’s easier to target different groups with specific information, as proved by the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Even when a scandal erupts, the balkanization of the media implies that different groups may receive contrasting framings, reducing the impact of the scandal on the transgressor.

Michael Jackson fans during the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor, Conrad Murray, in Los Angeles on September 28, 2011. Frederic J. Brown/AFP

Fourth, whether the media are attentive to a transgressor, and whether that transgression leads to scandal, is in part a function of who the transgressors are. Some public figures are protected from scandals by the halo effect that emanates from previously held public opinion – a strong reputation, high status or celebrity can immunize transgressors from what would normally be negative outcomes that might stem from discreditable behavior. When audiences are emotionally attached to, preoccupied with, or revere a public figure – as pop music fans were of Michael Jackson during his lifetime, for example – positive feelings prevent them from rationally evaluating evidence. By choosing to overlook questionable actions, they are able to avoid engaging in the difficult sensemaking process that would force them to challenge their prior feelings.

Finally, both the media and the public are subject to scandal fatigue when too many scandals appear one after another. Cultural sociologist Mark Jacobs (2005) has theorized about a “system of scandals”, whereby the over-reporting of scandal by the media can potentially normalize it. As Jacobs writes, “scandals germinate in fields of secrecy and corruption”, but too many scandals can exhaust audiences and their moral appetite for punishing potential wrongdoers. The current US president comes notably to mind.

Some stumble, others walk away

The fact remains that some public figures are able to resist creating a scandal better than others. Political figures have status, authority and legitimacy that can protect them, but also visibility that can pull them down. Corporate leaders answer to a different set of stakeholders but the activation and fallout from corporate scandals are similar to those in politics, as shown by the differing treatment of business leaders in the LIBOR scandal.

The constructivist perspective provides some explanation by exploring how the interaction of the media with multiple audiences can construct scandals. Over time, conditions may change: audiences may withdraw their support; societal norms evolve under the influence of previous scandals; the credibility, reputation, and status of public figures and organizations change. The process of scandal construction is constantly in flux, and that too helps explains why some individuals are immune from scandals, until they are not.

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