The Beltway press is remarkably fixated on two stories: A "scandal" over an $800,000 General Services Administration (GSA) conference in Las Vegas, and the unfolding saga involving prostitutes and some Secret Service and military officers in Colombia.
The White House thinks both are bad, of course, but not worth the amount of coverage they're getting. Beltway journalists think otherwise, and seem to want to believe that by paying so much attention to these stories they are a) standing up to the government by exposing wrongdoing; and b) not really talking about prostitutes at all, but telling a larger quasi-morality tale about the public's declining faith in institutions.
In other words, they're covering a story about a prostitute in Colombia because it illustrates the way you feel about the government.
Here's Meet the Press on Sunday (4/22/12)–"they" here is the White House:
CHUCK TODD: Well, I think, first of all, they also view this as a distraction.
DAVID GREGORY: Yeah.
TODD: You know, they're trying to talk about other things other than this, and GSA was one distraction. Now this is a larger distraction and they know that we in the media are obsessed with it for what Peter King said, right, which is, oh, it involves prostitutes. So it adds a sort of level of sex appeal that the media will gravitate to.
The panel went on to agree that not paying a prostitute is not very smart. But they're talking about these stories to get a larger truth:
TODD: But there is this larger sense, and David and I were talking about it, we're both obsessed with this National Journal cover story about "In Nothing We Trust"…. This is all feeding into more government, the idea that what part of government is working well? What part of it has got trustworthy institutions? And, you know, there's–and the White House is actually–they're upset at this idea that some of us are stringing all this together, GSA and the–but it is–does get to this underlying current that is out there that there is just a lack of trust in the American public with a lot of institutions.
On ABC's This Week (4/22/12), GeorgeStephanopoulos and pundit Matthew Dowd were doing the same:
DOWD: But for me, looking at this situation, is we've lost faith in every single–the American public has lost faith in every single institution in this country. They have lost faith in sporting institutions in this country because of many different scandals. They've lost faith in the government. They've lost faith in both political parties.
STEPHANOPOULOS: All of us, the media.
DOWD: They've lost faith in corporate institutions. They've lost faith in the media. And so they see a scandal like this, they watch this scandal, they roll their eyes, and they say, you know, this is just an ongoing thing. Nobody's willing to fix Washington. Nobody's willing to fix the crisis of the institutional faith that we've lost in here. And this to me is just another example of the American public saying, listen, I don't trust any of you.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And the phrase in National Journal this week, "In nothing we trust."
Iraq War. Afghanistan War. Foreclosure crisis. The Wall Street housing bubble that destroyed millions of jobs. You can make your own list. Whatever you come up with, something tells me that the issues that really matter to you–and speak to the failures of corporate or government elites–have nothing to do with a Las Vegas conference or whatever happened in Colombia.
NBC panelist E.J. Dionne made an important point:
DIONNE: But I think it's really bad for progressives, liberals, when any of these scandals come out. Because progressives and liberals are people who say, based on history, government can accomplish great things. And, paradoxically, I think these scandals hurt the progressive side of politics more, because they feed this doubt that the public has.
DIONNE: And I think the task of people who are on that side of politics [is to] say, no, we can fix government and make it work and do good things. So I think this undercuts part of the progressive argument.
Which I think explains why these scandals get the media attention that they do.