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'The entire scandal narrative was an illusion'

White House photo

There's a salient downside to forward-thinking coverage of current events: occasionally, the political world gets a story wrong, and needs to pause to look backwards.

This may well be as much a part of human nature as news gathering. A development happens, we notice it and take it seriously, but as we learn the development wasn't as interesting as we initially believed, we move on to the next development. There's a certain awkwardness to consciously looking backwards and acknowledging, "Hmm, maybe I overreacted."

But when it comes to accountability, politics, and the public discourse, it'd be nice if this happened anyway. I mention this, of course, because for about a month, the political world, with all-caps commentary and a whole lot of exclamation points, said President Obama was involved in a series of "scandals" that threatened his entire presidency. Those controversies have been largely discredited, but there's no moment at which pundits and politicians tell the public, "Oh, about all that overheated impeachment talk, obsessive speculation about a 'second-term curse,' and Nixon comparisons? Never mind. Our bad."

As Jon Chait explained yesterday,

The whole Obama scandal episode is a classic creation of a "narrative" -- the stitching together of unrelated data points into a story. What actually happened is this: House Republicans passed a twisted account of a hearing to ABC's Jonathan Karl, who misleadingly claimed to have seen it, creating the impression that the administration was caught in a major lie. Then the IRS story broke, which we now see was Republicans demanding a one-sided audit and thus producing the impression of one-sided treatment. In that context, legitimate controversies over Obama's civil-rights policies became the "three Obama scandals," exposing a government panopticon, if not a Nixonian administration bent on revenge.

The collapse of the Benghazi story happened very quickly.... But the scandal cloud lingered through the still-extant IRS scandal, which in turn lent the scandal odor to the civil-liberties dispute. Now that the IRS scandal has turned into a Darrell Issa scandal, we're left with ... an important dispute over domestic surveillance, which has nothing to do with scandal at all. The entire scandal narrative was an illusion.

That's true, though the American mainstream and casual news consumers almost certainly won't know that because there's so little introspection among those who told them to believe the White House was in "crisis." The public couldn't help but hear about the "Obama scandals," and will never see any front-page headlines declaring the scandals over.

Indeed, even now, much of the public can be forgiven for assuming the worst. Everyone from Jon Stewart to Rush Limbaugh spent much of May expressing disgust with the president for stories like the IRS controversy, which turned out not to be a controversy at all, at least not for the White House.

And with that in mind, the damage is already done. The perception has already taken root. Obama was surrounded by several "scandals"; his every move was little more than an effort to distract attention from his many controversies; and everyone knows where there's smoke, there's fire, right?

Chait added that the whole uproar has "come and gone, having left barely a trace." I think that's true, though the "trace" is a diminished presidential reputation based largely on nothing.

The walkbacks from the commentators who were wrong never appear, because that's just not how our discourse seems to work. The political world treated Scandal Mania as a toy for several weeks, which eventually grew tiresome, which in turn led to a search for something new to play with.

There is no effort to look back and explain to voters that Scandal Mania was itself a mirage, and the disgust was misplaced.