- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 1, 2007

At least some of the public figures accused in last year’s “Republican” corruption scandals were bound to be exonerated. This week it is former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who is cleared of insider-trading allegations by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Mr. Frist’s was a bit part in the 2006 scandal narrative, and the charges against the straight-as-an-arrow Mr. Frist always seemed unlikely. But in the year of Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham, they stuck, irrespective of the facts. That’s what happens in a scandal narrative. Readers should know that this is how a media-fed Washington “scandal” story works. Don’t become cynical about the system, nor about leaders you trust, absent hard evidence.

Of course, feel free to be cynical about the media coverage when it tars the innocent. You won’t see Mr. Frist’s exoneration headlined in any of the several media outlets that fed on the allegations in late 2005. The innocence of an accused political leader several months after an election does not lend itself to the logic of a media scandal. Thus did one previously exonerated Washingtonian ask: “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?” Such scandals only snowball in one direction. Down.

“There is, right now, more smoke than evidence that Frist engaged in any insider trading,” wrote The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus, a Pulitzer nominee, in an October 8, 2005 column, “Hubris on the Hill.” What a disclaimer. She then proceeded to twin Mr. Frist with then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay for “thumb-in-the-eye-of-the-gods arrogance that inevitably invites downfall.” Mr. Frist, you see, was guilty of “smug and disingenuous maneuvering,” which led Mrs. Marcus to suspect that “even without a trail of damning e-mails or whispered conversations with company insiders” Mr. Frist would be sunk politically. This is called scandal-mongering.

Stop right here and recall that no such “damning e-mails” or “whispered conversations” were in evidence. They didn’t exist then; they don’t exist now. But, it suits the purposes of the scandal-monger to talk about hypothetical condemnatory e-mails and whispers. By the time we know for certain, people will have long forgotten.

Clouds like those around truly guilty parties like Jack Abramoff and Duke Cunningham — or, on the other side of the aisle, like Dan Rostenkowski — can be blown and twisted. Mr. Frist got caught in one even though he was innocent.

If there’s a lesson for ordinary Americans about Washington scandals here, it’s this: Don’t believe everything you read amid a cloud of scandal. Don’t be cynical about a leader until the evidence is in. Above all, don’t be cynical about democratic government. But, feel more than free to be cynical about a manipulative media seeking juicy stories and headlines.

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