The old adage goes, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” While the saying rings true, it often provides justification for a preordained conclusion.
However, when crisis strikes – particularly political “scandals” – there is often nothing more fueling it than a smoke machine.
This is due in large part to a collection of crisis creators who only benefit from keeping the crisis in the news. That objective, not the quest for Truth or the hackneyed notion that the target has mishandled the crisis, drives the story.
There is no more apparent example than the Department of Justice (DOJ) railroading former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). The investigation, indictment and trial of Sen. Stevens in 2008 became a national front-page story for obvious reasons.
Stevens was a lion of the Senate, a 40-year veteran who shepherded through Congress dozens of landmark laws, from the creation of the U.S. Olympic Committee to the approval of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The DOJ alleged in its indictment that Stevens was “knowingly and willfully engaged in a scheme” to conceal gifts from an oil company. The sensational headlines that ensued in mainstream and partisan press basically wrote themselves.
As we know now, unethical prosecutors withheld critical evidence from the defense and engaged in other despicable activities that led to the case getting thrown out – unfortunately after Stevens had been found guilty and lost his Senate seat.
But during the entire ordeal, the legal challenge was just one element of the ongoing crisis. From the moment the media confirmed that DOJ was investigating Stevens, who was expected to face a tough reelection bid, every accusation, complaint, and conspiracy theory became fair game.
Nearly daily stories – particularly fueled by motivated political opportunists that Washington reporters gobbled up – featured allegations of backroom dealmaking, political favors, and earmarks for personal financial gain. Each allegation was driven not by defensible facts, but by innuendo, hearsay, and that tired old cliché: “Where there is smoke, there’s fire.”
What became clear is something I understand very well now – your crisis is someone else’s meal ticket; in this case, enterprising members of the media, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and now former U.S. Senator from Alaska, Mark Begich.
Today, no one may understand this paradigm more than former U.S. Congressman Vance McAllister, a one-termer from North Louisiana who spent the fall fighting for his political life.
Outside of his home state, McAllister is best known for a video capturing the Congressman kissing a member of his Louisiana staff. Unlike Stevens, whose sin was a total fabrication, McAllister was caught on tape and later offered a heartfelt apology. But his crisis was far from over; not because it was mismanaged, but because a motivated pack of crisis creators – including an opponent with Duck Dynasty cache – had access to reporters looking for a flashy headline.
At the height of the campaign, the most egregious “scandal” peddled in the press tied McAllister to misconduct accusations involving Texas Coast Energy, a company with which he has a 50 percent ownership.
The media’s acknowledged source for the salacious details? A disgruntled former employee, whose legal complaint was filled with wild allegations, none of which involved McAllister. In fact, McAllister is not even named in the complaint, nor is he in any way tied to the company’s allegedly tawdry behavior.
Before a single story was ever written, the former employee withdrew the complaint and later expressly stated his dispute with the company “did not relate to any issues I had with Mr. McAllister either personally or professionally.”
Those simple, but crucial facts did not stop the sources behind the story – McAllister’s political opponents – from marketing the scandal to self-interested members of the press.
In Eric Dezenhall’s new book, Glass Jaw, he describes a loose conspiracy of crisis creators who depend on media to retail the crisis. Dezenhall explains, “The process requires no meetings in alleyways where sacks of cash are exchanged with dodgy reporters. These are not conspiracies. They are a long-entrenched form of phototropism, the process whereby plants naturally bend toward the sunlight that nourishes them. The plants aren’t conscious of bending, it’s what they do.”
Knowing the complaint had been withdrawn, the initial media story – and copycat articles in the local press and on blogs – implicated McAllister anyway, because the accusation is always a far sexier sell than the truth.
Not surprisingly, Congressman McAllister lost his seat. And in doing so, he learned the unfortunate lesson that when it comes to manufactured crises, a smoke machine is usually more powerful than the facts.