Toward a Unified Theory of Scandal-Naming

We need to update our scandal lexicology: Is it a -Gate or a -Ghazi?

Weeds and trash around the rear entrance to the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC, June 11, 2012.
National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Jan. 15, 2014, 9:23 a.m.

THE WA­TER­GATE — Since a Wash­ing­ton hotel and of­fice com­plex lent its name to the most im­port­ant polit­ic­al crime in Amer­ic­an his­tory 40 years ago, “Wa­ter­gate” has be­come syn­onym­ous with scan­dal. The suf­fix “-gate” has been af­fixed to dozens of scan­dals large and small (and very small), from Cli­mateg­ate, which rolled back dec­ades of pub­lic-trust-build­ing on the sci­ence of glob­al warm­ing, to Nip­pleg­ate, the in­fam­ous Su­per Bowl “ward­robe mal­func­tion,” to Fajit­ag­ate, an in­cid­ent in­volving three off-duty San Fran­cisco po­lice of­ficers and a bag of steak fajitas that led to the top­pling of two po­lice chiefs.

And “-gate” long ago es­caped the bounds of Amer­ic­an polit­ics and the Eng­lish lan­guage. Column-inch-lim­ited head­line writers in Ar­gen­tina, Azerbaijan, Canada, Fin­land, Ger­many, Italy, Mex­ico, Po­land, South Africa, and es­pe­cially the UK have all im­por­ted “-gate” for their own homegrown scan­dals. Many in­volve sports. Some in­volve bo­lognese sauce: The Montreal res­taur­ant com­munity was rocked last year by Pas­tag­ate, when Québéc’s lan­guage en­for­cers warned an up­scale res­taur­ant to stop us­ing Itali­an words like “pasta” on its menu in­stead of the French equi­val­ent. Very few rise near the level of Wa­ter­gate.

We need a new term for these sub-gate scan­dals.

As Brit­ish so­cial sci­ent­ist James Stanyer has noted, “Rev­el­a­tions are giv­en the ‘gate’ suf­fix to add a thin veil of cred­ib­il­ity, fol­low­ing ‘Wa­ter­gate’, but most bear no re­semb­lance to the painstak­ing in­vest­ig­a­tion of that par­tic­u­lar piece of pres­id­en­tial cor­rup­tion.” (Dis­clos­ure: Na­tion­al Journ­al’s of­fices are loc­ated in the Wa­ter­gate com­plex, which, by the way, gets its name from the nearby mouth of the C&O Canal and/or a dis­con­tin­ued sum­mer con­cert series.)

In fact, this de­grad­a­tion of scan­dal may have been the point of “-gate’s” cre­ation. Former Nix­on speech­writer cum New York Times colum­nist Wil­li­am Safire was the first to de­tach “gate” from “wa­ter” as early as Septem­ber 1974, and he went on to coin many more “gates,” in­clud­ing some of the big­gies: Briefingate, Travel­gate, White­wa­ter­gate, among a dozen or so oth­ers.

As Columbia Journ­al­ism School’s Mi­chael Schud­son and oth­ers have ar­gued, Safire’s cor­nu­copia of “-gates” were an at­tempt to dis­tance him­self from Nix­on and min­im­ize Wa­ter­gate as just one of myri­ad quo­tidi­an bur­eau­crat­ic in­dis­cre­tions and silly tabloid scan­dals. Safire ba­sic­ally ad­mit­ted as much years later, say­ing his fa­vor­ite “-gates” were for minor scan­dals, like Double­billings­gate, which in­volved some con­tract­ors double-billing the gov­ern­ment.

Mean­while, it works the oth­er way around too. “Turn­ing a scan­dal in­to a ‘gate’ has of­ten been an ef­fort to use the emotive power of lan­guage for polit­ic­al ad­vant­age,” Schud­son ex­plains. This is ba­sic­ally Dar­rell Issa’s full-time job as chair­man of the House Over­sight Com­mit­tee — to hang a “-gate” on as much of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion as pos­sible.

These cri­ti­cisms are noth­ing new. Journ­al­ists and lin­guists have con­demned the re­duc­tion­ism of “-gate” since at least the 1980s, and yet new scan­dals get gated all the time. It’s a con­veni­ent heur­ist­ic. “All you people com­plain­ing about the use of -gate as an all-pur­pose suf­fix for scan­dals have nev­er tried writ­ing a head­line, have you?” Politico Magazine Deputy Ed­it­or Blake Houn­shell tweeted this week. Safire him­self un­der­stood this: “The for­mu­la­tion with the -gate suf­fix is too use­ful to fade quickly,” he wrote in his polit­ic­al dic­tion­ary.

While it’d prob­ably be ideal to ban­ish “-gate” en­tirely from the journ­al­ist­ic lex­icon, that’s clearly not go­ing to hap­pen. So maybe the next best thing is to add a second (or even third) suf­fix for less­er scan­dals that don’t rise to “-gate” level im­broglio.

Of course, try­ing to de­term­ine what makes one scan­dal “real” and an­oth­er not is likely a fool’s er­rand in post­mod­ern Wash­ing­ton, where truth is mostly re­l­at­ive. Try­ing to value scan­dals on their mer­its leads to what might be called Scan­dal Math. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, once said that Benghazi was big­ger than if you put “Wa­ter­gate and Ir­an-Con­tra to­geth­er and mul­tiply it times maybe 10.” John Dean, Nix­on’s former White House coun­sel, mean­while, wrote a book al­leging that George W. Bush’s “secret pres­id­ency” was “worse than Wa­ter­gate.” These things are too re­l­at­ive and tricky to weigh fairly.

We need a more em­pir­ic­al cat­egor­iz­a­tion. For that, we can turn to Dart­mouth polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Brendan Nyhan, who has one of the most widely cited the­or­ies on polit­ic­al scan­dals. In a nut­shell, he ar­gues that scan­dals are a co-pro­duc­tion of the me­dia and the op­pos­i­tion party, and only form when both are on board. No me­dia buy-in, no real scan­dal.

Take the scan­dal du jour, New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie’s clos­ing of toll lanes on the George Wash­ing­ton Bridge. At first, Demo­crats cared, but the na­tion­al me­dia did not. But when emails emerged last week show­ing clearly that Christie aides planned the traffic delays to ex­act polit­ic­al re­venge, the is­sue sud­denly be­came a “-gate,” with wall-to-wall press cov­er­age and the full aura of scan­dal.

So what would we call the con­tro­versy be­fore the emails leaked? We need something that has all the met­onym­ic value of “-gate,” but none of its con­nota­tion of vera­city. Something that tells read­ers, “Some people are try­ing to make this a scan­dal, but we’re not sure yet.”

There are count­less par­tis­an pseudo-scan­dals on both sides that could po­ten­tially lend their names, but one ob­vi­ous choice is Benghazi. It’s already be­ing widely com­pared to the bridge clos­ings both iron­ic­ally and not (see: Fox News, Karl Rove, Re­pub­lic­ans), with many dub­bing the Christie con­tro­versy Bridgeghazi.

The 2012 ter­ror­ist at­tack on the U.S. dip­lo­mat­ic post in Libya was a tragedy, but a year and half of in­tens­ive con­gres­sion­al, ad­min­is­trat­ive, and journ­al­ist­ic in­vest­ig­a­tion have failed to pro­duce any com­pel­ling evid­ence that it was a scan­dal, at least in the way Re­pub­lic­ans talk about it when they talk about #benghazi.

“-Ghazi” also shares con­veni­ent lin­guist­ic par­al­lels with “-gate.” They’re both scan­dals that typi­fy their cat­egory; they’re both loc­a­tion names; they both start with the let­ter “g”; and they are both short enough to be used in head­lines and at­tached to nouns identi­fy­ing the scan­dal.

The George Wash­ing­ton Bridge lane clos­ings star­ted as a “-ghazi” and then be­came a “-gate.”

Last year’s IRS con­tro­versy, on the oth­er hand, moved in the op­pos­ite dir­ec­tion. It looked very bad at first, but as new data emerged, it was clear there was no real scan­dal and the me­dia lost in­terest. Non­ethe­less, the al­leged tar­get­ing of tea-party non­profit groups re­mains very much alive among con­ser­vat­ives (it was huge shot in the arm to some groups). It was a “-gate” and then be­came a “-ghazi.”

The Obama era is chock-full of “-ghazis” — Solyn­drag­hazi, Obama­Phoneghazi, New­Black­P­an­ther­sghazi, Um­brel­laghazi, and of course Benghazi — but few “-gates” (Snowdengate and Web­siteg­ate, come to mind). A “-gate” doesn’t ne­ces­sar­ily re­quire high-pro­file scalps or big policy change, but it must be widely re­garded as a scan­dal and be treated in the main­stream me­dia as such. “-Ghazis,” on the oth­er hand, are a par­tis­an fix­a­tion whose ig­no­miny and im­port­ance are self-evid­ent and un­ques­tion­able to de­votees but largely ig­nored by the rest of the world.

Par­tis­ans, of course, will con­tin­ue try­ing to turn “-ghazis” in­to “-gates” un­til Ro­bot­In­sur­rec­tiong­ate makes the is­sue moot some­time in the not-so-dis­tant fu­ture. But journ­al­ists should at least try to hold the lin­guist­ic line un­til then.

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