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Review

Reviewed Work(s): Political Scandal: Power and Visibility in the Media Age by John B.
Thompson
Review by: Silvio Waisbord
Source: Contemporary Sociology, Vol. 31, No. 4 (Jul., 2002), pp. 439-440
Published by: American Sociological Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3089098
Accessed: 21-03-2017 20:44 UTC

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Contemporary Sociology

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Ideology and Cultural Production 439

erties for the housewife in a move that defa-


traditional scholars in media, contemporary
miliarizes the familiar logic of consumer cap-
history, and the sociology of culture.
italism.
Now, while there is much to be said for the
claim that even the most dreary sorts of con-Political
PoliticalScandal:
Scandal:Power
Power
andand
Visibility
Visibility
in the
in the
sumers actually pack complex and often quite Media Age, by John B. Thompson.
subversive meanings into their everyday prac-Cambridge, UK: Polity Press; Maiden, MA:
Blackwell, 2000. 324 pp. $57.95 cloth. ISBN:
tices, and for recent challenges to the stuffy
prognoses of mass culture theorists who glaze0-7456-2549-5. $24.95 paper. ISBN: 0-7456-
2550-9.
over such diverse meanings with the thick
brush of mass produced uniformity, theseSILVIO WAISBORD
interpretations leave the reader dissatisfied.Rutgers University
Spigel's assertions slip so easily through con-
ventional nets of falsifiability, usually on the
The media frenzy that typically surrounds
basis of sheer bravado alone, as to arouse thescandals contrasts with the silence of acade-
ire of not just conventional historians and mics about the subject. Scandals have gener-
sociologists who would have scholars stick toated plenty of journalistic accounts and
the familiar landmarks of political and eco- individual memoirs, but few scholarly analy-
nomic change, but of others concerned withses. This gap perhaps owes to the fact that
the interpretation of culture. Granting suchscandals have been perceived to be too triv-
unchecked autonomy to televisual images in ial and fleeting to deserve serious sociologi-
the production and reproduction of social pat-
cal attention, and too close to the ugly
terns of inequality, Spigel ignores otherunderbelly of contemporary media politics to
important social spheres, such as work, social
be understood as important events that acti-
organizations, popular movements, legislative
vate and reveal political and cultural dynam-
struggles, and demographic variables that ics.
might influence the way these images are Thanks to John B. Thompson, that gap
read, not to mention the institutional circuits
seems smaller. He has written a splendid
through which media contents get produced.book that helps to dispel misperceptions
Without some account of these factors, her about the triviality of scandals, and that sets
intense focus on images threatens to push herthe stage for debate and future research.
analyses into the realm of the silly: That Thompson asks the right questions and pro-
George Clinton and Sun Ra both had great fun poses a reasonable argument to explain why
with space travel narratives could be read asscandals are a fixture of contemporary democ-
evidence of an African American critical
racies. For him, scandals matter because they
decentering of (white) technological rational-
reflect new conditions of publicity. In times
ity at its most celebratory moment. Or, it
whencould
mediated politics dominate and citizens
just be that these imaginative musicians areplay-
less inclined to identify with traditional
fully dabbled in available popular cultural
ideologies, the personal reputations of politi-
mythologies without a hoot for their subver-
cians are crucial. Symbolic power has always
sive implications. Who knows? Withoutbeen somecentral to politics, but it has gained
stronger argument than that provided by the
tremendous significance in large-scale, media-
author's interpretations, it is hard for the read- complex societies.
centered,
er to come away with any sense of theScandals
sig- are inseparable from the fact that
nificance of this claim. representation is a dominant feature of con-
However, if Welcome to the Dreamhouse istemporary societies. Politics have become a
to be criticized for its myopic pursuit of ani-permanent fight over appearances. Obsessed
mal shapes in what might otherwise look like with appearances, politicians often reach out
drifting clouds of vapor, the volume should to experts and their bag of public relations
also be credited for the strength of Spigel's tricks to create and maintain brand names. No
considerable interpretive acumen. Her rich wonder, then, that scandals are akin to pub-
sensibility for the subtle inflections of popu-lic relations crises such as when a consumer
lar culture treats the reader to many provoca- product brand name is tainted after negative
tive meanings that typically elude more information spills out. In both cases, names

Contemporary Sociology 31, 4

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440 Community, Environment, and Population

suffer.
suffer. For
Forpoliticians,
politicians,reputation
reputationis their mainmainessary
is their essaryisisa acomprehensive
comprehensive explanation
explanationthat that
personal
personalcapital;
capital;ititmay
maybebe
built
built
patiently overoveraddresses
patiently addressesbroader
broader political,
political,
cultural,
cultural,
and and
years
years or
orininan
anintense
intense media
mediaoperation,
operation,
but but
it it media
mediafactors.
factors.Here
Herecomparative
comparative studies
studies
could could
can
can quickly
quicklyevaporate
evaporate when
when scandal
scandal
hits.
hits.
The The be
be extremely
extremely useful
usefulin in
understanding
understanding why why
more
more publicity
publicitybecomes
becomes necessary
necessaryin modern
in modern media
mediaorganizations
organizations crave
crave
sex sex
tidbits
tidbits
in some
in some
politics,
politics,the
themore
morelikely
likely
that
thatmanufactured
manufactured societies,
societies,regardless
regardlessof of
whether
whether citizens
citizens
raise raise
reputations
reputationswillwillclash
clashwith
withreal
real
behaviors.
behaviors.
By Byeyebrows
eyebrowsororcarecare
about
about
thethesexual
sexual
peccadil-
peccadil-
obsessively
obsessivelyseeking
seekingmedia
mediaattention,
attention,
politi-
politi-loes of elected officials. Such studies would
cians increase the chances that information benefit from Thompson's analysis for it gives
contradicting their reputations may get out us a solid foundation for an understanding of
and bite them. By courting citizens to trust why scandals are important when apathy and
them on the basis of personal attributes, politi-
distrust run high in contemporary democra-
cians open up the possibility for potential
cies.
inconvenient disclosures to turn the publicIf much of contemporary politics puts the
against them. eggs in the basket of personal trust, no won-
Scandals are not unique to mediated poli-
der the continuous demolition of personal
tics, but they have become common in con-reputations eventually results in the lack of
temporary politics. In the first chapter,
confidence in politicians and the system at
Thompson offers a comprehensive history of If much of contemporary politics is
large.
scandals in the Anglo American world that is the merits of individual politicians, it
about
sufficiently informative without falling into
comes as no surprise that scandals often
long-winded descriptions. He then moves elbow
to out social and collective issues from
examine why democracies are prone to scan-the public agenda and media attention. When
dals. Amid rising cynicism, frustration, and
"the political is personal," it is to be expect-
political disenchantment, a number of sub-
ed that individual reputations will be in the
stantial changes in political communication
eye of the media hurricane that characterizes
have prepared the ground for the politicsscandals.
of Thompson's incisive and thoughtful
scandals. There is an affinity between democ-
book offers much-needed assistance explor-
racy and scandals, but other conditionsing
are and understanding why these dynamics
required. Press autonomy, accountability, and
are prevalent in contemporary societies.
the huge value of publicity for political careers
contribute to a climate of scandals. As he did
in his book, The Media and Modernity,
Thompson also skillfully blends political soci- COMMUNITY,
COMMUNITY,
ology and the analysis of developments in
media industries. ENVIRONMENT,
ENVIRONMENT, AND
AND
In the last chapters, Thompson presents a POPULATION
useful taxonomy of scandals: sex, finance, and
power. It provides a handy roadmap to under-
standing future scandals. Here he tackles one
Islands
Islandsinin
thethe
City:
City:
WestWest
Indian Indian
Migration
Migration
to
of the most interesting questions about scan-
New
NewYork,
York,edited
edited
by Nancy
by Nancy
Foner. Foner.
Berkeley:Berkele
dals: Why are some scandals prevalent inUniversity
University of of
California
California
Press, Press,
2001. 304
2001.
pp. 304 pp
some, not all, societies? Consider sex scandals,$55.00 cloth. ISBN: 0-520-22573-2. $22.50
a fixture of British politics, and more recent-
paper. ISBN: 0-520-22850-2.
ly, of U.S. politics. Thompson offers a
nuanced description of some high-profile sexRICHARD ALBA
scandals but fails to provide a convincing State University of New York-Albany
explanation of why they are ubiquitous inr.alba@albany.edu
those countries. However, it would be unfair
to criticize him on this point because, ulti-In the study of contemporary immigration,
mately, the answer requires a comparativesome ultimate issues concer the impacts of
analysis of different societies. More thanthe U.S. racial system on immigrants and their
invoking prudishness or traditional morality, children and, more subtly, of their effect on
as popular commentators often state aboutit. In this respect, the most revealing current
societies filled with sex scandals, what is nec-in the immigrant stream is arguably that immi-

Contemporary Sociology 31, 4

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