How “Scandalizing” Corruption Can Backfire

High profile corruption scandals are making headlines almost every day: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is embroiled in multiple bribery allegations; Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) was convicted for his involvement in corruption; Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was forced to resign after his allies were caught on tape buying political support to defeat his impeachment vote. The list could go on and on. And one cannot help noticing that the media coverage of these high-profile corruption cases often focuses on the most lurid, sensational aspects of individual politicians’ corrupt behavior. For example, as the Netanyahu probes unfolded, the Israeli media emphasized the juicy details: how Netanyahu and his wife were bribed with Cuban cigars and Dom Pérignon worth up to $130,000, the state’s annual allocation of approximately $3,000 for the PM’s pistachio ice cream supply, and his son’s bragging of how his father pushed through a gas deal caught on tape in a strip club. And this is but one example. It seems that corruption cases are often covered as if they were TV dramas, with entertaining plot twists and voyeuristic appeal. To put this in the terminology developed by Shanto Iyengar in his book on how TV news frames political issues, much of the contemporary media coverage of corruption tends to be “episodic” (focusing on individual stories or specific events, putting the issues in a more subjective light, and including sensational or provocative content) as opposed to “thematic” (more systematic, abstract, and in-depth, and providing a wider context for a more nuanced understanding of the causes and trends).

Such salacious coverage of corruption is perhaps unavoidable; these tawdry details attract more readers and viewers than dry reporting on financial misdeeds and back-room negotiations. And one might think that such coverage would be more effective in motivating citizens to take action against corruption—whether through votes, protests, organizing, or other means. After all, as Jimmy Chalk argued last year on this blog, anticorruption narratives can be more effective when they include dramatic stories with virtuous heroes and sinister villains. That may well be true for narratives fashioned by activists in the context of a campaign, but for news reporting, the episodic/scandal-centric approach may be counterproductive, for three main reasons:

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Netanyahu’s Attempts to Undermine Police Recommendations May Be Dangerous for Israel

Israeli police have been investigating multiple corruption allegations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for over a year. First, Netanyahu allegedly accepted extravagant gifts—such as expensive cigars, Champagne, and jewelry—from wealthy businessman Arnon Milchan in exchange for helping him secure a U.S. visa. Netanyahu is separately accused of striking a deal with the publisher of the newspaper Yediot Ahronoth, in which Netanyahu would push legislation that would curb competition from a rival paper, and in return Yediot Ahronoth would provide more favorable coverage of Netanyahu’s administration.

Recently, the Israeli police issued a recommendation that Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud, and a breach of trust in the two corruption cases. Perhaps anticipating this potential outcome, last December Netanyahu downplayed the significance of police recommendations, asserting that the “vast majority of police recommendations end in nothing.” Also last December, the Israeli parliament (the Knesset) passed, at the urging of Netanyahu’s supporters, a new Police Recommendations Law placing further restrictions on police recommendations for indictments. Though public pressure ultimately led to modifications so that the bill would not apply to the current investigations, it was also seen as prompted in large part by concerns about the possibility, now realized, that the police would recommend charges against the Prime Minister.

What, exactly, is so significant about the police recommendation in Israeli investigations into corruption and other matters? To get a better sense of what’s going on, it’s useful to take a step back and consider what Israel’s police recommendations are and whether they serve a useful function.

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