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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Why Does the Chinese Communist Party Tear a Hole in its Own Democracy Cloak?

The People’s Republic of China recently uncovered the biggest vote-buying scandal since its founding in 1949. On September 13, 2016, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the national legislature, dismissed 45 of the 102 NPC representatives from Liaoning province for securing their seats in the NPC through vote buying. These NPC representatives had apparently bribed representatives to the Liaoning provincial Congress, which elects NPC representatives; 523 out of the 619 Liaoning provincial congress representatives were also implicated in this scandal, and have either resigned or been removed for election rigging, rendering the Liaoning provincial legislature inoperable. The central authorities stated that the “unprecedented” bribery scandal challenged the “bottom line” of China’s socialist system and the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

For many observers, reports of this vote-buying scandal came as a surprise. Some commentators wondered why people would risk getting caught and punished for corruption, just to secure a seat in a legislature that has been derided as little more than a rubber stamp. The most plausible explanation is that a seat on the NPC facilitates access to the rich and powerful, and it is this consideration, rather than the mostly symbolic power of the legislature itself, that motivates candidates to buy votes in NPC elections. (See here, here and here). There is, however, a second puzzle about the recent vote-buying scandal—one that is in fact more puzzling and important, though it has not received as much attention: Why do CCP leaders care about electoral corruption in NPC elections, if the NPC merely rubber-stamps party decisions? True, the CCP under President Xi Jinping has made the fight against official corruption a top priority—but given the prevalence of corruption in so many areas of Chinese government, many of which have immediate practical consequences, why target electoral corruption in the NPC?

The question becomes even more interesting when one considers that calling attention to vote-buying in NPC elections—a form of corruption that might otherwise not attract much attention—poses certain risks to the CCP. First, even if the NPC is mostly a rubber stamp legislature, it represents the symbolic core of state power, and is central to the CCP’s “socialist democracy,” a model the Party has long used to resist the Western-style multi-party democracy. As one commentator put it has observed, the exposure of the NPC vote-buying scandal has torn a large hole in the country’s “democracy cloak.” Second, exposing widespread corrupt practices could also increase pressure for systemic reforms. So why did CCP leaders choose to crack down on corruption in the legislature so openly? Continue reading

Automatic Government Retention of All Official Emails: An Easy Anticorruption Reform

Former Secretary of State and presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton is currently under fire from Republican opponents and transparency advocates for her (alleged) circumvention of Federal recordkeeping laws. While this particular scandal (or pseudo-scandal) may soon pass, as have numerous other such scandals, the anticorruption community should take this opportunity to voice its support for a badly-needed reform to recordkeeping laws, to ensure that official emails sent by people in a position of public trust should be immutably preserved.

It seems almost too obvious, but “lost” and “misplaced” emails are often a major impediment in corruption investigations. At least three ongoing corruption investigations are touched by email deletions, to say nothing of past investigations:

  1. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo instructed his government to begin purging un-archived emails after 90 days, even as controversy and a Federal investigation swirls around his dismantling of the Moreland Commission. (He has now altered his policy somewhat)
  2. A Federal investigation into hundreds of millions of procurement dollars spent by the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA) has been dragging on for years, crippled in part by missing emails that were “compromised” before the DRPA could turn them over to the U.S. Attorney. The DRPA (partly overseen by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie whose own history with deleted communications is muddled) lost 18 months worth of emails received by a single key official during a key period of time, due to a “software malfunction” with their in-house email system. DRPA’s Inspector General has since resigned in frustration.
  3. In a glimmer of hope, although recently-resigned Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber instructed members of his government to delete emails ahead of an FBI and IRS corruption probe, they refused to do so.

This is an absurd state of affairs, and entirely unnecessary. There is absolutely no compelling reason to not automatically preserve every email sent and received by civil servants. This is 2015: it is literally more expensive to take the time to actively delete emails than it is to simply keep them. Either governments haven’t realized this yet, or their claim that emails should be deleted for the sake of “efficiency” is in fact a red herring. I suggest the latter. The continued absence of appropriate email preservation rules for public servants, which would be incredibly easy to implement, will continue to frustrate anticorruption efforts. Continue reading

Do Americans Care About Corruption?

We usually imagine that democratic accountability serves an important anticorruption function: since voters presumably do not approve of corruption, a benefit of democracy is the ability to give untrustworthy pols the boot. Yet in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Hilary Krieger provocatively claims that American voters don’t really care if a politician engages in corrupt acts, so long as “a political leader has otherwise furthered the public good.” In addition to this descriptive claim, she also makes the normative argument that Americans voters are right not to reflexively vote out politicians tainted by corruption.

Although both her descriptive and normative claims have some truth to them–elections are multi-faceted, and corruption is not the end-all-be-all issue–both the descriptive and normative arguments have serious flaws.

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