Anatomy of a Scandal

Lily Cosgrove
5 min readOct 22, 2018


Although John B. Thompso’s idea of scandals being influenced by media was particularly focused on Television, the concept is still applicable in today’s social media. The socialist argued that scandals have morphed into an inescapable feature of many societies. It has become impossible to avoid scandalous news, which, due to technological advancements, has the capability of spreading within seconds. In his 1995 book, Scandals and Social Theory, Thompson developed a systematic analysis of how media (particularly Television) influences scandals. He linked the scandals to changes in ways of communication, which have transformed and altered the relations between someon’s public and private life.

Because of Thompson’s viewpoint, this paper aims at examining and analyzing the aspect of scandals in relation to our current ways of communication, either through social media or television. The paper gives an encounter of a real life scandal and scrutinizing the case scenario as per Thompson’s analysis of mediated communication. Â

Example of Real Life Scandal

The example case is Brett Kavanaugh’s scandal with two women who accused him of sexually misconducts while he was in high school and college in the 1980s. The two women are Dr. Christine Ford and Deborah Ramirez, both of whom came public with their accusations after Judge Kavanaugh had been nominated for a sit in the Supreme Court. The reason for picking this example is its conformity to Thompson’s definition of scandal.

The author states that a scandal is an action, an event or a circumstance that characterizes the following: 1) transgression of values, norms or moral codes; 2) disclosures or condemnation of the action or even can result in the damaging of someone’s reputation; 3) non-participants expressing their approvals publicly; and 4) the actions are highly believed by the non-participants (Thompson, 1995 p.39). As noted in the definition, the Brett Kavanaugh scandal case is a characteristic of the four features. That is, Judge Kavanaugh possibly transgressed personal values and societal norm by sexually assaulting both Dr. Ford and Ramirez.

Also, the scandal is characteristic of damaging Kavanaugh’s reputation. Finally, the non-participants are the news receivers, which comprises of Americans, most of whom expressed their feelings publicly by protesting against Kavanaugh’s nomination (Collinson & Foran, 2018). The Kavanaugh scandal is worth investigating because his seat in the Supreme Court is a lifetime position. At 53 years of age, Kavanaugh could serve for decades to come, thus can affect America’s laws and disputes between the federal government and states.

More importantly, his appointment by President Trump triggered emotions on issues regarding abortion, voter rights, immigration policy and death penalty (Owen et al., 2018). Nonetheless, this case example is perfect for this paper’s analysis because it has been linked to a chain of events, particularly the #MeToo movement on women sexual assaults. However, I will delimit plausible boundaries to make it manageable.

Transgressions Involved

Regarding transgression, Dr. Ford claims that, while they were in a high school party, Brett Kavanaugh pinned her down and tried to remove her clothing. When the young Ms. Ford tried to scream for help, Kavanaugh covered her mouth and tried to have sex with her. Also, Ms. Ramirez claims that, while in Yale, Kavanaugh thrust his penis in her face, which caused her to touch his private parts without consent (Relman, 2018). It is very evident that Kavanaugh invaded the privacy of both women; however, such transgressions can be classified as secondary, because they took place when he had not become a prominent figure in America.

Prior to his nomination, there was no evidence of these transgressions ever becoming public information. As explained by Thompson (1995 p.99), when it comes to scandals, a mutual but an unequal relationship is usually built between the producers of the news and those receiving the news, or the non-participants. Therefore, as reiterated by Thompson, transgressions are dependent on social-historical context and moral climate at the time of the case (p.40).

Thompson further argues that the sensitivity of a scandal varies from one norm to another, depending on the person receiving the news. For instance, in Kavanaugh’s case, his transgressions cannot be dismissed; however, not everyone believed that the accusations should be a cause for his removal as a nominee for Supreme Court judge. That is, despite being accused of sexual misconducts, it was a female senator (Susan Collins) that made sure Kavanaugh was voted for the next round of floor voting (Relman, 2018). Of course, this proves Thompson’s point that scandals are variable, depending on people’s perspectives. Â Â Â

Opprobrious Discourse It Incites

The opprobrious discourse is the debate surrounding a scandal’s harsh criticism, which entails public disgrace following a shameful conduct. In the Kavanaugh case example, the judge undergoes public shaming to an extent that it taints his reputation. The harsh criticism is very evident when the public make protests at the senate offices with claims that his nomination should be withdrawn (Collinson & Foran, 2018). Such scandals don’t give the victim an allowance for a due process. That is, instead of leaving such claims to the right stakeholders, namely courts and the FBI, the mass shows no patience.

Such an argument is a reiteration of Thompson’s viewpoint, whereby he mentions that television has created a mass media that involves the mass yet they are not particularly participants in this case scenario. Of course, such news ought to be publicized for the masses; however, the scandal is more about the visibility of the news rather than co-present dialogue (Thompson, 1995 p.43). Moreover, Thompson notices the detachment in relationship between the producers of the news (politicians, journalists, etc.) and recipients of the news (the rest of the mass). Nevertheless, Thompson doesn’t focus on the detached relationship, but rather analyzes the effects of this type of communication to the society.

Reputational Damage Perpetrator Risks

As noticeable in the Kavanaugh case, it is very obvious that producers of information have power over the type of content that influences the media. For instance, journalistic bias is evident in the Kavanaugh case. For instance, Chuck Grassley, who is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, lashes out reporters and calls them biased (Owen et al., 2018). Judge Grassley gives an explanation of a section of media personalities refusing to take interview if those being interviewed were Kavanaugh supporters. Such biases are particularly more influential if the information is passed via social media platforms.

Just Thompson’s focus on television, similar viewpoints are applicable in social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. That is, these technological advancements have made it possible for information to reach a wider sphere. This demonstrates a strong influence of the producers. At the same time, the same influence also lies with the recipients, whereby the media relies on the mass for communication. In essence, social media platforms and their social impacts have made it impossible for public figures differentiate their private lives from public scrutiny, thus increasing possible cases of scandals.