ACCORDING TO POLITICAL broadcasting theory, two main factors are involved in a political scandal: political power and the nature of the affair. A case is a true political scandal only if it involves politicians with real power and shared public interest.
In any democratic country, a political scandal usually goes through several stages, from incubation and rationalization to peak and decay.
As it reaches its peak, the media go crazy over any new detail, no matter how small, while the political figures involved make every effort to defend their behavior and reputation.
As the two clash, public opinion forms. When the affair enters the legal system, the scandal usually enters the stage of decay.
Take the case involving former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). Although Chen’s presidency is over and he no longer has actual political power, the allegations against him constitute a political scandal because the court cases involve the public interest.
As such, they have triggered massive media coverage — both in Taiwan and abroad. But viewed through political scandal theory, the case has already enjoyed a two-year peak period that seems to continue without end.
In my study on the content of Taiwan’s political talk shows, I found that as many as 80 percent of these programs were using the allegations against Chen as their top issues on a daily basis at the end of last year.
Although the lawsuits against Chen have already entered the court system, a number of media outlets and politicians are trying hard to prevent the scandal from entering the decay stage.
Such political maneuvering deviates from the operating principles of free media in democratic countries.
Why do some media outlets and political figures want to extend this political scandal indefinitely?
Politicians prolong scandals to achieve specific political goals, such as destroying the public image of the rival camp or focusing public attention away from their own political moves and failures.
The reason why media outlets do so is more intriguing. If we consider the commercial interests of the media market, viewers tend to favor new issues over old ones.
By continuing to sensationalize the lawsuits against Chen, the media seem to be acting illogically.
Is the economy so bad that media outlets need to rely on government funding for “placement marketing” to turn a profit? Are media outlets catering to government preferences to help them win public bids?
Or could it be that Taiwanese viewers are no longer the priority of the nation’s broadcast media, so that news programs are forced to curry favor with the Chinese authorities to smooth the process of selling drama and entertainment programming to the Chinese market?
As an example, despite its consistently high ratings, a political program that praises local opinions and doesn’t sensationalize the Chen case had its weekend edition canceled in December. The TV station also stopped outsourcing the production of the program and brought it back to the station. These actions make one wonder what goes on behind the scene.
This old political scandal, which viewers are already fed up with, is like a Lunar New Year’s dish that one is sick of eating year after year.
Still, the leftovers will be reheated again and again even as we lose our appetite.
Wang Tai-li is an associate professor at the Graduate Institute of Journalism at National Taiwan University.