Framing Political Scandals: The Functioning of ‘Trial by Media’

The rise of mediated communication has fundamentally changed how the world is experienced by society, perhaps no more so than in the realm of politics.  In fact, “the media have become a main source of information and opinion for the public” (McQuail, 2010, p. 526).  As such, political actors have an increasing reliance on the media to shape their public image, set their political agenda, and to provide the arena with which political events are played out (McQuail, 2010).  While politic actors spend a great deal of time and energy using the media to provide “a basis of support for their power and policies…mediated visibility is a double-edged sword” (Thompson, 2005, p. 41), insofar as increased visibility also creates increased risk.  Of course, the most significant risk facing politicians is that of the political scandal, or ‘trial by media’.  Thompson (2000) describes a political scandal as a situation where previously invisible behaviors that violate social norms, become visible, are seen as contrary to the politician’s carefully crafted image, and are characterized by an ensuing public outcry or demand for justice.  Of course, Thompson’s (2000) definition of political scandal in a era of mediated visibility presumes that the media is the cause, in terms of increased scrutiny, visibility and construction of the scandal event, and also creates effects, in terms of audience reaction.  Arguably, Thompson (2005) does little to describe how the construction of the scandal event creates the effect on audiences.  However, recent empirical research by Kepplinger, Geiss, and Siebert (2012) describes how media-constructed frames of political scandals provide cues that determine how message recipients process the scandal information to draw conclusions and form behavioral intentions.  What follows is an analysis and critique of Kepplinger, et al.’s (2012) work to understand its explanatory power for how ‘trial by media’ affects audiences and discuss the implications of their findings.

Framing Scandals: Overview and Method

            Whereas the existing literature on framing effects infer a strong relationship between journalistic frames and audience influence, McQuail (2010) suggests that “it is not obvious how framing will work as an effect process” (p. 511).  To explore how media constructed scandal information influences the audience, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) used “three strands of research to develop a model of individual-level opinion formation in scandals: a) scandal research, b) framing theory, and c) appraisal theory” (p. 600).  The authors appear to use Scheufele’s (1999) process model of framing effects, whereby journalists construct the frames, the frames are transmitted to the audience, and the audience accepts certain frames “with consequences for their attitudes, outlook, and behavior” (McQuail, 2010, p. 511).  Moreover, the authors recognized that framing theory did not describe the link between specific media frames and the resulting inferences (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).  Therefore, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) ‘filled the gap’ with appraisal theory (Nerb & Spada, 2001) which identifies relevant cognitions that lead to the creation of opinion in negative events including five aspects, a) whether the damages are large or small, b) the degree to which the transgression was caused by human behavior, c) whether the people followed selfish or altruistic goals, d) whether they were aware of the consequences of their actions, and e) whether there was an opportunity to act differently.  These cognitions are understood to form the basis of people’s beliefs, and moreover, will influence an audience frame of guilt or excuse.  The author’s model integrating these theories were used to test how the type of frame, amount, and completeness of frames affected the audience to arrive at a guilt frame or an excuse frame (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).

With their model as the basis for the research, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) designed the research with the following hypotheses:

H1:  Media depict the cases using primarily fragmentary frames, blaming the public figure with regard to some components (e.g., selfish motives) but not with regard to all (e.g., prior knowledge).

H2:  Cognitive reactions of individuals result from a) learning from the media and b) conclusions of individuals, drawn from an overall impression.

H3:  Individuals will develop one of two polarized individual frames: a guilt frame or an excuse frame.

H4:  A person will call for more severe punishment if he or she a) believes the public figure is guilty and b) feels angry; an individual will call for milder punishment if he or she c) excuses the public figure and d) feel sad about the case.

H5:  Individuals will tend to develop a(n) (individual) guilt frame (a) the more complete guilt frames they receive and (b) the more fragmentary guilt frames they receive.

H6:  A model of opinion formation in scandals accounting for learning from the media and information processing of individuals will adequately model the relationships between cognitive reactions, emotional reactions, and calls for punishment. (pp. 662-663)

In order to test their hypotheses, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) conducted a content analysis of how the four political scandals were depicted by media according to the five aspects, damages, human agency, selfish goals, prior knowledge, and freedom of action, and combined them with individual survey data by calculating the individuals media input.  The combined data demonstrate the extent to which journalist frames influence audience information processing.

Framing Scandals: Findings

            Indeed, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) found support for much of their hypothesis.  Only rarely did the media portray complete frames across all five aspects, instead typically providing fragmentary guilt frames in one or more aspects, with human agency being the most dominant, resulting in support for H1 (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).  More importantly, the researchers found that learning accounted “for a low share of variance in cognitive reactions” (Kepplinger, et al., 2012, p. 671), whereas information processing to form a consistent impression explained as much as 92% of variance, suggesting that all five journalist frames positively and significantly influence the cognitive reaction, providing empirical support for H2.  In addition, the audience cognitions led to the formation of a guilt frame or excuse frame, depending of the audience perception of damages, which also influenced audience views on punishment, providing support for H3 (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).  The support for H4 was weaker, with some evidence of a relationship between the degree of perceived damage and calls for punishment, with cognitive variables accounting for 40% of calls for punishment, while emotional reactions of the audience did not significantly contribute to calls for punishment absent cognitions (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).

Moreover, the Kepplinger, et al. (2012) found the more guilt frames an audience received, the greater the tendency to develop their own guilt frame, with as much as 9% of the development of a guilt frame explained by guilt frames the audience received.  Furthermore, “although recipients received fragmentary frames, they complemented the picture and developed a coherent guilt frame by themselves” (Kepplinger, et al., 2012, p. 675), suggesting that audiences elaborate on fragmentary information to arrive at their own conclusions, providing support for H5.  Finally, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) were able to construct a structural equation model “spanning from media input, via cognitions and emotions, to behavioral intentions” (p. 675).


            Rather than supporting the notion of ‘trial by media’, whereby the media determine public perception of guilt during a scandal, Kepplinger, et al.’s (2012) findings suggest that the media provide fragmentary information, which is then elaborated on by an audience to create an impression of guilt or an impression that excuses the behavior.  These findings are therefore consistent with Petty and Cacioppo’s (1986) Elaboration Likelihood Model suggesting that people with will be motivated to achieve cognitive consistency drawing on both knowledge and experience, or ‘incidental cues’ to fill in information gaps.  In this sense, individuals as well as media are equally responsible for the formation of an individual guilt frame.

Insofar as the media operates on a 24-hour news cycle, scandal stories often begin with fragmentary information and are updated frequently as new information is discovered.  In such a setting, the audience is subjected to repeated fragmentary guilt frames increasing the likelihood that individual audience members will arrive at a guilt conclusion, despite the lack of a complete picture.  Therefore, in this sense, the 24-hour news cycle and associated journalistic business model contribute directly to the formation of public opinion in scandal events, contributing to the development of a ‘trial by media’.

Moreover, the initial framing of a scandal event can have serious consequences on the formation of public opinion, whereby reported levels of human agency or degree of damage can provide incidental cues to the audience that support the formation guilt or excuse audience frames.  In a situation with a perceived high degree of damage, the notion of ‘trial by media’ becomes a distinct possibility, much akin to the notion of a ‘witch hunt’, with serious potential consequences for political actors caught up in the scandal event.  Arguably, Kepplinger et al.’s (2012) findings raise serious ethical questions about the media’s coverage of scandal events, particularly in the era of 24-hour news.


            The research of Kepplinger et al (2012) is an important addition to media effects research, insofar as it demonstrates a relationship between journalistic framing of scandal events, audience cognitions and emotions, and the audience’s behavioral intentions.  However, there are opportunities to further their research to draw more conclusive findings.  First, the research focused on solely on political scandals, to the exclusion of financial, criminal, or sexual scandals.  This author wonders whether audience elaborations would exhibit the same consistency in the face of a sexual scandal, where audience morals may play a more salient role in the creation of guilt or excuse frames.  Moreover, would the same journalistic framing norms apply during a media investigation of powerful political figures, as they would for others with less power?

In addition, the research did not explore the role of confirmation bias in an individual’s elaboration process.  To what degree do political leanings affect the media effects described? Are individual’s more or less likely to elaborate according to their own established views?  To what extent are journalist more or less likely expand on the journalist guilt frames based on their bias?   In an analysis of scandal events, Puglisi and Snyder (2008) found that Democratic leaning newspapers provided relatively greater coverage to Republican scandals and Republican leaning newspapers provided greater coverage to Democratic scandals.  Given Kepplinger et al.’s (2012) findings, is greater coverage inherently biased?  More importantly, does the combination of greater coverage and the workings of confirmation bias all but assure an individual will arrive at a guilt frame?

In addition, Kepplinger, et al. (2012) suggest that their work could benefit from more investigation into how opinions form over time to understand their malleability.  Furthermore, the authors acknowledge that more work is needed to understand the sources, beside media content, upon which individual frames are based (Kepplinger, et al., 2012).  This author concludes the findings are sufficiently compelling to warrant further investigation to advance this line of media effects research.


            Kepplinger et al.’s (2012) research into how media-constructed frames of political scandals can cue message recipients to elaborate and draw conclusions in absence of complete information.  Moreover, the greater the number of guilt frames the audience receives, the higher the likelihood the audience will draw a guilt conclusion, a disturbing finding consider the character of the 24-hour news cycle.  Accordingly, the greater visibility of today’s heavily mediated reality is fraught with risk for political actors seeking to manage their image, where the simple association with scandal could very well minimize their ability to advance their agenda, or even destroy their career.


Kepplinger, H. M., Geiss, S., & Siebert, S. (2012). Framing Scandals: Cognitive and Emotional Media Effects. Journal of Communication, 62(4), 659-681.

McQuail, D. (2010). Mcquail’s mass communication theory (6th ed.). London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

Nerb, J., & Spada, H. (2001). Evaluation of environmental problems: A coherence model of cognition and emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 15, 521-551.

Petty, R. E., & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). ‘The elaboration likelihood model of persuasion’. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (pp. 132-205). New York, New York: Academic Press.

Puglisi, R., & Snyder, J. M., Jr. (2008). Media coverage of political scandals. Washington DC: The National Bureau of Economic Research.

Scheufele, D. A. (1999). Framing as a theory of media effects. Journal of Communication, 49(1), 103-122.

Thompson, J. B. (2000). Political scandal : power and visibility in the media age. Cambridge

Malden, MA: Polity Press ;


Thompson, J. B. (2005). The New Visibility. Theory, Culture & Society, 22(6), 31-51.


What Hath God Wrought: Commonality Between the Telegraph and the Internet

Often with the advent of new technology comes speculation regarding the technology’s social, political, and economic effects, both dystopian and utopian.  Such was the case of the telegraph, which caused Briggs and Maverick (1858) to opine:

National health can only be maintained by the free and unobstructed interchange of each with all.  How potent a power, then, is the telegraphic destined to become in the civilization of the world…It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such an instrument has been created for an exchange of thought between all the nations of the earth. (p. 22)

Indeed, their statement could have been made in 2000, rather than 1858.  Of course, similar utopian speculations abound with respect to the Internet.  For example, Shirky (2010) believes that social media will usher in a new era of human creativity and generosity, while Botsman (2010) sees the Internet enabling the rise of collaborative consumption in response to the world’s growing environmental crisis.   In addition, Benkler (2006) describes greater civic engagement in the networked public sphere.  In this sense, the Internet and the telegraph share a similar social response to the technology, as determinists attempt to shape the neo-technological ideologies of their day.  Of course, the Internet, as with the telegraph, will not inevitably alter society in some preordained manner based on the bias of the technology, rather, its social form will be the result of what Starr (2004) describes as ‘constitutive choices’ made today that are based on the foundation of earlier choices.  Therefore, it stands to reason, by understanding the ‘constitutive choices’ of earlier generations regarding the telegraph that this generation can perhaps begin to develop a perspective on upcoming regulatory, commercial, and political choices facing U.S. society.  Through an analysis of the consequences of decisions made during the development of the telegraph, this author finds that government must balance their regulatory efforts to continue to promote Internet industry growth, while protecting the public from commercial interests that would use their dominant market positions to reduce competition through industry consolidation, thereby exerting undue influence over network, and perhaps limiting freedom of expression in the process.

Early Development of the Telegraph

            Prior to the development of the telegraph, information was delivered by U.S. Post Office mail carriers.  Moreover, the U.S. Postal Service only provided service to a fraction of the country and was supplemented by private services such as Wells Fargo and the Pony Express.  Because information was delivered by hand and over enormous distance, news of distant events would arrive much delayed.  The semaphore system, was first developed by the French in 1789 was demonstrably quicker than postal services, however was labor intensive, expensive to construct, and the communication was not private (Holzmann, 1994).  The time delay of the postal service and the inefficiency and lack of privacy of the semaphore system set the stage for the introduction of the telegraph.

While Samuel Morse is popularly credited for the invention of the electric telegraph, others had developed a working telegraph prior to Morse (Mather, 2009; Scherer, 2008).  Rather, “Morse’s merit was to conceive once for all the apparatus by which electrical telegraphy became practical” (Mather, 2009, p. 1).  However, the development of Morse’s invention into a modern telegraph network was built on the foundation of earlier constitutive choices, including the development of a free press, a national Post Office, Congressional funding of schools, and most notably, property rights in the form of patent law (Starr, 2004).  For example, Morse’s invention was dependent on the work of Leonard Gale, an NYU professor that helped him extend signaling distance, through the use of relays (Smithsonian Institute, 2012).  Moreover, Morse patented his invention through the U.S. Department of State’s Patent and Trademark Office, protecting Morse’s ability to share knowledge of his invention and safely develop the technology (Smithsonian Institute, 2012).  Finally, after presenting his invention to the U.S. Congress, the Congress funded the construction of a demonstration line between Washington and Baltimore out of Post Office funds, from which the first message, “What hath God wrought”, was sent (Smithsonian Institute, 2012).  Thus, the development of the telegraph should be credited not only to Samuel Morse, but also to the ‘constitutive choices’ of earlier generations.

Constitutive Choices that Shaped the Development of the Telegraph Industry

            By 1870, a mere 26 years from the transmission of the first message, Western Union owned more than 112, 000 miles of wire and handled more than nine million messages annually (U.S. Census Bureau, 1975).  The remarkable progress of the telegraph industry between 1844 and 1870 is as much a result of the promise of the technology as it is the product of a number of notable constitutive choices that spurred the development of the technology.  Of course, not all of the choices appear to be deliberate.  There is ample evidence that Morse thought the telegraph ought to be an extension of the Post Office (Munro, 1891; Smithsonian Institute, 2012).  Indeed, most European governments ended up nationalizing the telegraph.  However, Morse saw things differently and took his invention and offered to sell the patent to the government for $100,000, but the Postmaster General declined, on the grounds that the proposal “had not satisfied him that under any rate of postage that could be adopted its revenues could be made equal to its expenditures” (Munro, 1891, p. 68).  In addition, it also appears that the U.S. Congress as a whole was somewhat skeptical of investing in Morse’s invention (Munro, 1891; Smithsonian Institute, 2012).  Thus, it appears that the U.S. proclivity to privatize the telegraph, a significant departure from U.S. historical precedent set by the establishment of the Post Office, may have been the result of skepticism rather than a strategic decision.

The decision to allow the telegraph to remain in the domain of the private sector proved to be a boon for economic growth of the nascent industry.  Following the rebuff of the government, patent holders like Morse, sought private capital to erect the needed infrastructure for the telegraph, however, they “had difficulty convincing capitalists of the commercial value of the invention” (Smithsonian Institute, 2012, p. 1).  Most resorted to selling licenses to use the patents, resulting in 50 different companies operating telegraphs by 1851, using a variety of incompatible technologies (Smithsonian Institute, 2012).  This wildcat period for the telegraph industry was paralleled by the introduction of legislation, first by New Jersey in 1845, and eventually by thirty-four states by 1860 (Nonnenmacher, 2001).  The legislation in this period varied state by state, however had common legislative elements and proceeded in two distinct phases, the first being legislation that helped nurture the nascent industry, and the second being legislation that exerted social control of the new technology (Nonnenmacher, 2001).

The earliest telegraph legislation provided right of way for telegraph companies to erect the telegraph poles and wires along public roads, in effect lowering the cost of development (Nonnenmacher, 2001).  In addition, early legislation enacted penalties or made criminal, the damaging of telegraph property (Nonnenmacher, 2001).  Both types of legislation paint a picture of a pro-telegraph, pro-business, legislative environment designed to spur the development of the telegraph.  In describing the legislative environment of the 19th century, Hurst (1956) suggest that the legal order was used “to protect and promote the release of individual creative energy to the greatest extent compatible with the broad sharing of opportunity for such expression” (p. 6).  Companies seeking to exploit the new technology found a willing partner in state legislatures.

However, over time, legislatures also sought to exact a measure of control over the fledgling technology.  In particular, state governments appeared concerned over the growing power and potential undue influence of telegraph companies, and introduced legislation to regulate which messages needed to be accepted and how messages were prioritized for transmission (Nonnenmacher, 2001).  In addition, legislation was also written creating penalties for the unlawful disclosure of the messages (Nonnenmacher, 2001), perhaps resulting from the growing influence of the Associated Press (American Telegraph Magazine, 1861).  These early efforts to exert social control would be only a precursor of legislative efforts to regulate the new medium given the rapid growth and eventual consolidation of telegraph companies.

While the decision to allow the private sector develop the telegraph proved wise from a standpoint of the country’s economic growth, that same decision would have unintended social consequences.  Two early patent holders, Hiram Silbey and Samuel Sheldon, after unsuccessfully attempting to compete with other New York telegraph lines, embarked on a strategy to begin acquiring and consolidating lines and technologies under one company that would eventually become the Western Union Telegraph Company (Smithsonian Institute, 2012), the nation’s first industrial monopoly.  Much of the success of Western Union stems not only from the company’s role as a consolidator, but also from the combined impact of a nationwide rail system, and a nationwide communication system, on U.S businesses and markets.  Yates (1986) describes how the telegraph affected existing forms of economic organization of the period:

In some cases, it favored the formation of large and efficient markets; in others, it favored the emergence of large, integrated firms. By functioning, along with the railroads, to enlarge market areas, the telegraph created the possibility of relatively efficient nationwide markets. (p. 160)

Of course, it followed, that the possibility of efficient nationwide markets attracted capital across a variety of industries to exploit the opportunity.

However, no industry would capitalize on the opportunity quite so well as the Associated Press.  The Associated Press was originally formed to pool the costs of telegraphy, but in short order become a dominant information monopoly.  The combination of a national news service and a national telegraph network, in the form of a two-headed monopoly, made broadcast possible and raised the concomitant concerns of the impact of commercial interests having to great an influence over the public sphere (Blondheim, 2004).  Indeed, lawmakers concerns were justified for a variety of reasons.  First, the AP and Western Union operated as a cartel, through their various commercial agreements; the AP’s contracts with newspapers forced the newspapers to not accept news from other news services, while Western Union’s contract with the AP forced AP to solely use Western Union (Blondheim, 2004).  “And so Associated Press and Western Union effectively created a criticism-proof information system that married content creation with a national network, and in which few competitors could surface” (Laser, 2011, p. 2). The agreements served to assure their joint broadcast network prevented the likelihood of competition.  Second, lawmakers were also concerned that the companies would use their position as the information conduit between businesses and to the public to serve their interests, rather than the public interest (Blondheim, 2004); a situation that became apparent following the ‘stolen election of 1876’, when Senate investigators found that pro-Republican Western Union was funneling information to the Hayes campaign, “while the AP constantly published propaganda supporting the Republican side of the story” (Laser, 2011, p. 1).  As a result of the growing media power of Western Union and the Associated Press, the U.S. Congress attempted a variety of strategies to regulate the industry between 1866 and 1900, introducing 96 bills or resolutions and publishing more than 48 reports, but failed to legislate a regulatory framework over concerns of infringing free speech (Blondheim, 2004).  Where the Congress had failed to find a rationale for the government’s regulation of the press, in 1900, the Supreme Court of Illinois, in a suit between Chicago Inter-Ocean and the AP, found (Blondheim, 2004):

“Associated Press was of vast importance to the public, so that public interest is attached to the dissemination of that news. . . . It has devoted its property to a public use, and has, in effect, granted to the public such an interest in its use that it must submit to be controlled by the public for the common good.

And so began the government regulation of the communications and news industry, despite Constitutional prohibitions to make no law abridging the freedom of the press, their argument instead being that regulatory control was required to protect a free press.


             The introduction of the telegraph brought about sweeping changes to U.S. social, economic, and political institutions creating a series of ‘constitutive choices’ that persist well into the 21st century.  The initial choice to allow the private sector to develop the telegraph into a commercially viable technology, commensurate with a favorable regulatory environment that helped to nurture the nascent industry, would set the stage for the creation of a two-headed monopoly over the nation’s information and broadcast capability.

Indeed, the Western Union and Associated Press cartel was an opportunistic response to a new national market for information by capitalist enterprises, that allowed the companies to prevent competition, assure profitability, and generate wealth through the combination of monopoly power and agenda-setting.  The decision by lawmakers and the judiciary to determine the appropriate role for government and business in assuring freedom of expression and a free press was perhaps the most important ‘constitutive choice’ of the era that developed the legal basis for regulating information and communications.

The telegraph could have developed far differently in the United States.  Perhaps a skeptical Congress could have chose not to fund the initial demonstration line, allowing European countries to take the lead in the new industry, a scenario that could have had dire economic and even military consequences, given the telegraphs role in opening markets.  Another potential scenario could have been to place the entire enterprise under the direction of the Post Office, in which case the two-headed monopoly may never have existed.  However, considering the short sightedness of the Postmaster General, it is equally likely that the technology would have taken far longer to reach its full potential, due to the lack of innovation inherent in public administration.  Finally, the attempt by Congress to regulate the industry could have resulted in a public utility model given the similarity of infrastructure requirements in the power distribution and communications industries.  In any event, while there were serious political, economic, and social consequences based on the constitutive choices made by decision-makers of the period, it is equally clear that the development of the telegraph was critical to the political, economic, and social progress of the nation.

Western Union and the Telegraph Today

Telegraph usage peaked in the 1929 with more than 200 million messages sent and began a long, steady, decline in usage, supplanted by the telephone, radio, television, and eventually email and the Internet as the primary source of communication and news (Freierman, 2006).  The final telegram was sent on January 27, 2006, after which Western Union became a pure financial services company, focusing on money transfers (Freierman, 2006), a situation this author find ironic, given the heavy regulatory requirements in that industry.

Historical Perspective on ‘Constitutive Choices’ in the Internet Era

Like the telegraph, the rapid growth of the Internet has introduced a variety of political, economic, and social concerns regarding how, whether, and in what form the government should intervene in regulating the Internet and the communications and media industries.   Advocates of network neutrality wish to assure no government or commercial restrictions of the network, while commercial interests are seeking legislation like the Stop Online Piracy Act to assure the protection of intellectual property that favors traditional business models.  In addition, the communications and media industry continues to rapidly consolidate, not unlike the period preceding the formation of Western Union.  In particular, media and communication companies like Comcast are beginning to vertical integrate merging the content and network, a situation also bearing a striking resemblance to the Western Union/Associated Press cartel.  Finally, the International Telecommunications Union, an arm of the United Nations, is seeking to regulate the Internet.  With so many ‘constitutive choices’ facing the nation, and indeed, the globe, the public can look to the past to a degree to help formulate a perspective on the future.

Indeed, the narrative that describes the development of the telegraph is instructive, insofar as it highlights the delicate balance between private sector creativity and government regulation in the market for information.  The government should favor policies that continue to promote the possibilities afforded by the new technology, including outsourced manufacturing and services, creative destruction of established industry into new industries, like cloud computing or open source, and free trade agreements that favor countries with an information advantage, like the United States; policies that unleash the creative energy of individuals and businesses.

Moreover, the government should seek to regulate the communications, media, and high technology industries in order to prevent the accumulation of too much power or influence into to few companies.  For example, the Internet is dominated by several giant high technology companies including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and to a lesser extent Yahoo.  These infrastructure companies have become the de facto standard for consumer interfaces to the Internet and as such wield enormous influence in their ability to select, present, and prioritize Internet content.  It would be prudent to assure a level playing field for additional market entrants, and assure that these firms do not unduly influence the political process through their ability to influence content.

Finally, the government needs to consider carefully, whether to participate in an international regulatory regime over the Internet, given the close relationship between communication technologies and freedom of expression identified during the telegraph era.  In addition, the U.S. high technology and computing dominance is a source of economic growth and competitive advantage in the international marketplace worthy of protection from international regulatory requirements.


Upon examination and analysis of the development of the telegraph, a picture emerges that is neither utopian nor dystopian, and yet demonstrates vividly the link between communications technology and national progress.  19th century entrepreneurs, lawmakers, judges, businessmen, and citizens had to deal with the consequences of the first nationwide broadcast network and the ramifications of choices that defined the development of the technology without experience with broadcast networks or mass media.  However, 21st century scholars and lawmakers have a large body of scholarly work that describes the ‘constitutive choices’ made during the development of the telegraph that suggests that government must continue regulatory efforts to promote industry growth, while protecting the public from commercial interests that would use their dominant market positions to reduce competition, exert undue influence over network, and perhaps limit freedom of expression in the process.


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#NBCFail: A Traditional Media Company in a Digital World

“Sport and mass media enjoy a very symbiotic relationship in American society” (McChesney, 1989, p. 49).  Indeed, from the first closed-circuit televised broadcast of the Olympics in 1936 to the digitally-delivered Olympics of 2012, the Olympic games provide a compelling environment with which to explore the nature of the symbiosis.  In particular, the London Olympics, the first to have a immersive digital media experience in addition to the traditional broadcast experience, sheds light on the conflict created by new forms of media and how new media threatens traditional commercial mass media business models in the world of sports coverage, perhaps upsetting the symbiotic balance.  NBC Universal, which owned the broadcast rights to the London Olympics in the United States was heavily criticized for their coverage, accused of forcing audiences into viewing paradigms of an earlier era, failing to use new media to its potential, and putting the commercial interest over the public interest (Deitsch, 2012; Holmes, 2012; Moore, 2012; Stanley, 2012).  Most of the criticism centered on NBC’s failure in three dimensions, real-time versus prime-time, cultural deafness in a global village, and tone-deaf coverage selection, prompting a new Internet meme, #NBCFail(Sandomir, 2012; Stanley, 2012).  Despite the criticism, NBC’s coverage was a commercial success with the largest audience in media history (CNN, 2012).  The London Olympics demonstrate that the mass media is dealing with a new reality as a result of a networked audience.  Mainstream media organizations occupy a liminal existence between traditional mass media business models and new media expectations, attempting to step into the digital world while remaining tied to earlier paradigms.

Little does more to reflect the symbiotic relationship between media and sports as much as the financial arrangements between the media and sporting agencies.   In the case of the London Olympics, NBC paid the International Olympic Committee $1.18 billion for the exclusive U.S. broadcast rights to the games (BBC, 2012),  fees that provide the bulk of International Olympic Committee revenue (Associated Press, 2008).  One could argue that the games would not exist in their present form without IOC broadcasting revenue streams.  Moreover, with such hefty prices for broadcasts rights, NBC needed to assure that their coverage would generate significant advertising sales to make the broadcast a commercial success in a media environment where audiences have been fractured between traditional mass media and networked media.  At risk, was not only the commercial success of the deal, but also NBC’s brand reputation in delivering a high-quality media experience that serves public interest in the media event.

By all accounts, the NBC broadcast of the Olympics was a commercial success.  NBC had originally expected to lose $200 million on the broadcast, but ended up making a small profit as a result of larger than expected advertising revenue (Heistand, 2012) and the largest audience ever recorded for any media event (CNN, 2012).  Moreover, NBC executives have linked to their primetime success to their digital programming, suggesting their digital coverage drove viewers to primetime audiences and calling their move into digital coverage “a big, bold, swing” (Heistand, 2012, p. 1).  However, critics have argued that NBC’s digital coverage was missed opportunity because the network continued to think of coverage in traditional, monopolistic terms, assuming that viewers didn’t mind not seeing the events live, and couldn’t get the information elsewhere (Stanley, 2012).  Indeed, NBC’s choice, to delay coverage until primetime, or only offer live digital streams to paying cable customers angered many viewers, although savvy Internet users streamed live coverage directly from the BBC using Internet proxies to circumvent NBC (Moore, 2012).  Rather than a bold move into digitalized networked communication, NBC appeared to use digital content simply to draw the audience to primetime coverage, their traditional revenue source.

Moreover, criticism extended to whether NBC understood how the world had changed as a result of networked communication.  NBC       appeared to be deaf to the multi-cultural nature of the Olympic broadcast, opting to select coverage primarily of U.S. athletes and with color commentary that appeared to understand little of the world outside the United States.  For instance, Moore (2012), described viewers embarrassment of the spectacle:

Having to watch trained TV anchors link Kazakhstan to Borat, describing Luxembourg as a central European nation, note that Uganda’s athletes come from the country of Idi Amin, mispronounce the names of Niger and the Cote D’Ivoire, and otherwise support every ugly American stereotype. (p. 1)

While NBC may be excused their coverage selection given that competition for revenue drives programming choices to the lowest common denominator (McQuail, 2010), the mono-cultural commentary displays both arrogance and ignorance of multicultural character of the global village enabled by the networked world.

The widespread criticism suggests that NBC appeared to underappreciate a variety of audience expectations, including the desire for the shared experience for live Olympic coverage, the expectation of niche, tailored content inherent in the digital world, and the desire of the audience to view the Olympics anywhere, anytime, and on any device.  The resulting outcry from audience members over NBC’s botched monopoly coverage showed up on Twitter with the hashtag #NBCFail, however NBC executives appeared to discount the outcry as dissent from small minority (Richter, 1985), an attitude that demonstrates their misunderstanding of the network form of mass communication.  For example, while over the last three days, there have been a mere 19,800 tweets with the hashtag #NBCFail, those tweets have made more than 15.5 million impressions (Hashtracking, 2012).  Furthermore, the popular #NBCFail meme has transcended Olympic coverage and has entered popular Twitter discourse on NBC’s coverage of football, the mars rover, the election, NBC Nightly News, and even their fall line-up.  While NBC’s Olympic coverage has been a commercial success, the damage done to their brand may be incalculable.

The #NBCFail meme is symptomatic of NBC’s failure to meet the expectations of an audience that become accustomed to new media in a networked world.  Audiences expect to get coverage anywhere, anytime, and on any device.  In addition, audiences have higher expectations of the social nature of global media events, expecting platforms than enable them to share the experience in a multicultural setting.  However, while traditional media companies have the financial power that affords the opportunity for exclusive coverage of global sporting events, they are at the same time, unequipped to transition their business models inline with higher audience expectations, given it requires them to creatively destroy the very business model that provides that financial power.  In fact, #NBCFail could have as easily been #ABCFail or #CBSFail, given most mainstream media organizations occupy a liminal existence between traditional mass media business models and business models that center around new media expectations.


Associated Press. (2008, November 18, 2008). EBU urges IOC to stick with European broadcasters  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from

BBC. (2012, August 14, 2012). London 2012 was ‘biggest ever US TV event’  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from

CNN. (2012, August 13, 2012). Nielsen: 2012 Olympics most-watched event in U.S. TV history  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from

Deitsch, R. (2012, August 10, 2012). Mark Lazarus responds to criticism. London 2012  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from

Hashtracking. (2012, August 19, 2012). #NBCFail  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from

Heistand, M. (2012, August 12, 2012). NBC: ‘We took a big bold swing’ with digital coverage  Retrieved August 19, 2012, from

Holmes, L. (2012, August 6, 2012). Good Business, Bad Quality: How NBC Is Both Right And Wrong On The Olympics  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from

McChesney, R. W. (1989). Media made sport: A history of sports coverage in the United States. In L. A. Wenner (Ed.), Media, sports, & society (pp. 315 p.). Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications.

McQuail, D. (2010). Mcquail’s mass communication theory (6th ed.). London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Moore, H. (2012, July 30, 2012). NBC fail shows network’s commitment to ‘the last great buggy-whip Olympics’. Olympics 2012  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from

Richter, P. (1985, December 12, 1985). General Electric Will Buy RCA for $6.28 Billion  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from

Sandomir, R. (2012, July 29, 2012). Olympic Viewers Have a New Reason to Complain, and the Means to Do It. Olympics  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from

Stanley, T. (2012, August 6, 2012). NBC’s Olympic coverage has been a damning indictment of outdated monopoly media  Retrieved August 19,, 2012, from



The NBC Olympic Broadcast: A Case Study of a Media Conglomerate

Every four years, athletes from around the world gather in one city to compete in what some consider the greatest sporting event in the world.  According to Nielsen Company (2008), nearly 70% of the world’s population tuned in to watch the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, or more the 4.7 billion sets of eyeballs.  The staggering figures suggest that the Olympics may be more of a media event than a sporting event.  Moreover, without media funding, it is unlikely the Olympics would exist, given that television rights fees make up most of the International Olympic Committee’s revenue (Associated Press, 2008).  In fact, NBC paid more than $2.2 billion, a staggering sum, for the television rights to the 2012 London Olympics (Associated Press, 2008).  Only a large and well-funded media organization can afford to bid on the rights, much less be able to successfully monetize such an event.  While a large media organization is needed to enable events like the Olympics, what is the make up and character of such organizations, how are they successful, and most importantly, what are the implications for the public?  Through the examination of NBC as a case study, this author has noted that greater media concentration has potential negative implications for both audience content and the U.S. political and regulatory processes.

NBC Corporate Background

            The National Broadcasting Company, or NBC, was born from the early days of radio as an offshoot of an AT&T-GE-Westinghouse-RCA collaboration (Benkler, 2006).  In 1986, to avoid the threat of hostile takeover, RCA, the parent company of NBC, was purchased by manufacturing giant, General Electric (Richter, 1985).  In 2011, Comcast Inc. cleared FCC regulatory hurdles and won approval to purchase a 51% controlling interest in NBC Universal from General Electric, despite media watchdog concerns over one corporation’s power to both create and deliver content, an industry first (Reardon, 2011).  With the acquisition of NBC Universal, Comcast has become “a leading provider of entertainment, information and communications products and services” (Comcast Corporation, 2012, p. 1).

The Post-NBC Acquisition Comcast Media Business

   Comcast Corporation is a $55 billion vertically integrated media conglomerate with a market capitalization of more than $92 billion comprised of five operating segments, cable communication, cable television, broadcast television, filmed entertainment, and theme parks (Comcast Corporation, 2012).   The cable communication segment is responsible for 67% of their revenue, being wired directly to more than 50 million homes and “serving 22.3 million video customers, 18.1 million high-speed Internet customers and 9.3 million voice customers” (Comcast Corporation, 2012, p. 3).  Moreover, with the acquisition of NBC Universal, Comcast increased its content assets to more that $14 billion worth of annual revenue spanning cable and broadcast television stations, the Telemundo and NBC broadcast networks, film production, and digital properties like Television Without Pity, iVillage, Daily Candy, Fandango, and perhaps most importantly, online video service Hulu (Comcast Corporation, 2012).  While some have been skeptical of vertical integration strategies following the AOL/Time Warner debacle, Comcast executives have emphasized that the NBC Universal acquisition is not aimed at creating synergy between segments, suggesting rather it simply makes financial and strategic sense for Comcast shareholders (Knowledge@Wharton, 2009).  Given the lack of focus on synergy, what does Comcast hope to gain through becoming a content provider?

Why A Vertical Media Business?

In an era shaped by media convergence, it is no surprise Comcast might wish to be more diversified.  New technologies have reshaped the media industry and forever separated content from delivery, as consumers now expect content anywhere, anytime, on any device (Jenkins, 2004).  In describing what is at stake in the converging media market, Jenkins (2004) suggests that “the way in which those various transitions play themselves out will determine the balance of power within this new media era” (p. 34).   Some have suggested that Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal is a hedge against the risk of media convergence, allowing Comcast to avoid being commoditized into a ‘dumb pipe’, or said otherwise, simply a channel among many (Knowledge@Wharton, 2009).

Furthermore, the ownership of digital properties may position Comcast to be successful in converged future.  For example, in addition to the typically lucrative prime time coverage of the 2012 Olympics, NBC also offered live streams of Olympic events, where a only 10 events drew more than a million live streams (Hiestand, 2012).  While the digital advertising revenue was a fraction of the more than $1 billion in prime time advertising, the digital presence help draw viewers to the prime time coverage (Hiestand, 2012).  In addition, given Comcast’s nearly 23% share of broadband (Taylor, 2011), the much of the bandwidth intensive streaming occurred through Comcast’s ‘dumb pipes’, conceivably driving demand for increased bandwidth.  Finally, given the recent and very public Viacom and DirecTv programming spat over content costs, it is clear that Comcast may be insulated from the impact of rising content prices for a significant portion of their distributed content, given their ownership stake in NBC.  While there appear to be clear benefits to Comcast, critics worry over the implications of media concentration for society.

Implications of Vertical Media Concentration

            For instance, McQuail (2010) suggests policy issues arising from media concentration include the affect on pricing and content.  While there does not appear to be evidence of rising prices for Comcast cable or broadband, there does appear to be a conflict of interest between Comcast’s television and film production and their digital properties.  For example, both Fandango and Television Without Pity are digital properties that influence audiences by providing reviews, criticism, and content for film and television content respectively.  A cursory analysis of content by this author of content presented on the Television Without Pity web site, found that content regarding the television shows American Idol, a Fox property, and The Voice, a competing Comcast property, were invariably favorable towards The Voice.  Perhaps The Voice is simply a better show, or perhaps there is ownership influence over the content.  McQuail (2010) warns that independence from owners or outside political or economic interests is a structural condition for effective media freedom.  While the fate of the free world may not hang in the balance because of a review of American Idol, there are additional implications of Comcast’s growing concentration of media power.

Indeed, because media freedom requires independence from political and economic interests, limits to media concentration are important (McQuail, 2010).  With Comcast’s acquisition of NBC Universal, and $55 billion in annual revenue, Comcast has become one of the largest media companies in the world with important political and economic interests and the influence to affect their interests.  For example, Comcast spent more than $20 million in 2011, and another $8.5 million in the first half of 2012 on lobbying, putting them among the top ten largest spenders, where they lobbied ‘net neutrality’ legislation, FCC programming issues, and their acquisition of NBC Universal (, 2012).  In addition, Comcast is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a Republican-backed bill mill that favors free markets and limited government (, 2012).  Comcast sits on ALEC’s Communication and Technology Task Force, helping Republican legislatures draft model bills on issues like a.l.a. carte cable pricing, cable video franchising, and municipal broadband (ALEC, 2012).  Of course, much of the draft legislation is favorable to Comcast’s business interests.  For example, ALEC’s position on efforts by municipalities to offer broadband is to put safeguards into place to protect private providers, and they are drafting model bills in support of their position to be available to legislator members of ALEC, should they be needed (ALEC, 2012).  It is clear that Comcast is using their market dominance and profits to affect the regulatory landscape and promote their continued growth.  The implication is fairly straightforward; massive media conglomerates are able to use their considerable economic and market power to exert influence on both the political and regulatory process, with the potential for negative consequences for consumers.


            As media events typified by the Olympic continue to grow in size, complexity, and audience share, only the world’s largest media conglomerates are positioned to effectively fund and deliver these events to a global audience.  However, as the Comcast example shows, there are significant societal implications of continued media concentration.  Specifically, greater media concentration appears to have potentially negative implications for society that include greater influence over both content, and national political and regulatory processes.


ALEC. (2012). Communications and Technology  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from

Associated Press. (2008, November 18, 2008). EBU urges IOC to stick with European broadcasters  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from

Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks : how social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven Conn.: Yale University Press.

Comcast Corporation. (2012). Comcast Corporation 2011 Annual Report on Form 10-K  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from

Hiestand, M. (2012, August 12, 2012). NBC exec: Live streaming Olympic events helped prime time  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from

Jenkins, H. (2004). The cultural logic of media convergence. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 7(1), 33-43.

Knowledge@Wharton. (2009, December 9, 2009). Comcast-NBC Universal: Will the Marriage of Cable and Content Work?  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from

McQuail, D. (2010). Mcquail’s mass communication theory (6th ed.). London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Nielsen Company. (2008, September 5, 2008). Beijing Olympics Draw Largest Ever Global TV Audience  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from (2012). Lobbying Spending Database: Top Spenders  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from

Reardon, M. (2011, January 21, 2011). What the Comcast-NBC deal means to you (FAQ)  Retrieved August 12, , 2012, from

Richter, P. (1985, December 12, 1985). General Electric Will Buy RCA for $6.28 Billion  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from (2012). Comcast Corporation – SourceWatch  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from

Taylor, C. (2011, May 17, 2011). Want Broadband? Odds Are, You’ll Chose Cable  Retrieved August 12,, 2012, from



Immigration and Intergovernmental Relations: How Immigration is Redrawing the Lines of Federalism

 In May 2007, Encarnacion Bail Romero, mother of Carlitos Romero, and an undocumented worker in Missouri, was arrested at a poultry plant by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents during an immigration raid (Gigler, Ross, & Hill, 2012).   While Romero was incarcerated for an immigration-related law that the Supreme Court later struck down as unconstitutional, the State of Missouri terminated Romero’s parental rights and granted the adoption of Carlitos to a Missouri couple (Cambria, 2012).  After Romero exhausted all legal options, the adoption was upheld by a Missouri Juvenile Court (Ross & Hill, 2012).  Romero’s case is not an isolated incident, as Wessler (2011) found that more than 46,000 parents of U.S. citizen children were removed from their children in the first half of 2011, and at least 5,100 children of detained or deported undocumented immigrants are in U.S. foster care.  These types of cases highlight the complexity of intergovernmental relations in a federalist system, existing precisely because of the gaps between the patchwork of federal, state, and local immigration laws and policies.  Immigration policy gaps exist because federal, state, and local policymakers disagree over both the aims and means of immigration policy and because federal policy consequences are borne by state and local governments in the form of an unfunded mandate, giving rise to immigrant federalism caused by active state and local governments seeking to create change.

Hoefer, Rytina, and Baker (2012) estimate that there are 11.5 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States, the majority of which are from Mexico and Central America.  Extreme estimates by conservative, anti-immigration think tank FAIR, suggest that undocumented immigrants cost $113 billion annually, 76% of which is borne by state and local governments (Martin & Ruark, 2010).  Although, the Congressional Budget Office (2007) found that while the costs to state and local governments exceeded the revenues from undocumented immigrations, the budgetary impact was modest.  Furthermore, and Shafritz, Russell, and Borick (2011) and Hanson (2007) both recognize that undocumented immigrants are positive for the U.S. economy.  Why then are state and local governments more active in the legislation and regulation of immigration?

While the lack of reliable statistics give fuel to differing partisan perspectives on the immigration debate, the unequal budgetary burden placed on state and local governments make illegal immigration “the mother of all unfunded mandates” (Shafritz, et al., 2011, p. 164).  It is therefore, little surprise, given both the economic burden and a lack of clear direction from the federal government, that state and local governments are seeking a rearrangement of immigrant federalism (Huntington, 2008).  In fact, Huntington (2008) argues that the immigration debate should be considered through a lens of federalism to determine proper allocation of power between the various levels of government, rather than having the federal government preempt all immigration law and policy decisions.  Huntington’s (2008) perspective echoes the notion of incremental decision making inherent in a federal system that Shafritz, et al. (2011) consider “integral to democracy” (p. 140).  Indeed, the tendency towards incrementalism may be one of key reasons for lack of clear immigration policy from the federal government.

Shafritz, et al. (2011) note that in 2007, “at least 1,100 immigration bills were submitted by state lawmakers” (p. 164).   Some of the new legislation is aimed at making illegal immigration less favorable in the jurisdictions of local lawmakers, while other localities enact legislation to make illegal immigration more favorable (Huntington, 2008).  Where some lawmakers are seeking to discourage illegal immigration to reduce the economic consequences of the unfunded mandate, others are seeking to encourage immigration in order to grow their local economies.  There are also some who consider anti-immigration a thinly, veiled attempt to advance a nativist and ultimately racist agenda (Zeskind, 2005).  Indeed, history would suggest that immigration policy has it roots in a discriminatory agenda (U.S. Commission On Civil Rights, 1980).  It is clear that differing policy actors have conflicting views on the aims of U.S. immigration policy, and likely the means.  It is equally clear that the federal government must consider the various policy aims of constituent governments, while also assuring the needs and interests of minority or weaker groups are protected.   It appears to this author that the federalist system of government is both the cause of the slow progress in immigration reform, and responsible for the benefits of the existing immigration policy to various constituents.

Despite the history of incrementalism inherent in a federalist system, the immigration debate has started a new chapter in what appears to be a continual redefinition of federalism to determine where legislative and administrative power resides in immigration policy.  As federal immigration policy consequences are largely borne by state and local governments, the last decade has seen the rise of immigrant federalism creating a patchwork of federal, state, and local immigration laws that clearly disagree over both the aims and means of national immigration policy.   While the immigration federalism policy debate appears far from over, the urgency to improve immigration policy is clear, because existing policy allows the U.S. citizen children to be involuntarily taken from their undocumented immigrant parents, a situation that should never occur in a country built on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.




Cambria, N. (2012, July 19, 2012). Judge gives Missouri couple custody of illegal immigrant’s child  Retrieved August 4,, 2012, from

Congressional Budget Office. (2007). The Impact of Unauthorized Immigrants on the Budgets of State and Local Governments.  Washington DC: U.S. Congress: Congressional Budget Office Retrieved from

Gigler, L., Ross, B., & Hill, A. M. (2012, February 1, 2012). Adoption Battle Over 5-Year Old Boy Pits Missouri Couple Vs. Illegal Immigrant  Retrieved August 4, 2012, from – .UB1uVI6_FLo

Hanson, G. H. (2007). The economic logic of illegal immigration. Council on Foreign Relations, 26(April 2007), 1-52.

Hoefer, M., Rytina, N., & Baker, B. (2012). Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2011.  Washington, DC: Department of Homeland Security Retrieved from

Huntington, C. (2008). The consistutional dimension of immigration federalism. Vanderbilt Law Review, 61(3), 787-853.

Martin, J., & Ruark, E. (2010). The fiscal burden of illegal immigration on United States taxpayers (pp. 1-95). Washington DC: Federation for American Immigration Reform.

Ross, B., & Hill, A. M. (2012, July 18, 2012). Tug-of-Love: Immigrant Mom Loses Effort to Regain Son Given to US Parents  Retrieved August 4, 2012, from – .UB1t-o6_FLo

Shafritz, J. M., Russell, E. W., & Borick, C. P. (2011). Introducing public administration (7th ed.). Boston: Longman.

U.S. Commission On Civil Rights. (1980). Historical dimiscrimination in the immigration laws. In R. Fiske-Rusciano (Ed.), Experiencing race, class, and gender in the United States (5th ed.). Boston, Mass.: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.

Wessler, S. F. (2011). Shatter Families: The Perilous intersection of immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System: Executive Summary (pp. 1-10). New York, New York: Applied Research Center.

Zeskind, L. (2005, October 23, 2005). The new nativism. The American Prospect  Retrieved August 10, 2011, from



The Space Shuttle Disasters: Organizational Fog at NASA

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, responsible for putting the first human being on the moon and building the first reusable launch vehicle, was a symbol of American pride, technical ingenuity, and managerial excellence.  Given NASA’s thirty-year track record of historic achievements, the nation was shocked when the space shuttle Challenger “blew up 73 seconds after liftoff because an O-ring seal on one of the booster rockets failed” (Shafritz, Russell, & Borick, 2011, p. 74).  The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident (1986), charged with determining the cause of the accident, would find that NASA engineers knew about the problems with the O-rings and attribute the accident to faulty decision making by NASA management.  Seventeen years later, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart over the western United States, an accident the Columbia Accident Investigation Board found was caused by similar organizational failures; known problems that were deemed acceptable, isolated decision-makers that did not listen to experienced technical staff, and pressure to launch, concluding organizational culture was as much to blame as the technical failures.  Shafritz, et al. (2011) describe the faulty decision-making by NASA administrators using the metaphor of Clausewitz’s “fog of war”, or the uncertainty resulting from too much information, political pressure for performance, and cultural barriers.   NASA is not alone in susceptibility to the “fog of war”.  Rather, most large organizations suffer from the same problem because of the compromises caused by limited resources, accountability to a variety of stakeholders, and the power of organizational culture to enforce norms of behavior.

Following the success of the Apollo program, NASA had ambitions to build a series of increasingly large space stations that could house up to 100 people, ambitions that would require the economics of a reusable launch vehicle (Cayatte, 2008).  However, with the election of President Nixon, political priorities changed in Washington and with subsequent budget cuts, NASA had to scrap their ambitions for large space stations, instead accepting the mission to “revolutionize transportation into near space, by routinizing it” (Nixon, 1972, p. 1).  The new mission allowed NASA to continue development of the space shuttle, while forgoing their original purpose, in favor of building a vehicle that would allow “men and women with work to do in space [to] “commute” aloft, without having to spend years in training for the skills and rigors of old-style space flight” (Nixon, 1972).  The new mission was the result of an agenda compromise and incremental decision-making in reaction to the struggling economy of the early seventies.  Unfortunately, the political compromise contributed to mission fog, given the shuttle “was designed to be a transportation system, to go someplace else, but it eventually became, because of the lack of money, its own destination” (Cayatte, 2008, p. 1).  Moreover, the space shuttle program needed to become cost-effective by hauling military and commercial satellites into low-earth orbit, further altering the shuttle design and introducing production performance pressure into a research and development agency.

Historically, “NASA’s form of organization emphasized deference to expertise and minimized the number of political appointments at the top of the administrative structure” (Romzek & Dubnick, 1987, p. 231).  However, the introduction of production pressure resulted in increased political and bureaucratic accountability, to a variety of stakeholders, including the President, the Congress, the media, and the program’s military and commercial customers (Romzek & Dubnick, 1987).  The increased political and bureaucratic accountability introduced subtle, yet powerful influence into the day-to-day decisions of NASA administrators.  For example, while NASA considered safety the number one priority, the “launch schedule was right up there with it. We were showing the congress and the American public that we’ve got a space truck here that’s ready to go, let’s go start doing other things in space…[it is] extremely important that we meet those schedules and keep the operating cost of the vehicle down” (Cayatte, 2008, p. 1).  Accountability to a variety of stakeholders influenced the organizational structure and priorities of NASA, making production performance, at a minimum, the equal of safety, a situation that would also influence NASA organizational culture.

Organizational culture is considered “the set of shared, taken-for-granted implicit assumptions that a group holds and that determines how it perceives, thinks about, and reacts to its various environments” (Schein, 1996, p. 236).   As accountability at NASA changed, so did organizational culture.   With conformance to production goals placed in the forefront of the agency’s thinking, the safety function took a back seat, as NASA was “immersed in a culture of proof.  That is, they were required to prove …that there was a mission critical problem that necessitated the postponement of the launch” (Hall, 2003).  Moreover, miscommunication between management and technical staff was frequent and there was a cultural aversion to send bad news upward (Winsor, 1988).   It is said that success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan, a metaphor that reflects the agency’s culture during the program.  Despite foreknowledge of the problems with the O-rings, the information simply did not reach decision-makers that were blinded from the facts by a cultural fog.

The reality of large organizations, and notably public organizations, is that most must operate in an environment of limited or scarce resources, requiring mission compromise and incremental decision-making.  For public organizations, limited resources are an increasingly common fact of life, given the rising percentage of budget allocated to entitlement spending.  Because of the scrutiny of a variety of stakeholders that influence public agencies, pressure for performance is commonplace.  In particular, political pressure is a pervasive presence in most public agencies, as politicians seek to demonstrate their success and influence on behalf of their constituents.  Limited resources and incremental decision-making frequently cause compromises to a public agency’s mission.  In order to avoid being blinded by “the fog of war”, public administrators need to carefully assess how accountability to diverse stakeholders and organizational culture may be impacted by mission compromise, particularly given how central accountability and culture are to defining norms of organizational behavior.




Cayatte, G. (Writer) & A. Ritsko (Director). (2008). Columbia: Space Shuttle Disaster. In P. Apsell (Producer), NOVA: PBS.

Hall, J. L. (2003). Columbia and Challenger: organizational failure at NASA. Space Policy, 19, 239-247.

Nixon, R. M. (1972). President Nixon’s 1972 Announcement on the Space Shuttle  Retrieved March 6, 2012, from

Romzek, B. S., & Dubnick, M. J. (1987). Accountability in the public sector: Lessons from the Challenger tragedy. Public Administration Review, 47(3), 227-238.

Schein, E. H. (1996). Culture: The missing concept in organization studies. Adminstrative Science Quarterly, 41(2), 229-240.

Shafritz, J. M., Russell, E. W., & Borick, C. P. (2011). Introducing public administration (7th ed.). Boston: Longman.

United States. Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. (1986). Report to the President. Washington, D.C.: The Commission.

Winsor, D. A. (1988). Communication failures contributing to the Challenger accident: An example for technical communicators. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 31(3), 101-107.


Book Review: Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)

 Book Review: Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)

            Conflict is a natural part of the human condition, present in personal relationships, work settings, criminal justice, politics, and likely every human endeavor.  Why is conflict so pervasive?  What are the origins of conflict behavior in human beings, and more importantly, how can people change?  One candidate human behavior that may contribute significantly to conflict is self-justification, the inherent ability for human beings to justify their choices.  In Mistake Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, Tavris and Aronson (2007), describe self-justification as a behavior that preserves beliefs, contributes to self-esteem, and supports well-being, but is also a source of harm, as people use self-justification to protect their choices and self-image, rather than admit  mistakes.  The authors’ perspective is built on decades of research into Festinger’s (1957) groundbreaking theory of cognitive dissonance, the notion that human behavior is not simply the result of rewards and punishments, rather, as thinking beings, people have to resolve dissonant cognitions, and how they are resolved has implications on behavior.  In fact, Aronson did his graduate work with Festinger at Stanford, and since, has authored numerous research studies on the subject (Tavris & Aronson, 2007).  In writing the book, the authors’ share how the mechanism of self-justification works, hoping that people will ultimately be able to defeat their cognitive wiring.  Not only is the book credible, it is also an engaging narrative, replete with real-world examples of how the tendency of people to self-justify their actions affects individuals, families, relationships, memory, therapy, the legal system, conflict, and war.  While Mistake’s Were Made (but not by me), offers unique insights in into how self-justification affects behavior, relationships, and institutions, it is long on problems, and short on solutions; spending more time on social commentary than on cognitive dissonance theory.

Content Summary

            According to (Tavris & Aronson, 2007), “Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions that are psychologically inconsistent” (p. 13).  An example is the tension created when a person must reconcile their self-concept with a harmful behavior; like when a person believes they are a good person, yet lies about something.  The resulting dissonance between the two cognitions, “produces mental discomfort, ranging from minor pangs to deep anguish; people don’t rest easy until they find a way to reduce it” (Tavris & Aronson, 2007, p. 13).  How then do people reduce the feelings of discomfort produced by dissonant cognitions?

               According to Tavris and Aronson (2007), most often, people will engage in self-justification as the primary mechanism to reduce dissonance, likening dissonance and the resulting self-justifications to a thermostat that regulates self-esteem.  Recalling our earlier example of a person who believes they are good, yet engages in harmful behavior like lying, the person might justify the lie to themselves or others as a way to achieve consonance; for instance, “I only lied because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings”.  Ipso facto, they can retain their self-concept.  Unfortunately, the implications of self-justification are far greater than simply the lies people tell themselves to feel better; rather, owing to the social nature of human beings, self-justification is a slippery slope that can have a significant affect on future behavior, relationships, and social institutions.

             Through descriptions of both virtuous and violent spirals, the authors note how self-justification affects future behavior.  Citing Kahn’s (1966) research on catharsis, the authors suggest that dissonance forces the perpetrator of a harmful act to justify their behavior by blaming the victim, thereby increasing their anger towards the victim and setting the stage for future violence (Tavris & Aronson, 2007).  In the same vein, people who do good deeds for someone they do not like will justify their behavior by changing their opinion of the person for whom the deed was done (Tavris & Aronson, 2007).  In each instance, self-justification sets the stage for future behavior, and over time, fundamentally changes beliefs, self-concept, and personal narratives.

             The author’s provide a useful metaphor, that of a pyramid, to describe how self-justification is a slippery slope, affecting future decision-making, and evolving self-concept.  At the top of the pyramid is a person looking down towards a difficult and perhaps morally ambiguous choice.  Irrespective of whether the individual makes a good or bad decision, taking a step towards the bottom, self-justification kicks in, convincing the individual of the rightness of their choice.  Over time, and the course of many decisions, a person can end up very far from where they started, in terms of their principles, beliefs, prejudices, or other cognitions; hence the slippery slope of self-justification.  In addition, the further down the pyramid a person slides, the more intractable they are likely to become, given how their journey down the slope informs their own personal narrative and resulting beliefs.

              Tavris and Aronson (2007) describe how self-justification operates on beliefs, and manifests in the form of “confirmation bias”, the notion that people will prefer information that confirms their own points of view rather than accept new information contrary to their beliefs (Nickerson, 1998).  Confirmation bias is a particular form of dissonance-reducing, self-justification that allows a person to filter out contrary information, irrespective of the strength of evidence, rather focusing on information that supports their way of thinking.  The implications are far-reaching, insofar as self-justification serves to support close-mindedness and resistance to change.

                In fact, the authors share dozens of examples of how self-justification and confirmation bias affect the country’s social institutions, including the mental health system, the legal system, and even marriage.  In particular, Tavris and Aronson (2007), are critical of practicing mental health professionals, who lack the essential skepticism inherent in scientific thought in their clinical practices.  The result, the authors argue, is a closed loop of clinical judgment, where the clinicians own beliefs about their patients, lead them down the slippery slope of self-justifying behavior, doing enormous harm in the process.  Replete with examples, ranging from the molestation hysteria in daycare to the tragedies of repressed-memory therapies, the authors highlight how self-justification led many clinicians towards erroneous judgments that caused significant individual and social harm. 

             The closed loop of judgment was also prevalent in law enforcement and legal system examples, where bad decisions result in wrongful convictions and innocent people in prison.  In addition to the typical descriptions of confirmation bias during investigation and trial, the authors are exceptionally critical of law enforcement interrogation techniques, and in particular, are critical of the pseudo-scientific Reid technique, which presumes guilt and, among other transgressions, introduces fictitious evidence to induce confessions.  Tavris and Aronson (2007) argue “the interrogator’s presumption of guilt creates a self-fulfilling prophecy” (p. 143), where the innocent are coerced into confession.  The authors cite a notable study finding that an innocent person paired with an interrogator that presumed guilt was the combination that resulted in the most aggressive and coercive interrogation techniques (Kassin, 2005).  The implications of pervasive self-justification in law enforcement and the legal system, is the conviction of innocents and the coincident freedom for the guilty. 

             The final social institution explored at some depth, is the institution of marriage, where self-justification can work to either support or fracture marital relationships, depending on whether interactions between husband and wife are positive or negative.  According to the authors, “the vast majority of couples who drift apart, do so slowly, over time, in a snowballing pattern of blame and self-justification” (Tavris & Aronson, 2007).  Specifically, in absence of empathetic communication, couples can develop implicit theories about one another to account for behaviors that cause dissonance (Tavris & Aronson, 2007).  Implicit theories can have significant consequences when confirmation bias sets in and couples adopt victim or villain narratives, rather than behave with empathy for the other (Tavris & Aronson, 2007).  Unfortunately, the authors offered little advice for couples caught in a spiral of self-justification.

                In fact, only in the final chapter, do Tavris and Aronson (2007) offer recommendations for how people can override the wiring of cognitive dissonance, and those recommendations are surprisingly thin.  The authors suggest that greater transparency in the institutions and professions where confirmation bias is prevalent can help remove self-serving bias (Tavris & Aronson, 2007).  For instance, interrogations can be videotaped, or third party commissions can be appointed to review new evidence in trials.  In addition, the authors favor greater training in science, suggesting the natural skepticism and peer review processes systematically remove confirmation bias (Tavris & Aronson, 2007).  However, their advice for individuals seeking to override their wiring is less concrete, suggesting simply, that people should step out of the moment, let go of their self-justification, and own up to their mistakes (Tavris & Aronson, 2007).  If it were that simple, more people would do it. 

Analysis and Evaluation

            The authors achieve the intent of the book, insofar as the narrative helps the reader understand the mechanism of cognitive dissonance, and the way in which self-justification helps reduce dissonance.  In fact, the narrative is replete with examples of how self-justification leads people towards confirmation bias and tunnel vision, closed loop judgments, fractured relationships, and intractable positions, in effect, sliding down the slippery slope of the pyramid, one bad decision at a time.  The sheer volume of relevant and timely examples, make the narrative highly credible.

            In addition, the authors are excellent at supporting their perspective with scientific research and evidence in a way that is thoughtful, while keeping the overall voice of the work consumable for audiences without formal a social psychology education.  However, those that are interested in the underlying research supporting the authors’ conclusions can make use of the nearly forty pages of endnotes that form the theoretical backbone of the book.  In particular, Aronson’s decades of experience and leadership in cognitive dissonance research, come to life in a credible and succinct way.

            Despite the inherent credibility of the work, the tone of the book is largely negative, perhaps owing to the author’s desire to help people understand the consequences of self-justification.  While the authors avoid an outright indictment of the country’s social institutions, they do so only by a narrow margin.  In some ways, the story was oriented primarily as social commentary, rather than a pure scientific or self-help narrative, perhaps too much so.  This author found the overwhelmingly negative tone to paint a very bleak picture of society, perhaps the result of a too narrow focus on the problems and consequences of self-justification and too little focus on solutions.  In fact, the author’s devote a mere chapter to a more hopeful, and solution-oriented stance, suggesting either their decades of research have produced little in the way of remedies to help people override their wiring, or that another book is in the offing. 

            The lack of solutions was surprising given that so many disciplines outside of social psychology grapple with the same problem, even if the problem is not expressed using cognitive dissonance as the theoretical lens.  For example, leadership research often seeks to understand how some leaders are able to create a learning organization, while others create a culture that fears mistakes; and how some leaders can maintain their ethical compass, while others lose their way.  In particular, authentic leadership research deals directly with the need for authentic leaders that avoid the slippery slope of self-justification through development of authentic leadership characteristics, including self-awareness, transparency, ethics/morals, and balanced processing (Rock, 2011).  The field of authentic leadership research includes interventions like the ALQ and “Best-self” exercise to help leaders connect with their authentic selves, a process designed to shine a light on the self-justifications that chip away at a leader’s true self (Rock, 2011).  Furthermore, the leadership discipline is not the only discipline that offers practical advice.

            For example, decades of research in communications also offer practical advice to avoid the consequences of self-justification, particularly in conflict management, where conflict managers have had to deal with pervasive self-justification and intractable positions in the course of mediation, negotiation, and therapy.  For instance, there is a significant body of work on the transcendent power of forgiveness in helping individuals see past their roles as victims and villains, moving people far beyond self-justification towards empathy and reconciliation (Abigail & Cahn, 2011).  In addition, practical techniques, such as focusing on the problem rather the person, focusing on interests rather than positions, and even reframing, help move the dialogue away from the opportunity for self-justification to play a role.  In short, this author would have preferred that Aronson and Tavris would have devoted more effort on practical advice and guidance, drawing from a wider variety of disciplines.  It appears that the authors suffer from confirmation bias, failing to draw solutions from disciplines outside their own.


            Despite some of the drawbacks of the book, Mistake Were Made (but not by me) is a powerful narrative that offers fascinating insight into human behavior and motivation.  In addition, the work is timely and relevant, given the pervasive prevarication, avoidance of responsibility, and self-justification that affects humanity’s social institutions.  While the authors’ insights into how self-justification affects behavior, relationships, and institutions is powerful, the book could use more discussion on solutions and a little less social commentary.  Perhaps the authors should consider the sequel, Mistakes Were Made (by me): How We Take Responsibility to Lead Better Lives.


Abigail, R. A., & Cahn, D. D. (2011). Managing conflict through communication (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, Ill.,: Row.

Kahn, M. (1966). The physiology of catharsis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 278-298.

Kassin, S. (2005). On the psychology of confessions: Does innocence put innocents at risk? American Psychologist, 60, 215-228.

Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2, 175-200.

Rock, R. (2011). An Authentic Leadership Journey. Essay. Colorado State University. Denver. Retrieved from

Tavris, C., & Aronson, E. (2007). Mistakes were made (but not by me) : why we justify foolish beliefs, bad decisions, and hurtful acts (1st ed.). Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt.