Sabato Discusses 25 Years of Political ‘Feeding Frenzies’

Larry Sabato, professor of politics and director of the University’s Center for Politics, first published “Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics” in 1991.

A quarter-century after the first publication of his book, “Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics,” Larry Sabato is witnessing a frenzy like never before.

In the book, the University of Virginia politics professor and director of the Center for Politics described a growing media trend in which a critical mass of journalists cover an embarrassing or scandalous event with the intensity and abandon of piranhas attacking cornered prey. He argued that the consequences of this phenomenon could be dire for the electorate and the political system at large.

Despite his warning, the frequency of feeding frenzies seems only to have increased.

UVA Today sat down with Sabato to talk about the impact of this trend over the last 25 years. On Aug. 12, he also joined UVA via Facebook Live to discuss how it pertains to 2016 specifically.

Q. What are some of the top feeding frenzies of 2016 so far?

A. I’d have to write a whole new volume just to cover Donald Trump’s frenzies. You don’t have enough space for a complete list, but his harsh comments on Mexicans, John McCain’s non-hero status because he got captured in Vietnam and Trump’s universal ban on Muslims coming into the U.S. are three good examples. If someone could have confiscated his iPhone, he would have been better off. 

As for Clinton, she’s had a mega-frenzy over her State Department emails. The dressing down by the FBI director was unprecedented, and it cost her big-time. And no one will ever be able to account for Bill Clinton’s lack of judgment in appearing uninvited on the attorney general’s plane; that impropriety was also very damaging to Hillary.

Q. How did Watergate fuel the rise of the modern feeding frenzy?

A. Until Watergate, the White House benefitted from an “imperial Presidency” that protected our chief executives in many ways. For one thing, they were given the benefit of the doubt in ways unheard-of today, not least the conduct of their private lives.

Watergate gave birth to the “character issue,” and broadly defined, character can cover everything. The press has had a permanently adversarial relationship with every president since Nixon. The media didn’t mention Franklin Roosevelt’s wheelchair or John F. Kennedy’s girlfriends. Even minor gaffes are headlines today.

Q. How is the modern feeding frenzy different from the type of gossip and scandal coverage that has interested the press since the earliest days of journalism?

A. Among many differences is the social media phenomenon. Nothing is off-limits; the news cycle never ends and rumors mentioned online legitimize blanket coverage.

In the old days, a relative handful of journalists and editors could decide whether something became public or not. In the age of Twitter and blogs, millions of people are their own news organizations. Very few things stay secret for long, even in the national security arena.

Q. Since you wrote the book in 1991, how has the changing media landscape helped intensify the feeding frenzy phenomenon?

A. The establishment media organizations don’t drive the news anymore; they are driven by the ever-changing trends on Twitter, Facebook and the like. Frenzies end only when the public is sated, especially partisans. CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX and CNN can say ‘enough!’ all they want – no one cares.

Q. What is the impact of this trend on the political system?

A. When you know everything there is to know about someone in the public sphere, you are likely to be more critical. It’s just human nature to focus more on the vices than the virtues. The same applies to political and governmental institutions. If you believe the coverage, they can do nothing right. Cynicism is corrosive, and we have more of it than ever before.

Q. What are the consequences to voters?

A. The “best people” don’t run for public office anymore. Maybe they never have, but ask any party leader: It is extremely difficult today to convince the most successful individuals to become candidates for anything.

Who loses when the highly talented turn away from public service and leave it to the mediocre? We do. Our system does.

Q. Is there a way to break the cycle?

A. With the strong support of the University, I’ve dedicated the last years of my career to trying to improve civic education, from kindergarten all the way up to senior citizens. Education and citizen participation are the twin pillars that support good government. We take seriously our responsibility of teaching and helping to build the next generation of strong, ethical leaders, and to encourage their active participation in politics and government as early as possible. 

Ours is not a perfect system, but politics is the civic glue that holds together an incredibly diverse and often conflicted nation. It is the engine of our democracy. Like any other engine, when the driver looks away or disengages, it can run off track. In that sense, the mission of the Center for Politics is to offer the best driver-education program possible to as many people as possible.

Media Contact

Katie McNally

University News Associate Office of University Communications