We need a more empirical categorization. For that, we can turn to Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who has one of the most widely cited theories on political scandals. In a nutshell, he argues that scandals are a co-production of the media and the opposition party, and only form when both are on board. No media buy-in, no real scandal.
Take the scandal du jour, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's closing of toll lanes on the George Washington Bridge. At first, Democrats cared, but the national media did not. But when emails emerged last week showing clearly that Christie aides planned the traffic delays to exact political revenge, the issue suddenly became a "-gate," with wall-to-wall press coverage and the full aura of scandal.
So what would we call the controversy before the emails leaked? We need something that has all the metonymic value of "-gate," but none of its connotation of veracity. Something that tells readers, "Some people are trying to make this a scandal, but we're not sure yet."
There are countless partisan pseudo-scandals on both sides that could potentially lend their names, but one obvious choice is Benghazi. It's already being widely compared to the bridge closings both ironically and not (see: Fox News, Karl Rove, Republicans), with many dubbing the Christie controversy Bridgeghazi.
The 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Libya was a tragedy, but a year and half of intensive congressional, administrative, and journalistic investigation have failed to produce any compelling evidence that it was a scandal, at least in the way Republicans talk about it when they talk about #benghazi.
"-Ghazi" also shares convenient linguistic parallels with "-gate." They're both scandals that typify their category; they're both location names; they both start with the letter "g"; and they are both short enough to be used in headlines and attached to nouns identifying the scandal.
The George Washington Bridge lane closings started as a "-ghazi" and then became a "-gate."
Last year's IRS controversy, on the other hand, moved in the opposite direction. It looked very bad at first, but as new data emerged, it was clear there was no real scandal and the media lost interest. Nonetheless, the alleged targeting of tea-party nonprofit groups remains very much alive among conservatives (it was huge shot in the arm to some groups). It was a "-gate" and then became a "-ghazi."
The Obama era is chock-full of "-ghazis"—Solyndraghazi, ObamaPhoneghazi, NewBlackPanthersghazi, Umbrellaghazi, and of course Benghazi—but few "-gates" (Snowdengate and Websitegate, come to mind). A "-gate" doesn't necessarily require high-profile scalps or big policy change, but it must be widely regarded as a scandal and be treated in the mainstream media as such. "-Ghazis," on the other hand, are a partisan fixation whose ignominy and importance are self-evident and unquestionable to devotees but largely ignored by the rest of the world.
Partisans, of course, will continue trying to turn "-ghazis" into "-gates" until RobotInsurrectiongate makes the issue moot sometime in the not-so-distant future. But journalists should at least try to hold the linguistic line until then.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.