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Self-Fulfilling Policy: A Constructivist Study of Elite Crisis Management and its Implications for Scandal Politics Open Access

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Henry Paulson, along with New York Federal Reserve Bank chairman, Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke oversaw the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression as well as designed and implemented the largest public bailout in history - a role which has brought upon them much scrutiny. By virtue of their prominent positions and intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the economy, Paulson, Bernanke and Geithner were obvious scandal targets. However, unlike during previous financial disasters where high profile chief executive officers, high ranking managers and government officials were arrested, tried and convicted of fraud and other serious misdeeds, there was a conspicuous lack of such activity in this case. The financial story filled the headlines and yet the quest for blame narrowed in on a set of ambiguous targets like "greed" and "bonuses" while a whole host of newsworthy offenses went unreported or underreported therefore never stimulating the barrage of negative publicity necessary to trigger a scandal. The focus of this thesis is to explore, through an in-depth analysis of early media coverage, the types of crisis frames promoted by the media as a means to understand the post-crisis construction of blame and to examine the extent to which such frames were effective in blocking the eruption of scandals centered on these three government officials. Recognizing the heavy influence of elites' attempts to promote or deflect scandalous information as a key determinant of whether or not actual scandals materialize, emphasis is placed on the use of symbolic strategies by official crisis managers - framing, masking and ritualization - and the crucial political function of these tactics in thwarting scandals. `t Hart (1993) argues that through these three overlapping processes, policy-makers, decision-making elites and other crisis actors, aim to influence collective definitions of the crisis situation in such a way as to highlight preferred courses of action and to selectively obscure alternative explanations. The premise here follows that in cases where elites have this interest to "selectively obscure" alternative explanations, they may also have an interest to deflect blame and potential scandals away from themselves as well as from political allies, as I will argue was a chief consideration for Paulson, Geithner and Bernanke. Findings here support the idea that the release of highly explosive, potentially damaging information, even information that is relatively benign but politically inconvenient, can be defused by powerful elites with an interest to do so.

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