The Polonius Effect

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 3 2011 11:24 AM

The Polonius Effect

We need a new term to describe something. We need to describe the person who is not the focus on an investigation or a piece of journalism, but who loses his job or reputation after the investigation or article goes public. The original subject never gets dinged; only this bit player suffers, and he was never supposed to.

My friend J.P. Freire suggests calling this person the "Polonius," after the regal adviser in Hamlet who hides behind a curtain and gets mistaken for Claudius, and stabbed.* That seems like a good term to describe the two people I'm thinking of from the past two weeks.

- Jeffrey Cox . A deputy attorney general in Indiana, he maintained a blog and Twitter account to spurt off impolitic thoughts now and then. No one noticed. Then Mother Jones reporter Andrew Kroll, reporting from Madison, Wis., tweeted a rumor about the capitol, occupied by protesters, being cleared out by police. "Use live ammo," Cox tweeted. Mother Jones , which probably never would have noticed Cox otherwise, dug into his record; within days he was fired.

- Kurt Bardella. Oh, sure, now everyone says Darrell Issa's spokesman was playing fast and loose and was bound to go at some point. But Ryan Lizza did not set about writing a New Yorker story about Bardella's style. He profiled Issa for the magazine and included embarrassing flexing from Bardella, who spoke proudly about how easy it was to manipulate the press. At the same time, Mark Leibovich was using Bardella as a source for a book about Washington, collecting cc'd emails from reporters to the spokesman. The mixture became toxic; Bardella lost his job. But no one was trying to bring him down. They were trying to get insight or dirt on Issa.

Can any readers think of other good examples that make this a term worth using?

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*Spoiler alert.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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