It is such common sense as to be undeniable that basic journalism requires a party label to be affixed to a story about an elected public official, the president excepted. It is the DNA of the “who” in a news report. “Senator Robert Byrd, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, died today.” Take out “Democratic” and try that sentence. It doesn’t work. “Mike Lee, GOP senator from Utah and God’s gift to mankind, coasted to reelection last night.” Ditto.
It follows that the rule applies to stories about political scandal, precisely because it’s just that — politics. But what happens when that cardinal rule is applied to one party but ignored for the other? Favoritism? Bias? No, it’s far worse than just that. It is a commitment to abide by the rules of journalism with one party and then a deliberate attempt to protect the other, even if it means violating the most basic rules of news reporting.
On Friday, September 29, 2006, Representative Mark Foley of Florida resigned after ABC News exposed him for having sent explicit e-mails to male House pages. That evening and on the next day’s morning news shows, ABC, CBS, and NBC all tied Foley to the GOP. “This is more than just one man’s downfall,” Today co-host Matt Lauer solemnly declared on NBC. “It could be a major blow to the Republican party.”
On March 10, 2008, news broke that New York governor Eliot Spitzer had been linked to a prostitution ring. It took NBC News four nights to acknowledge Spitzer’s party affiliation. In its first two days of coverage, Matt Lauer’s Today show ran 18 segments on the scandal and never once identified him as a Democrat.
The previous month, Senator Larry Craig of Idaho had been arrested at the airport in Minneapolis for the infamous toe-tapping men’s-room solicitation. When the news became public in August, the networks jumped on the story. Every morning and evening news show pointed out he was a Republican. On NBC’s Today, Lauer drilled further, tying him ideologically to conservatives. “Can the right wing withstand yet another scandal involving one of its own?”
On June 16, 2009, Senator John Ensign of Nevada admitted to an extramarital affair. In the following day’s reports, all three broadcast networks covered the scandal and all three reported that he was a member of the GOP. One week later they were back in action, this time giving major attention to the story that South Carolina governor Mark Sanford also had admitted to cheating on his wife. Again the perfunctory declaration that he was a Republican.
Four years later, after weeks of tumultuous scandal involving allegations of multiple cases of sexual harassment involving numerous women, on August 22, 2013, San Diego’s Democratic mayor (and former congressman), Bob Filner, finally resigned. All three networks covered the story in both their morning and evening broadcasts, but only CBS mentioned his party affiliation.
Still not convinced? Okay, so we’ll continue.
On March 24, 2008, another kind of scandal struck. All three broadcast networks covered the news that Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick had been indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice. Somehow in the who-what-where reportage there wasn’t room for any of them to insert the word “Democrat.” On August 7, Hizzoner was sent to jail for violating the terms of his bond. More national coverage. Still no party affiliation from either ABC or NBC.
Republicans don’t fare as easily with the news of their felony charges. Four months after Mayor Kilpatrick was indicted, so too was Alaska senator Ted Stevens, allegedly for failing to report gifts. All three broadcast networks covered the story. Amazingly, they used identical language to describe him as “the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. Senate.” Three months later (October 27, 2008), during the waning days of the election campaign, Stevens was convicted. Every network covered the story, and every network labeled him a Republican.
Compare that to Rod Blagojevich, the bizarre, loud-mouthed and foul-mouthed former governor of Illinois. He relished the klieg lights and seemingly was everywhere (until he landed at a more permanent address: prison). “Blago” was removed as governor on January 29, 2009, after being arrested and charged with corruption. ABC, CBS, and NBC gave major consideration to the story yet somehow managed not to inform their viewers that he was a Democrat. Blagojevich was convicted in June of 2011, and it happened again: major coverage by ABC, CBS, and NBC, with absolutely no Democratic label in sight.
So too former U.S. representative William Jefferson of Louisiana. On August 5, 2009, he was found guilty on charges of bribery, racketeering, and wire fraud. ABC and NBC covered the story on their evening newscasts, but only ABC labeled him a Democrat. CBS Evening News ignored the story altogether. The following morning all three filed stories. ABC and CBS ignored his party affiliation.
Likewise the former senator and governor of New Jersey Jon Corzine. On November 4, 2011, he was forced to resign as head of MF Global amid accusations of unauthorized use of hundreds of millions of dollars from his investors. Imagine the coverage were he Republican. But he was a Democrat. CBS and NBC covered the story but neither mentioned his party. ABC skipped the story completely.
Former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin — “the face of Hurricane Katrina,” as ABC’s Diane Sawyer reminded viewers — was indicted on charges of corruption on January 18, 2013. News on all networks, no Democratic label on any. Nagin was convicted a year later, and the pattern continued: coverage by all three networks and again no party affiliation.
Last year on February 15, former U.S. representative Jesse Jackson Jr. was charged with embezzling three quarters of a million dollars from his campaign funds. Neither CBS Evening News nor NBC Nightly News bothered to identify Jackson as a Democrat. ABC World News didn’t bother to file a story at all. The next morning they all covered it. And they all omitted his identity as a Democrat.
Last November 19, it was discovered that Representative Trey Radel of Florida had been arrested the month before for possession of cocaine. “Breaking new details on the Republican congressman caught buying cocaine,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos declared on Good Morning America. “The tea-party talk-radio host now facing prison time . . . ” There’s a trifecta: Republican, conservative, and talk-show host to boot. The other networks followed suit with the perfunctory party affiliation.
With control of the Senate hanging in the balance this fall, any story about any incumbent’s troubles is news — if he’s a Republican. This is no different from 2010 and 2012, when the press couldn’t get enough of Mourdock (Indiana), Akin (Missouri), and O’Donnell (Delaware). The stories were endless.
On August 7, after a lengthy scandal involving, first, plagiarism and then the bizarre excuse of post-traumatic stress disorder as the cause, Senator John Walsh of Montana resigned in disgrace, possibly adding an all-important victory to the GOP this fall. Network coverage? Nada.
I could continue but I won’t. We conclude only as we can conclude: This is deliberate. The national news media are doing the bidding of the Democratic party.
— L. Brent Bozell III is the founder and president of the Media Research Center.