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ABC Notes Denials Yet Ross Stands By Hastert Bribery Probe Claim --5/26/2006


1. ABC Notes Denials Yet Ross Stands By Hastert Bribery Probe Claim
A night after ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas hyperbolically led "with a major development in a Washington bribery scandal" in "a story with potentially major political implications" and Brian Ross asserted that "federal officials tell us the congressional bribery investigation now includes the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert," which George Stephanopoulos called "potentially seismic," Ross acknowledged that the "Department of Justice issued two separate denials of our report," yet he stood by his story. Ross asserted on Thursday's World News Tonight: "As for the facts of our story itself, here is what our sources have confirmed today:" Ross then recited facts that didn't sound as ominous as his Wednesday hype: How "the FBI interrogation of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff included specific and repeated questions about his relationship with Speaker Hastert" and how "although Hastert is not a formal target, the FBI has been looking into a letter Hastert and others sent to the Secretary of the Interior" about an Indian casino. "Not a formal target" is a step back from the "bribery investigation now includes" Hastert.

2. Elizabeth Vargas Steps Down Friday: A Review of 10 Years of Bias
Friday will be the last day as anchor of ABC's World News Tonight for Elizabeth Vargas, who after a maternity leave will reportedly return to the weekly 20/20. Before joining ABC in 1996, Vargas toiled at NBC. During her years at ABC, she was a regular fill-in co-host and news reader on GMA and a frequent fill-in on World News Tonight, taking the lead role on that broadcast when Peter Jennings fell ill in early 2005. On the occasion of her stepping down from World News Tonight, from the MRC's archive, a look back at her most biased moments. AUDIO&VIDEO


ABC Notes Denials Yet Ross Stands By
Hastert Bribery Probe Claim

A night after ABC's World News Tonight anchor Elizabeth Vargas hyperbolically led "with a major development in a Washington bribery scandal" in "a story with potentially major political implications" and Brian Ross asserted that "federal officials tell us the congressional bribery investigation now includes the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert," which George Stephanopoulos called "potentially seismic," Ross acknowledged that the "Department of Justice issued two separate denials of our report," yet he stood by his story.

Ross asserted on Thursday's World News Tonight: "As for the facts of our story itself, here is what our sources have confirmed today:" Ross then recited facts that didn't sound as ominous as his Wednesday hype: How "the FBI interrogation of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff included specific and repeated questions about his relationship with Speaker Hastert," how "although Hastert is not a formal target, the FBI has been looking into a letter Hastert and others sent to the Secretary of the Interior" about an Indian casino and "that a few days before the letter was sent, Abramoff hosted a fundraiser for Hastert at a restaurant he owned." The "not a formal target" report is a step back from the "bribery investigation now includes" Hastert.

Ross tried to bolster his allegation by telling viewers that "long before our story, public interest groups had asked the Department of Justice to investigate Hastert and other members of Congress, who also intervened after contributions from Abramoff." He then cited one "public interest group," the left-wing Democracy 21.

[This item was posted Thursday night, with video, on the MRC's blog, NewsBusters.org. The video will be added to the posted version of this CyberAlert but, in the meantime, to watch the Real or Windows Media video, as well as MP3 audio, of the original Vargas/Ross story from Wednesday night, go to: newsbusters.org ]

Meanwhile, on FNC Morton Kondracke recommended that "ABC should remember Dan Rather and the Bush National Guard case where they didn't do the right thing and say, you know, we can't prove the story and just get rid of it." And Jeff Birnbaum revealed that "ABC did not call the Speaker until an hour before the broadcast" and "that ABC did not check for an official response from the Justice Department, which seems sort of basic here."

The ABCNews.com Web page for Brian Ross has the text of the DOJ denials as well as more comments from him and his producers in their "The Blotter" blog: abcnews.go.com

The DrudgeReport has the text of a letter from Hastert's lawyers to ABC News, and the Speaker's office has also posted it: speaker.house.gov

An excerpt from the letter:

At 7:25 p.m., the Statement of the Department of Justice confirmed:

"Speaker Hastert is not under investigation by the Justice Department."

At 10:21 p.m., you wrote:

"Whether they like it or not, members of Congress, including Hastert, are under investigation," one federal official said tonight."

This statement is false, and your republication of it after actual knowledge of its falsity constitutes libel and defamation. ABC News' continued publication of this false information, after having actual knowledge of its falsity, evidences a specific and malicious intent to injure and damage Speaker Hastert's reputation by continued repetition of a known falsehood.

We will take any and all actions necessary to rectify the harm ABC has caused and to hold those at ABC responsible for their conduct.

Please advise regarding who will accept service of process to remedy this intentional falsehood.

END of Letter

During the panel segment on Thursday's Special Report with Brit Hume, Roll Call Executive Editor Morton Kondracke advised:
"ABC should remember Dan Rather and the Bush National Guard case where they didn't do the right thing and say, you know, we can't prove the story and just get rid of it. What ABC is doing is slowly backtracking and trying to clean its skirts and it's not successful. I mean it ought to just say, we accept that the Justice Department has said that the Speaker's not under investigation, and until he is, it's over."

Jeff Birnbaum, formerly of the Wall Street Journal and Fortune and now a business columnist for the Washington Post, disclosed:
"There were some red flags here that ABC didn't see and should have. I'm told by the Speaker's office that ABC did not call until, call the Speaker until an hour before the broadcast. And I'm also told that ABC did not check for an official response from the Justice Department, which seems sort of basic here, and that they might have caused -- if they had a little patience which is a great virtue in journalism, they might have saved themselves a lot of problems today."

Naturally, ABC's follow-up story got lower play than the original hype which led Wednesday night. The Thursday night report came about nine minutes into the newscasts, after stories on the Enron verdict and the immigration bill battle on Capitol Hill.

The MRC's Brad Wilmouth corrected the closed-captioning against the video for the May 25 World News Tonight report:

Anchor Elizabeth Vargas: "There has been a storm of reaction to our report last night about the expanding investigation of convicted former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and members of Congress. We reported last night that sources told us House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois was among those whose dealings with Abramoff the FBI has been looking into. We have a new, we have new details to report tonight, and we are joined now by our chief investigative correspondent, Brian Ross, with more. Brian?"

Brian Ross, at the anchor desk: "Elizabeth, the Department of Justice issued two separate denials of our report, the Speaker demanded a retraction, and his colleagues suggested the FBI was out to get him with a bogus story."
Ross began his taped piece: "As he gaveled the House to order this morning, Hastert was praised, and ABC News was denounced by his Republican colleagues."
Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE), on the House floor: "This non-credible journalism, I think, degrades freedom of speech and the reputation of journalists."
Ross: "On WGN Radio in Chicago, Hastert said the story was a leak planted by the FBI to intimidate him."
Audio of Dennis Hastert, House Speaker, on the radio: "It's just not true. You know, the Justice Department said there is no investigation, and, you know, this is one of the leaks that come out to try to, you know, intimidate people. And we're just not going to be intimidated on it."
Ross: "As for the facts of our story itself, here is what our sources have confirmed today: That the FBI interrogation of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff included specific and repeated questions about his relationship with Speaker Hastert, along with other members of Congress. That although Hastert is not a formal target, the FBI has been looking into a letter Hastert and others sent to the Secretary of the Interior urging her to block an Indian casino that would have competed with casinos represented by Abramoff. That a few days before the letter was sent, Abramoff hosted a fundraiser for Hastert at a restaurant he owned. The Speaker today said the letter repeated long-held views about certain Indian casino rules."
Hastert amidst group of reporters: "So it was a letter saying this precedent shouldn't be set."
Unidentified female reporter: "And the fact that it was written after you had a fundraiser at Jack Abramoff's restaurant?"
Hastert: "That's a coincidence."
Ross: "But long before our story, public interest groups had asked the Department of Justice to investigate Hastert and other members of Congress, who also intervened after contributions from Abramoff."
Fred Wertheimer, Democracy 21: "That's very unusual activity, and we believe it needed to be and needs to be investigated."
Ross concluded, back at the anchor desk: "As we reported last night, the investigation is still in its early stages, and our sources say it could well turn out that Hastert did nothing unlawful. But federal law enforcement sources say the FBI in its next step will soon seek documents and e-mails from a number of members of Congress who have been linked in the investigation to Abramoff."

Vargas had teased the Wednesday, May 24, World News Tonight: "I'm Elizabeth Vargas. Tonight, Justice Department sources tell us the investigation involving a convicted lobbyist and allegations of bribery leads to the highest level of Congress. An ABC News exclusive."

She opened the newscast: "Good evening. We begin with a major development in a Washington bribery scandal. Tonight, sources tell ABC News the case involving convicted lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, has led FBI investigators to some of the most powerful members of Congress, namely the man, second in line for the presidency, after the Vice President. This is a story with potentially major political implications and our chief investigative correspondent, Brian Ross, joins us with his exclusive report. Brian."


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More See & Hear the Bias

Ross, at the anchor desk: "Elizabeth, federal officials tell us the congressional bribery investigation now includes the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, based on information from the convicted lobbyists who are cooperating with the government."
Ross began his taped report, over video of Hastert at the Speaker's podium with "Bribery Investigation" on screen: "Justice Department officials describe the 64-year-old Illinois Republican as very much in the mix of the corruption investigation. Part of the investigation is said to involve a letter Hastert wrote three years ago, urging the Secretary of the Interior, to block a casino on an Indian reservation that would have competed wit the other tribes. The other tribes were represented by convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who reportedly has provided details of his dealings with Hastert as part of his plea agreement with the government. The letter was written shortly after a fund-raiser for Hastert at a restaurant owned by Abramoff. Abramoff and his clients contributed more than $26,000 at the time. The day Abramoff was indicted, Hastert denied any unlawful connection and said he would donate to charity any campaign contributions he had received from Abramoff or his clients. This week, following the FBI raid on the office of another Congressman under investigation, Democrat William Jefferson of Louisiana, Hastert was outspoken in his criticism of the FBI."
Dennis Hastert, House Speaker: "We are not trying to protect any individual, but we want to protect the privacy of the House as far as the Constitution."
Ross, back live at the anchor desk: "A spokesman for Hastert said the speaker was unaware he was the subject of any FBI investigation and that there had been no requests or subpoenas for documents. The spokesman said Hastert had a long history of opposing certain types of Indian casinos. And, Elizabeth, this is an investigation clearly at the very beginning. The allegations could well prove unfounded, but what's clear from all this is that the FBI intend to take this case wherever it goes."

Vargas then turned to Stephanopoulos: "All right, Brian Ross. ABC's Chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos joins us now. And, George, the political implications are huge if, in fact, Speaker Hastert is now a target of this FBI investigation."
George Stephanopoulos, from DC: "Potentially seismic, Elizabeth. And it really is going to depend on the facts and whether prosecutors can demonstrate a quid pro quo, that Hastert took that official action in return for the campaign contribution. As Brian said, he has denied that, his spokesmen have denied that in the past, but if they can prove that, if they can get an indictment, this would be a political earthquake."
Vargas: "But you, that's a big if. This is a kind of charge that is exceedingly difficult to prove."
Stephanopoulos: "Exactly right, and it's been, you know, frankly, common practice in Washington. There are 33 members of Congress who wrote letters to the Interior Secretary and got campaign contributions from Jack Abramoff. So if, if Hastert is facing that kind of scrutiny, they may, too. A lot of heads could roll."
Vargas: "And as we said at the beginning, facing at this point only scrutiny. All right, George Stephanopoulos, thanks so much."

[Video and transcript below of Ross' original Wednesday, May 24 story]

Elizabeth Vargas Steps Down Friday: A
Review of 10 Years of Bias

Friday will be the last day as anchor of ABC's World News Tonight for Elizabeth Vargas, who after a maternity leave will reportedly return to the weekly 20/20. Before joining ABC in 1996, Vargas toiled at NBC. During her years at ABC, she was a regular fill-in co-host and news reader on GMA and a frequent fill-in on World News Tonight, taking the lead role on that broadcast when Peter Jennings fell ill in early 2005. On the occasion of her stepping down from World News Tonight, from the MRC's archive, a look back at her most biased moments.

(For the MRC's collection of 50 biased quotes from Charlie Gibson, who takes over Monday for Vargas, go to this page for the compilation which also features ten videos: www.mrc.org )

Ten items from Notable Quotables:

Lamar Alexander an Extremist?

"You've been known in the past as a moderate Republican, but some of your views could be considered by some to be extreme. For example, you would shut down the U.S. Education Department. You would shut down welfare and Medicaid for the poor, eventually. Aren't you just advocating shifting some enormous problems to states that may not be well-equipped to deal with them?
-- NBC's Today substitute host Elizabeth Vargas to Lamar Alexander, February 28, 1995.


Uncle Sam Must Save Us From Killer Roller Coasters

"More trouble at the nation's amusement parks, two dozen people injured. Why won't Congress let the government regulate those parks?"
-- ABC's Elizabeth Vargas, previewing an upcoming story on the July 31, 2001 World News Tonight.


Tax Cut Threatens Seniors

"Gambling with the federal budget surplus. Billions of dollars evaporate into thin air. Is your Social Security money at risk?"
-- Substitute anchor Elizabeth Vargas's tease at the top of the August 22, 2001 World News Tonight.


Senate Inaction Could Kill Seniors

"Prescription drugs: The Senate kills a plan to help senior citizens afford them. Americans are putting their lives at risk to save money on medicine."
-- ABC substitute anchor Elizabeth Vargas, promoting an upcoming story on the July 31, 2002 World News Tonight.


Where Is Tax Cut for Non-Payers?

"Today millions of middle-class Americans will begin receiving the $400 per child payments, but many poor Americans will get nothing. Missing out on the tax credit in the mail this weekend: military families and their loved, one million children."
-- ABC's Elizabeth Vargas introducing a July 26, 2003 World News Tonight/Saturday story. Lower-income families who won't receive the tax credit do not owe any federal income taxes.


Insisting Bush Condemn Anti-Kerry Swift Boat Ad

"Even Republican Senator John McCain has called on the President to condemn this ad. Why hasn't he done so, this swift boat ad?"
-- ABC's Elizabeth Vargas to reporter Terry Moran on World News Tonight, August 19, the first night the broadcast mentioned the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.


Democratic Law = Alito's Idea

"On World News Tonight, President Bush's latest nominee to the Supreme Court. Conservatives are thrilled, liberals incensed. He once said a woman should tell her husband before she gets an abortion."
-- ABC's Elizabeth Vargas introducing the October 31, 2005 World News Tonight.


Can't We Stop Retrograde Alito?

Co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas: "You are one of a handful of pro-choice Republicans. But if you get the sense in these hearings that Judge Alito would overturn or weaken Roe v. Wade, would that make him unqualified, in your opinion?"
Liberal Republican Senator Arlen Specter: "I would not decide my vote on a single issue...."
Vargas: "Democrats know that if they really do decide they want to oppose the appointment of Judge Alito to the Supreme Court bench, their best bet to do this is to filibuster."
Specter: "There are no extraordinary circumstances to warrant filibustering Judge Alito."
Vargas (astonished): "None?"
-- From a taped interview shown on ABC's World News Tonight, January 9, 2006.


Upset by McCain's "Right Turn"

"During his 2000 campaign, [John] McCain gathered support as a straight-talking maverick by attacking some members of his party's base. Now it appears he's on a very different course...."
-- Anchor Elizabeth Vargas, with "Right Turn?" beneath a picture of McCain, on the April 14, 2006 World News Tonight.


False Claims of "Record High" Oil Price

"I'm Elizabeth Vargas. Tonight, a week of skyrocketing oil prices ends with another record today, and now gasoline shortages....Good evening. It's been a remarkable week for oil and gasoline prices in the U.S. Records were set on four out of five days, and today the price for a barrel of crude topped $75 for the first time ever."
-- Vargas opening ABC's World News Tonight, April 21, 2006.



From the CyberAlert archive:

# Vargas Pushes to Avoid Senate Trial for Clinton. Avoiding a Senate trial of President Clinton is what's good for the country, interim co-host Elizabeth Vargas contended on the January 7, 1999 Good Morning America. MRC news analyst Jessica Anderson caught these two exchanges with Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison:

Elizabeth Vargas: "Senator, the Senate prides itself on being a very dignified body. Does the specter of swearing in Monica Lewinsky on the floor of the Senate and talking about sexual matters disturb you?"
Hutchison (R-Texas): "Yes, very much."
Vargas: "Then why do you think so many of your colleagues are reluctant to work out some kind of a deal to avoid just that?"

Vargas: "You have said, Senator, that you are honor-bound to do your constitutional duty. Aren't you also honor-bound to do what's good for the country?"
Hutchison: "Yes, absolutely."
Vargas: "Do you think a protracted trial in the Senate and the impeachment of President Clinton is, in fact, good for the country?"


# Promoting Million Mom March. NRA representatives get grilled on the morning shows, but those who wrap their liberal political agenda in motherhood and apple pie get a free ride. Just check out how ABC's Good Morning America treated the organizer of the upcoming anti-gun Million Mom March set for Mother's Day. GMA substitute co-host Elizabeth Vargas provided a long advertisement for the march in the guise of an interview, observed MRC analyst Brad Wilmouth. Vargas introduced the March 23, 2000 segment:
"On the heels of yet another shooting rampage at a Texas church last night, we have a woman with us this morning, a typical mom you might say, who has made it her mission to stop the bloodshed. You remember the Million Man March? Well, this woman is the organizer of the Million Mom March against gun violence, and it is scheduled for Mother's Day May 14th. Joining us now is Donna Dees-Thomases. Donna, good morning. Good to have you here. You actually got the idea for this march, you say, by watching the television coverage of a shooting at a Los Angeles daycare center. Tell me about that." See the March 27, 2000 CyberAlert: www.mediaresearch.org


# Vargas Endorses DiCaprio's ABC News Special on Global Warming. To add "news weight" to its Saturday Earth Day special ABC made Elizabeth Vargas the anchor. Her assessment of Leonardo DiCaprio's role: "This is an important cause for him" and "gosh, if we get another million teenagers...tuning in to see" him "that's great." See the April 21, 2000 CyberAlert: www.mediaresearch.org


# Glowing Evaluation of John Edwards. ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas highlighted how Edwards "made his name convincing juries to give enormous awards to people who suffered terrible injuries. He won his clients more than $150 million before joining the Senate four years ago. And insurance companies were terrified of him. He now says he wants to fight for working people." See the January 3, 2003 CyberAlert: www.mediaresearch.org


# Giving Credence to How Bush Tax Cuts Tilted to the Rich. ABC, CBS, CNBC and NBC all gave credence to the assumption that Bush's tax cuts unfairly benefit the wealthy, but none noted how the top ten percent of taxpayers pay 67 percent of income taxes collected while the bottom 50 percent pay a piddling four percent. ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas worried: "President Bush will roll out more tax cuts, but will they benefit everyone?" See the January 3, 2003 CyberAlert: www.mediaresearch.org

# ABC Blames "Determined Group of Well-Financed Conservatives." Sounding eerily like Hillary Clinton's claim of a "vast right-wing conspiracy," ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas blamed "a determined group of well-financed conservatives ready to exploit" the "weaknesses" of a recall law and unpopular Governor for the circus of California's gubernatorial race featuring "former child actor Gary Coleman" and "Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt," though modern conservatives had nothing to do with the century-old law which made it so easy to get on the ballot. See the August 8, 2003 CyberAlert: www.mediaresearch.org


# ABC Sees "Harsh" Attack from Bush While Kerry is "Hitting Back." A "harsh" Bush and Cheney versus the Kerry-Edwards team which is simply "hitting back." ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas warned on Wednesday night that "the Bush campaign unleashed its harshest attacks yet on Senator Kerry" as "Vice President Cheney accused Kerry of exhibiting, quote, 'a lot of hesitancy and uncertainty'" while President Bush also "went on the attack." ABC's Jonathan Karl argued that "the fervor of the attacks suggests Republicans are worried Kerry is gaining ground." In the very next story, ABC painted Kerry as the set upon victim fighting back on a winning issue. Vargas trumpeted how "Kerry was hitting back today, but on an issue that President Bush once hoped would be an advantage for him -- the drug prescription bill." See the August 12, 2004 CyberAlert: www.mediaresearch.org


# ABC Passes Along Worries Saddam Hussein Won't Get Fair Trial. ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas set up a Tuesday World News Tonight story, about Saddam Hussein's trial set to start Wednesday, by noting how "many Iraqis are eager to see him in the docks, finally held accountable for atrocities committed by his regime." But then came the inevitable "but," as in: "But already, human rights groups are worried about the fairness of the trial." See the October 19, 2005 CyberAlert: www.mediaresearch.org


# Nets Champion Cause of Those Marching for "Immigration Reform." The three broadcast networks led Monday night with multiple stories which celebrated the protest marches held by illegal immigrants and their supporters, with all three featuring sympathetic anecdotes about the plight of those here illegally. "Tonight," ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas touted in forwarding the red herring that conservatives are against "immigration" as opposed to illegal entry, "hundreds of thousands of people marching in streets across America, trying to convince the country that it needs immigrants." See the April 11, 2006 CyberAlert: www.mediaresearch.org


# CBS and ABC Play to Jealousy Over Exxon Chief's Retirement Pay. CBS and ABC played to petty jealousies on Thursday night. Both aired silly stories which contrasted the large retirement package, earned by former ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Lee Raymond, with the average retiree income or the burden rising gas prices supposedly put on a typical family. ABC's World News Tonight featured a "First Person" account from a man who lashed out at how he's being "gouged" by oil companies. Vargas then linked gas prices to Raymond's compensation, as if supply and demand have nothing to do with it: "Those high gas prices, in the meantime, are helping finance one of the richest retirement packages in U.S. corporate history." See the April 14, 2006 CyberAlert: www.mediaresearch.org

-- Brent Baker