Analysis: The News Media’s Double Standard on Political Scandals
What’s the difference between a political scandal involving a Republican and one involving a Democrat? When it comes to news coverage, reporters almost always identify the political party of a Republican caught in a scandal, but when the culprit is a Democrat, the party label is usually left out of the story.
There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but not many. To document the point, here’s how ABC, CBS and NBC have identified (or failed to identify) the figures in 16 political scandals — 8 Democrats, 8 Republicans — during the past few years:
■ Florida Congressman Mark Foley: On September 29, 2006, Foley resigned his House seat after ABC News found the Congressman had sent explicit e-mails to male pages. That evening and on the next day’s morning news shows, ABC, CBS and NBC reporters all made sure to explain that Foley was a Republican. “As if the Republican Party needed any more bad news, a congressman was forced to resign today,” chirped CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric.
Even though the congressman had already resigned, the broadcast networks pumped out 152 stories on the Foley scandal over the next 12 days, and painted it as an election-year crisis for the entire Republican Party. “This is more than just one man’s downfall,” co-host Matt Lauer declared on NBC’s Today on October 2, the Monday after the Foley story broke. “It could be a major blow to the Republican Party....”
■ Louisiana Senator David Vitter: In July 2007, Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter’s name surfaced as a client in the phone records of the so-called “D.C. Madam.” Over the next week, ABC, CBS and NBC ran a total of nine stories on Vitter’s scandal, and highlighted his GOP affiliation in every one of those stories.
ABC’s Jake Tapper, for example, began his July 10, 2007 story: “Republican Senator David Vitter is a self-proclaimed defender of family values....” When the NBC Nightly News arrived on the story on July 16, 2007, anchor Brian Williams also stressed Vitter’s conservative credentials: “Republican Senator David Vitter made his first public appearance tonight in a week....Vitter is one of the Senate’s most conservative members.”
■ Idaho Senator Larry Craig: On August 27, 2007, news broke that the Idaho Senator had been arrested that June in a bathroom sex sting operation at the Minneapolis airport. Over the next two days, every broadcast morning and evening news show featured at least one story on Craig, and every one of those broadcasts pointed out he was a “Republican.”
On the August 28, 2007 Good Morning America, ABC’s Claire Shipman called it “the latest scandal to rock the Republican Party.” Over on NBC that same morning, Today co-host Matt Lauer linked Craig to all conservatives: “Can the right wing withstand yet another scandal involving one of its own?...On Monday, word leaked out that the conservative Republican was arrested and pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct charge....”
■ New York Governor Eliot Spitzer: When news broke on March 10, 2008 that Spitzer, a former state Attorney General, had been linked to a prostitution ring, only the CBS Evening News bothered to tell viewers that Spitzer was a Democrat.
It took two days until a reporter on ABC’s World News mentioned that Spitzer was a Democrat, while the NBC Nightly News waited until the fourth night to acknowledge Spitzer’s party affiliation. As for Today, the NBC morning news show ran 18 segments on Spitzer’s scandal on March 11 and 12, and never once identified his political affiliation.
Then, after days spent insulating the Democratic Party from this scandal, co-host Meredith Vieira asked NBC’s Tim Russert on March 13 if he saw any “fallout for the Democrats” from the scandal. “Probably not,” Russert replied.
■ Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick: On March 24, 2008, all three broadcast evening newscasts covered the indictment of Detroit’s then-mayor for perjury and obstruction of justice, but none told viewers he was a Democrat. Then on August 7 of that year, the Big Three all ran stories about how a judge had ordered Kilpatrick to jail for violating his bond; that night, ABC and NBC again skipped the mayor’s party ID, but CBS’s Dean Reynolds managed to squeeze it in: “Once a rising star in Democratic Party politics...”
That year, Kilpatrick pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice, serving three months in prison. But the case wasn’t over — fast forward to March 11, 2013, when Kilpatrick (now a former mayor) was convicted on 24 counts of corruption. That night, none of the broadcast networks mentioned the conviction on their evening newscasts.
In October, however, when Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in prison, NBC offered brief coverage on their morning and evening newscasts, but did not tell viewers he was a Democrat.
On the October 10, 2013 Nightly News, anchor Brian William explained: “Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in prison for widespread corruption that prosecutors actually contend worsened that city’s financial crisis. He was convicted of two dozen counts back in March. Eighteen other officials from his tenure as mayor have been convicted as well. And the city, of course, is now in bankruptcy.”
■ Alaska Senator Ted Stevens: On July 29, 2008, after Stevens was indicted for failing to report gifts, all three broadcast evening newscasts employed 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, the Alaska Senator was convicted of corruption charges and, again, all three evening newscasts pointed out that Stevens was the Senate’s “longest-serving Republican.”
The guilty verdict proved fatal to Stevens’s political career; he lost his bid for re-election just eight days after it was rendered. Less than six months later, however, that conviction was overturned as evidence surfaced of prosecutorial misconduct. As ABC’s Pierre Thomas explained on the April 7, 2009 World News: “An outraged federal judge just thrown out the guilty verdict against Stevens and accused government prosecutors of violating his rights. ‘In nearly 25 years on the bench,’ Judge Emmet Sullivan said, ‘I’ve never seen anything approaching the misconduct in this case.’”
■ Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich: On January 29, 2009, Blagojevich was removed as governor of Illinois for corruption (he’d been arrested for attempting to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama after the presidential election), but in their coverage that night and the next morning, ABC, CBS and NBC gave viewers no hint that the disgraced Blagojevich was a Democrat.
The same thing happened in June 2011 when Blagojevich was convicted of 17 counts of corruption — ABC, NBC and the CBS Evening News utterly failed to label him as a Democrat, while CBS’s Early Show only noted his party with a “D” on-screen. In December of that year, all three networks aired stories about Blagojevich receiving a 14-year prison sentence, but again only CBS’s Early Show acknowledged his party affiliation.
■ Nevada Senator John Ensign: On June 17, 2009, the morning after Ensign admitted to an extramarital affair, all three broadcast network morning shows made a point of labeling the Nevada Senator as a “Republican.” NBC’s Ann Curry labeled Ensign as a “conservative” as she broke the news on Today: “Last night the conservative Republican admitted to an extramarital affair...”
On ABC’s Good Morning America, news anchor Chris Cuomo and correspondent Jonathan Karl noted Ensign’s Republican affiliation three times: “A rising star in the Republican Party is coming forward....” “John Ensign is a member of the Republican leadership....” and “The Republican from Nevada admits cheating on his wife...”
■ South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford: On June 24, 2009, then-Governor Mark Sanford admitted to having an extramarital affair with a woman in Argentina. All three evening newscasts that night, and the morning shows the next day, made sure to tell viewers that Sanford was a Republican. “In a Republican Party hungry for young stars, he was one of them,” Brian Williams intoned on the June 24, 2009 NBC Nightly News.
Over on CBS that same night, anchor Katie Couric called Sanford “a rising Republican star caught up in scandal.” The next morning on Good Morning America, longtime ABC newsman Sam Donaldson pontificated: “The problem Republicans have, so many of them are sanctimonious. They thump the Bible. They condemn everyone else and then when they are human, they don’t have much credit in the bank for forgiveness.”
■ Former Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson: On August 5, 2009, both ABC and NBC covered the guilty verdict handed down against the former nine-term Democratic Congressman for bribery, racketeering and wire fraud, but NBC failed to name his political party. The next morning, all three networks aired brief reports, but this time only NBC’s Today bothered to mention Jefferson’s party ID — ABC and CBS both skipped that part of the story.
Then on November 13, 2009, when Jefferson was sentenced to 13 years in prison — the longest ever for a member of Congress — the CBS Evening News skipped the news, while ABC’s World News omitted Jefferson’s party affiliation in a brief report read by then-anchor Charles Gibson: “Former Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson has been sentenced to 13 years in prison for his conviction on federal bribery charges. Authorities found $90,000 wrapped in foil in Jefferson’s freezer, part of the half million dollars prosecutors say he received for using his influence to broker business deals in Africa.”
■ Former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine: On November 4, 2011, the onetime Senator and Governor of New Jersey quit as the head of MF Global after the firm filed for bankruptcy, exposing the unauthorized use of hundreds of millions of dollars in customer funds now lost in bad investments. When CBS and NBC covered the news that night, both failed to mention Corzine’s Democratic ties, while ABC skipped the news entirely.
A month late, on December 8, 2011, all three network evening newscasts covered Corzine’s testimony before Congress on the failure of his firm. This time, while all three networks talked about Corzine’s political past, only the NBC Nightly News mentioned that he’d served as a Democrat. Anchoring World News, ABC’s David Muir merely described Corzine as “a former political heavyweight under fire, Jon Corzine, once a U.S. Senator and governor of New Jersey, forced to explain himself to small everyday investors...”
■ Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin: When news broke on January 18, 2013, that Nagin had been indicted, all three evening newscasts failed to note that Nagin was a Democrat. “Seven years ago, this man was the face of Hurricane Katrina,” ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer generously noted. “Well, today we learned he’s been indicted, charged with taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.”
When Nagin was convicted on February 13, 2014, the same three newscasts repeated the pattern: They covered the story, but did not note Nagin’s party ID. NBC’s Brian Williams merely described him as “the controversial former mayor of New Orleans who rose to public attention during Hurricane Katrina.”
Then on July 9, 2014, when a judge sentenced Nagin to ten years in prison for his crimes, ABC and CBS continued to censor Nagin’s affiliation, but NBC’s Williams finally disclosed Nagin’s political ID: “Former Democratic mayor of New Orleans Ray Nagin...”
■ Former Illinois Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.: On February 15, 2013, federal prosecutors charged the former Illinois Congressman with illegally spending $750,000 of campaign funds on items such as Michael Jackson and Bruce Lee memorabilia. That night, neither the CBS Evening News nor NBC Nightly News bothered to identify Jackson as a Democrat, while ABC’s World News skipped the news entirely. On CBS, correspondent Nancy Cordes labeled Jackson only as “the promising and personable son of a civil rights leader, the Reverend Jesse Jackson.”
The next morning, all three networks mentioned the charges against Jackson on their Saturday morning shows, but none saw fit to tell viewers he was a Democrat. The same pattern showed up six months later (August 15, 2013), when Jackson was sentenced to 30 months in prison. In their evening and morning coverage of the ex-Congressman’s prison sentence, none of the networks thought it relevant to mention his party affiliation.
■ San Diego Mayor Bob Filner: Amid accusations that he sexually harassed numerous women, San Diego’s Democratic Mayor announced on July 26, 2013 that he was taking a leave of absence to enter “intensive therapy.” That night, all three evening newscasts picked up the story, but only the CBS Evening News identified the mayor’s political affiliation. Correspondent John Blackstone distanced the party from the scandalous mayor: “Filner, a Democrat, has lost his party’s support. Local, national, and state Democratic leaders have all called for his resignation...”
Less than a month later (August 22, 2013), news spread that Filner had agreed to resign his position as part of a deal with the city council. All three of the broadcast networks covered that news on their evening and morning newscasts, but again only CBS bothered to mention that Filner was a Democrat. Covering the story for ABC’s World News, correspondent Ryan Owens noted that “some voters want him recalled before he can quit — they say resignation is just too easy for a man who has embarrassed America’s eighth largest city.” But neither ABC nor NBC would let that embarrassment attach itself to the Democratic Party.
■ Florida Congressman Trey Radel: On November 19, 2013, news broke that Representative Radel had been arrested in October for cocaine possession. That night and the next morning, every ABC, CBS and NBC evening and morning news show reported the story, and made sure to tell viewers that Radel was a Republican. “Radel is 37, a Republican who represents the Gulf Coast. He could face six months in prison if convicted,” CBS’s Scott Pelley announced on the November 19 Evening News.
On Good Morning America the next day, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos pointed out Radel’s party ID and twice linked him to the Tea Party: “Breaking new details on the Republican Congressman caught buying cocaine in a federal sting...The Tea Party talk radio host now facing prison time in his own real life drama....He’s a Tea Party favorite from Florida.”
Over on CBS This Morning, correspondent Nancy Cordes also tied Radel to his party: “For Republicans Trey Radel was a fresh young face, a 37-year-old former news anchor and new father who dubbed himself a ‘hip hop conservative.’”
■ New Jersey Governor Chris Christie: In January 2014, all three broadcast networks leaped to cover accusations that members of Christie’s administration had orchestrated a major traffic snarl as part of a political payback. Breaking the news on their January 8, 2014 evening newscasts, CBS and NBC both tagged Christie as a Republican. “Chris Christie, of course, is a leading star in the Republican Party,” CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley told viewers. ABC covered the story, but refrained from a direct label for Christie.
The next morning, all three networks reiterated Christie’s Republican identity. “He’s gotten a lot of benefit by being sort of this Republican rising star in the New York City media markets,” NBC’s Chuck Todd insisted on Today, rationalizing the massive national news interest in the story: “This is what happens when the bright lights start burning.”
There are exceptions to this trend. On December 2, 2010, after New York Congressman Charlie Rangel was censured by the House for corruption, all three evening newscasts told viewers he was a Democrat. When then-Representative Anthony Weiner admitted on June 6, 2011 that he’d been lying about sexually explicit pictures of himself that had been posted to Twitter, all three evening newscasts that night told viewers he was a Democrat, too.
But the trend is clear: Most of the time, the media frame their coverage to help insulate the Democrat Party from the antics of their more scandalous politicians, while Republicans caught up in similar scandals are usually identified by their party affiliation.
It’s absolutely proper for journalists to list the party ID of politicians caught up in scandal, especially when those scandals are worthy of national broadcast network news coverage. That means identifying Democrats as well as Republicans — assuming, of course, that the networks are interested in even-handed coverage of politics.
— Rich Noyes is Research Director at the Media Research Center. Follow Rich Noyes on Twitter.