Dan Rostenkowski (?-Ill), 1928-2010. Reporting the passing of Dan
Rostenkowski, the ABC and NBC anchors on Wednesday night managed to
gently note his ignominious departure from public life while also
including a humanizing anecdote about his life (NBC: He "went back to
live in the same house he grew up in in Chicago's north side," ABC: "In
1985, he famously asked Americans fed up with the tax system to write
him"), but neither identified him as a Democrat. Nor did any on-screen
graphic mark his party.
In contrast, filling in as anchor of the CBS Evening News, Erica Hill managed to accurately describe the late Congressman as "a product of Chicago's Democratic political machine."
Handling the anchor duties on ABC's World News, George Stephanopoulos, a Democratic House staff member when Rostenkowski was at the zenith of his power, announced:
We have a high profile political death to note tonight. Dan Rostenkowski was steeped in Chicago politics from the start. Elected to Congress at the age of 30, he served there 36 years, 13 of them as Chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee before a scandal that saw him serve time on fraud charges. In 1985, he famously asked Americans fed up with the tax system to write him.
Viewers than saw a clip of Rostenkowski: "Even if you can't spell Rostenkowski, put down what they used to call my father and grandfather, Rosty. Just address it to R-O-S-T-Y, Washington, DC."
Stephanopoulos finished: "Dan Rostenkowski was 82."
Over on the NBC Nightly News, fill-in anchor Ann Curry read this short item:
Dan Rostenkowski, once one of the most powerful lawmakers in Washington, died today. He rose to become Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, but ended up at the center of the House Post Office scandal and was voted out of office in 1994. He spent 15 months in prison, then went back to live in the same house he grew up in in Chicago's north side. Dan Rostenkowski was 82 years old.
The Washington press corps had affection for Rostenkowski and his liberal policies. Here are representative flashbacks to three articles in the MRC's MediaWatch newsletter:
From the June 1994 MediaWatch :
Rostenkowski's Free Ride
Media Mourn 17-Count Indictment as Tragedy for the Country
Some reporters treated House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski's 17-count indictment on embezzlement and jury tampering not as an outrage, but as a tragedy. On NBC's Today May 25, Tim Russert declared: "It's sad. It's not something people are gloating over because the fact is, Bryant, Congressman Rostenkowski came here as a political hack from Chicago and turned into a very formidable national legislator." NBC reporter Lisa Myers added: "It's a big loss for the President, it's a big loss for the Congress, and I think it's a big loss for the country."
On ABC's Good Morning America the next day, co-host Charles Gibson pleaded the chairman's case: "What's involved here is perhaps, what, some $50,000 in stamps and some phantom jobs for friends?....Here, though, is a guy who passes bills or is shepherding bills worth billions of dollars risking his career for small amounts, or you think, amounts significant enough that there's real corruption here?"
Despite the unfolding of the House Post Office scandal since early 1992 and an ongoing Justice Department investigation of Rostenkowski, reporters have failed to ask him about it. CBS Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer interviewed him twice in 1993. On February 7, he asked only one question: "Mr. Chairman, I'd be remiss if I did not ask you... you've been investigated by a U.S. Attorney now for I don't know how many months, can you tell us if you've been given any indication if that is about to conclude?" On May 16, he asked nothing about it.
Today's Bryant Gumbel interviewed Rosty twice in 1993, May 17 and August 15. He also asked nothing about the investigation. On the day after Rosty won a primary election in March of this year, Gumbel asked only about the campaign and nothing about the charges. On June 27, 1993, Rostenkowski appeared on Meet the Press, but no one asked about his ethics.
The only NBC exception came on the September 28, 1993 Today, when Stone Phillips asked: "You have had your own legal troubles of late, subject of an investigation into the House Post Office scandal. How much of a distraction is that for you and how much will it continue to be?" On May 18, 12 days after the news leaked that prosecutors planned to indict Rostenkowski, Tom Brokaw interviewed him on the NBC Nightly News but failed to ask anything about it.
In the more than two years before the indictment leak, the Big Three networks aired only 22 stories on Rostenkowski's possible crimes. In the first two months of 1988, the Big Three networks did 26 stories on Ed Meese's connection to an Iraqi pipeline deal. Meese was never indicted.
From the August 1995 MediaWatch :
A Tale of Two Schieffers
Worrying About Rosty, Not Newt
On February 7, 1993, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) appeared on CBS's Face the Nation. A very apologetic Bob Schieffer waited until the end of the interview to slip in a tepid question about an ongoing ethics investigation: "I'd be remiss if I did not ask you, your office has been investigated, you've been investigated by a U.S. Attorney now for I don't know how many months. Can you tell us if you've been given any indication if that is about to conclude and do you feel in any way if that's going to impede your authority to work on these economic problems?"
On the July 9, 1995 Face the Nation, Schieffer and U.S. News & World Report Senior Writer Gloria Borger fired four questions at Speaker Newt Gingrich about his ethics.
This year Schieffer lacked the "when can we get on with business" tone. While he was concerned that a long investigation into Rostenkowski may have impeded his authority, with Gingrich it smelled of a cover-up: "Maybe this sounds as an odd question, but, you know, until the ethics committee announced on Friday that they were indeed going to call you and Rupert Murdoch, there had been charges, most of them from Democrats, that the whole thing was being, been dragged out. That the ethics committee had taken no testimony under oath, that they had subpoenaed no documents. Eric Engberg of CBS had reported that they hadn't even gotten a briefing from any relevant agencies. Do you think the ethics committee has been dragging its feet on this? And would you like to tell them to speed up to at least clear up all of this?"
From the May 1996 MediaWatch :
On April 9, former Illinois Congressman and Ways and Means Committee boss Dan Rostenkowski pled guilty to two felony counts of corruption while in Congress. The night of and morning after the plea, the Big Three networks read anchor-briefs on his conviction. Time, U.S. News and World Report, and Newsweek also kept the conviction to tiny one- or two-paragraph blurbs in their April 22 editions (although Newsweek broke the plea story the week before).
ABC's Cokie Roberts was the only network reporter to address the story. On the April 14 This Week, Roberts hurled a softball to Rosty about his good intentions. She recalled that in 1992 she asked him, "'Why are you running for re-election when you could just go home and have this money.' You said 'I want to get healthcare done, I want to hang that scalp on my wall.' Here it is four years later, you've spent $2 million in legal fees, you're about to go to jail and health care isn't done. What are you feeling?"
- Brent Baker is Vice President for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center. Click here  to follow him on Twitter.