Weinergate: The Story the Networks Never Liked
As much as liberals might complain the Anthony Weiner scandal was some sort of feeding frenzy, the networks did not attack it, especially the evening news. They seemed to agree with just-departed CBS anchor Katie Couric, who asked on Twitter: "I'm curious if anybody thinks this Anthony Weiner Twitter scandal is a legit news story or just fodder for late-night comedians."
That's not the way the networks acted in the fall of 2006, when the MRC demonstrated a real feeding frenzy in the case of Republican Rep. Mark Foley, who quickly resigned after ABC's Brian Ross reported he'd sent lewd AOL instant messages to former congressional pages. In the first 12 days of that story, the networks "flooded the zone" with 152 stories (55 evening stories and 97 morning stories or segments).
By contrast, Democrat Weiner's weeks of trying to avoid resignation didn't draw a similar flood. In the first 12 days of the Weiner scandal (from May 29 through June 9), the networks filed only 56 stories (just 11 in the evening, 45 in the morning).
This includes partial stories, like Brian Williams introducing the scandal in a disdainful 20-second brief near the end of the June 3 newscast, in the midst of a news potpourri from politics to actresses who'd died. Williams lamented it was "the kind of thing that used to be people's own business." Williams did find what he thought was a real scandal on June 2: Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey taking a helicopter flight to his son's soccer game.
Before Weiner declared on the afternoon of June 6 that he'd lied in denying the story that he sent lewd Twitter messages to young women, the networks had aired an even smaller sample: one evening news story each (counting NBC's Williams brief) and 13 morning stories. By the time Weiner resigned on the afternoon of June 16 (after 19 days), the overall number still didn't quite match our Foley number: 113 (21 evening stories and 92 in the morning.)
In fact, MRC analysts found the networks were twice as intense on the Foley story, long after he resigned (152 stories in 12 days is more than 12.6 stories per day) than on the entire Weiner scandal up to the resignation speech (113 stories in 19 days is less than six stories per day).
The evening-news producers were noticeably allergic. Four of NBC's eight updates were the Williams 20-second brief, two occasions on which Lester Holt asked one Weiner question to David Gregory, and a 66-second update from Kelly O'Donnell. CBS only aired five evening stories, and in Scott Pelley's debut on June 6, he delayed Weiner's admission of guilt until minute 12.
NBC's Today led the morning shows with 41 segments. CBS aired 29, and ABC lagged in third with 22.
The tone of stories in both scandals matched a supportive tone for liberal Democrats. In the Foley case, it was doom from day one. Early on, CBS analyst Gloria Borger told Couric: "One senior House Republican tells CBS News that this scandal could be the congressional equivalent of [Hurricane] Katrina."
But with Weiner, the networks avoided spreading the story to other Democrats, and talked damage control for Weiner. On NBC's Today June 2, Meredith Vieira insisted Weiner "is a rising star in this state' and wondered 'how does he get ahead of this story again or get it behind him'"
When Weiner admitted on June 6 that he'd sent the lewd photos on the Internet, CBS reporter Nancy Cordes worried out loud that Weiner was a vital voice tugging at Obama from the left, and "it's unclear how well he's really going to be able to perform that role now, a role that even the President has said is very important."
But when the story deepened, with Weiner swapping online messages with a 17-year-old girl and sending semi-nude pictures from the House gym, the Democrats turned. DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Weiner had to go. In sync, the network tone changed. ABC Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts began on June 13: "New pictures emerge of Anthony Weiner, this time snapped in the congressional locker room. As he begins treatment at a secret location this morning, will he now accept that his career is finished?"
That same morning on NBC, Today co-host Matt Lauer began: "Drip, drip, drip. New photos emerge of a shirtless Congressman Anthony Weiner taken in the House gym, as calls for him to resign grow louder. Will these latest pictures be the final straw?"
These two congressional non-sex scandals underline how politicians know the media is liberal. Mark Foley resigned immediately, no doubt in part because he knew the national media exposed him and would eventually drive him out. Anthony Weiner tried to negotiate around the media, since the New Media exposed him and he suspected that if Democrats would let him stay, so would reporters.
- Tim Graham is the MRC's Director of Media Analysis. You can follow him on Twitter here.