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.
Now wait a minute, Bozell. What about another possibility? Why can’t it be an honest mistake? Cannot we believe that even if such an egregious violation is committed it might not just be an accident, a reckless, sloppy oversight? If it happened once, fine. Stunning but fine. Twice? I don’t believe in coincidences. The record, however, shows it is much worse than that.
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.
But what happens when a Republican elected official is linked to a prostitute? In July 2007, Senator David Vitter of Louisiana was revealed as a client in the phone records of the so-called D.C. Madam. Every broadcast network ran stories on the scandal and every story underscored that Vitter was a Republican.
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.