Big Three Network Double Standard on Labeling Scandalous Politicians

All too often when reporters are discussing Democrats caught in scandals, they develop a peculiar speech impediment that prevents them from uttering the "D" word. However, when members of the GOP stumble, the word "Republican" cascades out of the mouths of reporters.

When news broke on February 15 that former Democratic Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. was charged with improperly spending campaign funds on (among other items) Michael Jackson and Bruce Lee memorabilia, the Big Three (ABC, CBS, NBC) network anchors and reporters struggled to get their lips to form the word "Democrat." In 15 total stories on Jackson, reporters failed to utter the "D" word in 11 of them (73 percent). On the February 21 CBS This Morning Jackson was labeled a Democrat, but only in an on-screen graphic.

When word got out that the FBI was investigating New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez's jaunts (that may have included solicitation of prostitutes) with a campaign contributor to the Dominican Republic, the Big Three networks whistled past the scandal by airing a total of just eight stories since the story broke on January 24.

The reluctance to attach the "D" label to Jackson and give limited coverage to Menendez are typical examples of the liberal media's reluctance to tarnish the Democratic Party with its more ethically- challenged members. It's a courtesy that they have not extended to scandalized members of the GOP.

Over the years, the MRC has chronicled the vast disparity in how GOP politicians embroiled in scandals are covered compared to how sullied Democrats are covered, or in some cases, not covered.

The Following Scandal is Rated R (for Republican)

A prime example of network reporters withholding the "D" label came in October 2011. On Halloween of that year, MF Global Holdings filed for bankruptcy with a shady mystery: some $1.6 billion was missing from their customers' accounts. Financial analysts blamed the company's CEO, Jon Corzine, a former Democratic U.S. Senator and Governor of New Jersey, who became the center of an FBI investigation. In 22 total stories and briefs following the news that Corzine's brokerage firm filed for bankruptcy, and his subsequent testimony before the Senate only once was Corzine's party affiliation mentioned, when Kelly O'Donnell noted it, in her December 8, 2011 NBC Nightly News report.

When former Democratic New York Governor Eliot Spitzer found himself mired in a prostitution scandal in 2008 an MRC study found that within the first week of news coverage Spitzer was only identified as a Democrat 20 percent of the time.

This is in sharp contrast to the coverage former South Carolina Republican Governor Mark Sanford received when he admitted, in 2009, to having flown to Argentina to carry on an extramarital affair. Within the first 24 hours of Sanford's confession he was identified as a Republican 100 percent of the time, during coverage on all the networks. In just the first week since Sanford admitted the tryst there were 49 stories on the Big Three network morning and evening shows.  

In 2008 former Democratic Mayor of Detroit Kwame Kilpatrick was sent to jail for violating the terms of his bond after he had been indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice for lying about his affair with his chief of staff, as well as their roles in the firing of two police officers. In 40 total Big Three network stories and briefs on Kilpatrick's troubles in the entire year of 2008 he was called a Democrat on just two occasions, both times on CBS.

In 2008 Kilpatrick, and the aforementioned Spitzer, weren't the only pols caught in sex scandals. A look at the ABC, CBS, NBC morning and evening shows in the days after scandals for Senators David Vitter (for prostitution) and Larry Craig (for bathroom stall toe-tapping) their party affiliation was included on every show. The key difference separating Vitter and Craig from Spitzer and Kilpatrick being that they were Republicans.



When an intern to former Democratic Congressman Gary Condit went missing back in 2001 the networks flooded their programs with stories on the search for Chandra Levy and speculated on Condit's involvement. Curiously, most of these stories did not include the Congressman's party affiliation. An MRC study done at the time looked at the ABC, NBC and CBS's morning and evening news programs from May 14 through July 12 of that year and found that in a total of 179 stories the Democratic label was applied only 14 times or less than 8% of the stories.  Six of those labels came paired with adjectives such as "conservative" or "right-wing," so as to distance Condit from other party members.

Even further back from the Condit scandal, the networks, for the most part, covered up the party label of disgraced Democratic Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards. On May 9, 2000, the former four-term governor was convicted on 17 counts of fraud and racketeering. CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News passed on the news with no Democratic label. The late ABC World News Tonight's Peter Jennings avoided the D-word around his conviction, but later arrived at the party identification indirectly: "He got support from old line white Democrats, blacks and Cajuns. He was one of them."        

Democratic Scandal? What Democratic Scandal?

It's bad enough that the Big Three networks forget to label Democrats in scandal stories, sometimes they don't bother to mention the scandals at all. In 2009 a number of Democrats were faced with various scandals that went completely unreported on ABC, CBS and NBC.

Democratic Representative Charles Rangel, the then Chairman of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, was forced to pay $75,000 in unpaid taxes and the House ethics committee launched an investigation into whether a Carribean trip he and four other Democrats took was improper.

Network coverage of the Rangel scandals: 0 stories.

In addition to Rangel, Democratic Congressmen John Murtha, Pete Visclosky and Jim Moran were linked to a scandal involving the PMA Group, a lobbying group that was forced to close in 2009 after being raided by the FBI. According to the New York Times Its top lobbyist was suspected of funneling "bogus" campaign contributions to the aforementioned Democrats in exchange for directing more than $100 million to PMA clients.

Network coverage: Just three stories on Murtha. Visclosky and Moran were never mentioned in any network story.

In 2008 ex-Democratic Congressman William Jefferson lost a run-off election late that year after investigators found $90,000 in cash stuffed in the congressman's freezer. In January 2009 NBC made brief references to the charges against Jefferson in a profile of his successor, Republican Joseph Cao. However, Jefferson's bribery trial that began on June 9, 2009 in which prosecutors said he received $400,000 in bribes to help orchestrate business deals in Africa — was never mentioned on the networks.

The lesson seems clear. While members of both parties have had falls from grace, in the eyes of the Big Three network reporters and anchors, the GOP is the only party that deserves to be punished for the sins of a few.

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.