Where Were the Media In Finding Richardson's Budding Ethics Issue?

The Washington Post put the vanishing Bill Richardson nomination on the front page again Tuesday with the headline "Richardson, Obama Teams Trade Blame." The real surprise in the story by Carol Leonnig and Michael D. Shear came in the very last paragraph, when a Republican was allowed to express skepticism:

Pendleton James, who led the vetting process for President Ronald Reagan's nominees, called the situation "astounding." "Come on, they just found this out yesterday?" he asked. "If this was some misdemeanor, I could understand, but...a grand jury investigation anywhere near a sitting governor?"

But the real question for media consumers is: where were the news media in sniffing out this stumbling block to Richardson’s nomination? Who’s going to accept or trade the "blame" on that lack of journalistic reflexes? Couldn’t they have identified it as a problem in the early days of the transition, knowing Richardson would be picked for a Cabinet job?The Post story noted "The investigation had been widely reported, but Richardson seemed convinced that the probe, which involved a campaign donor, was not likely to thwart his Senate confirmation." But it certainly wasn’t "widely reported" when Richardson was nominated. The Post didn’t mention it in stories on the appointment on December 3 and 4, as the Post passed on praise for his broad international experience. Leonnig first reported on the probe into CDR’s $100,000 in donations to Richardson on December 16. One suspects the press, in a Washington now dominated by Democrats at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, doesn’t think a Cabinet pick has a problem until Team Obama thinks it has a problem. They haven’t appeared interested in disturbing the narrative, or producing, as described in the Post’s front-page Richardson story on Monday, "the first visible crack in what had been one of the smoothest presidential transitions in modern history."Leonnig and Shear elaborated on what Richardson failed to do:

A Richardson aide said the governor did "nothing wrong" and noted that New Mexico news outlets had reported on the federal grand jury probe starting in August, when officials at the Finance Authority were first interviewed by the FBI about the agency's selection of CDR Financial and its president, David Rubin, a Richardson donor. But a source with the Obama transition said Richardson's disclosures to the team were incomplete. A Justice Department source also said Richardson neglected to mention the ongoing investigation on a background-check questionnaire.

Another accusation left unpublished (or unsaid) is that Team Obama overlooked any potential problems with Richardson because of its zeal to create the most diverse cabinet in history, as the Post and other newspapers counted the diversity beans. Or that they passed him over for Secretary of State with knowledge of the potential New Mexico pitfalls – as if Hillary Clinton wouldn’t have a globe full of conflict-of-interest issues.An unsigned Post editorial on Monday praised Richardson for withdrawing, assigning the ethics issue as an unpleasant little bump of appearances, and noted every administration has some problems of this kind, and the real culprit is the lack of campaign finance crackdowns:

...it is nearly impossible to avoid the stench of pay-to-play politics when campaign finance laws allow for large contributions and when those seeking state business are allowed to donate. Mr. Richardson's conduct may have been entirely legal, but his predicament underlines how important it is to change the flawed system of which he has been both beneficiary and victim.

It's a little funny for the Post to imply the Obama transition team "failed to adequately scrutinize Mr. Richardson -- after all, the Albuquerque Journal reported the grand jury probe in August." (It emerged on August 29, the day after Obama's stadium speech in Denver.) The Post also failed to note those stories for the first month and a half of the transition period. 

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis