PBS's Gwen Ifill: Foley Was Watergate, Massa Makes Us Silly as a Cartoon Dog

PBS Washington Week host Gwen Ifill was featured Friday on the Romenesko media-news site for her "Gwen’s Take" blog post dismissing the Eric Massa groping scandal as a silly distraction (echoing  Rachel Maddow, and Nancy Pelosi). She compared Washington to Dug the talking dog in the cartoon movie "Up" chasing a squirrel.

But in 2006, Ifill’s show almost screamed with hype that the Mark Foley internet-message scandal was "a Watergate-kind of meltdown" for Republicans, as Ifill asked "Why didn’t [Speaker] Dennis Hastert resign?"

Ifill wrote that she loves the movie "Up," and finds the talking dog a scream:

But the part of "Up" which makes me laugh out loud every time I see the clip again, was the part about the talking dog. In it, an enthusiastic cartoon puppy speaks. (For some reason, I find talking dogs pretty funny.) But in this movie, just when he's about to make a point, a squirrel (or something) dashes by. The poor canine immediately loses his train of thought in all the excitement, exclaiming "Squirrel!" and dashing off to chase it.

Just as we reporters and our assignment editors are sinking deep into another consecutive month of policy heavy lifting - on subjects like health care reform, joblessness, financial regulation and incursions in Afghanistan - a squirrel races by.

The squirrel this week was a back bench lawmaker most of us had heard nothing of before he dashed into our view. Eric Massa just this minute arrived in Congress, elected from the 29th district in the state of New York in 2008 by beating a two-term Republican incumbent. He was one of a handful of Democrats who hit a political sweet spot - a Desert Storm veteran who also opposed the war in Iraq.

But this is not how he will be remembered. Accused of sexually harassing men on his staff, he immediately announced he would resign - first saying he had health problems; then saying he used "salty" language and was indeed overly familiar with staff; then accusing Democratic leaders of forcing him out because he was prepared to vote against the President's prized health care reform plan.

Squirrel!!'

Ifill went so far as to declare the Congressional Black Caucus was a squirrel of a distraction:

We love the distractions. We love the bright and shiny things. It's only human. (I am not so above the fray that I didn't watch every single minute of the "20/20" interview with John Edwards' ex-best friend Andrew Young, gasping throughout.)

It's just, it's just.

Let's not lose sight of the stories we are trying to tell, people. That would make us the dog. Everybody needs health care coverage. Most people need a job. Most people would like to own a house. War and peace have consequences.

Is it possible to take note of the side show without becoming consumed by it? I think so.but wait a minute.I just got a breaking news alert. The Congressional Black Caucus is mad at the President.

SQUIRREL!!!

That wasn't the Gwen Ifill take on October 6, 2006, as her Washington Week panel saw Foley as the iceberg that sunk the GOP Titanic:

IFILL: Good evening. Here is what we know at the end of an extremely eventful week: revelations about former Congressman Mark Foley's explicit exchanges with underage congressional pages have turned Washington upside down, and combined with continuing bad news from Iraq they may end up tipping the political balance as well.

Consider the numbers: the Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll reports that by 41 percent to 18 percent Americans feel less favorable about continued Republican control of Congress. Time Magazine has 54 percent of registered voters declaring they are more likely to vote Democrat this fall. Eighty percent of those polled said they were aware of the Foley scandal. That comes as no surprise to us, of course, because it's practically all we've been talking about. So, Janet, how did all of this unfold at the Capitol?

JANET HOOK, LOS ANGELES TIMES: Well, the Foley scandal unfolded at the Capitol at really breakneck speed and it has transformed the political landscape in a really short period of time. Just a week ago it looked -- when it first broke, it looked like one Republican congressman sent some dirty e-mails and he was in big trouble; his career was ruined. But it very quickly broadened in to a much bigger scandal that raised questions about the highest levels of leadership in the Congress which is the question of whether it turns out that senior aides in Speaker Hastert's office and some of the Republican leaders had inklings about that there was some problem with Congressman Foley and his relationship with congressional pages some time ago. So we got quickly to the standard Washington questions about a scandal: what did they know? When did they know it? What did they do about it?

IFILL: So that's the Washington question. John, how did this -- or did it -- reverberate outside Washington?

JOHN HARWOOD, CNBC: Well, it's clearly reverberating throughout the country. A couple of things concretely you can say, one is the Foley seat itself. That all of a sudden is a prime pickup opportunity for the Democrats. It wasn't before; he was a safe member seeking reelection. You also have Tom Reynolds, who heads the Republican campaign committee, who himself is now suddenly in a dogfight to win another term. So that's a concrete thing.

Secondly, it cost Republicans a week of the campaign. They had been making some headway by focusing on the terrorism issue. President Bush had been helping them. That was stopped and they lost a week at a time when they're behind and they need to make up ground. Now, beyond that there's some disagreement: some Republicans think Hastert helped himself by not resigning, which might have triggered a bigger implosion of the GOP leadership and by taking some responsibility for what happened. I talked to a White House official today who said as long as we can stop that circular firing squad we're going to be okay. But other Republicans are much more worried about it: they think it's a direct hit on the values part of their coalition and may have a big effect of turnout. One consultant told me today it feels like a Watergate kind of meltdown for our party.

IFILL: Janet, why didn't Dennis Hastert resign?

HOOK: Well, he and other Republicans really had to confront the question of what good would it do for them politically. There's one line of argument that he should've resigned because it was the right thing to do. Even if he didn't know, he should've known about this: it was his responsibility. But from the political calculus it would throw the leadership in to turmoil right before the election. As John said, this is supposed to be the time of the election cycle where they're really kind of stepping forward and speaking as one as a party. And so I think that the calculation was just that the downside of him stepping down and the kind of implicit admission of guilt or responsibility would hurt them more than if he stayed and took more incoming fire.

The differing scandal takes of Gwen Ifill and PBS once again sound an awful lot like the partisans at MSNBC. 

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