Hume and Douglass Scold ABC and Ross for Overplaying 'Bad' Hastert Story

On Fox News Sunday, Brit Hume, a veteran of ABC News, chided his former employer: “ABC News came out with this story, worded the way it was. 'Included in the investigation,' ‘in the mix of the investigation,' has an unmistakable implication, and that is the guy's under investigation. We have now had an absolutely unequivocal denial of that, not only from the Justice Department at one level, but when this business about what well, what about being 'in the mix' came along, Paul McNulty, the U.S. Attorney, came out and denied that as well. This looks like a bad story. They led their newscast with it. The implication was unmistakable. They ought to back off this story, and the sooner the better."

CNN's Howard Kurtz, on Sunday morning's Reliable Sources, raised the accuracy of the story with Linda Douglass who covered Capitol Hill for ABC News until the end of 2005: "Did ABC overplay that story?" Douglass was reluctant to lambast her ex-colleagues, but her disagreement with their news judgment was clear: "Well, I think leading with it was a controversial decision, is what I would say. And I think that saying he was part of the investigation, if in fact his name just came up, was, was a phrase you might want to revisit." (Transcripts, and a link to video of the Ross story, follow)

For video of how ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas hyperbolically led Wednesday "with a major development in a Washington bribery scandal" in "a story with potentially major political implications" and Brian Ross asserted that "federal officials tell us the congressional bribery investigation now includes the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert," see this Thursday NewsBusters item which also detailed how on Thursday Ross stood by his story. World News Tonight hasn't mentioned the topic since. In his original Wednesday story, Ross had maintained that Hastert is “very much in the mix of the corruption investigation.”

Fox News Sunday, May 28:
During the first panel segment, host Chris Wallace brought up how “ABC News reported that Speaker Hastert, who was raising such a fuss about this FBI raid, was, in fact, the subject of a criminal -- or involved in a criminal investigation.”

Brit Hume: “'Included' in.”

Wallace: '''Included.' Well, we'll get to that in a second. And Hastert then fired back and suggested that this was a purposeful leak to try to intimidate him from his fight with the Justice Department. Let's listen to this exchange.”

Brian Ross on the May 24 World News Tonight: “Federal officials tell us the congressional bribery investigation now includes the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert.”

Dennis Hastert on WGN Radio, May 25: “This is one of the leaks that come out to try to, you know, intimidate people and we're just not going to be intimidated.”

Wallace: “What do you think of the ABC story? What do you think of Hastert's charge that there was some connection between that story and the fact that he was upset about the FBI raid?”

Hume: “Well, there's no way to speak for Hastert's allegation, because we don't know who the official was, the unidentified official in the Justice Department, which could include the FBI, that gave this information to ABC News. ABC News has now fallen back on the idea that well, we really didn't quite say he was the target of an investigation, we just said he was 'in the mix,' that he was 'included,' and they quoted their source in a subsequent story as saying you worded it very carefully, but people aren't reading it very carefully.

“Look, ABC News came out with this story, worded the way it was. 'Included in the investigation,' 'in the mix of the investigation,' has an unmistakable implication, and that is the guy's under investigation. We have now had an absolutely unequivocal denial of that, not only from the Justice Department at one level, but when this business about what well, what about being in the mix came along, Paul McNulty, the U.S. Attorney, came out and denied that as well. This looks like a bad story. They led their newscast with it. The implication was unmistakable. They ought to back off this story, and the sooner the better.”

CNN's Reliable Sources, May 28:
Sitting next to Linda Douglass at CNN's Los Angeles studios, Howard Kurtz asked fo her reaction to “a story by ABC's Brian Ross, your former colleague, reporting that federal investigators in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal are looking at House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Hastert says that's not true. The Justice Department says that's not true. Do you think that story was overplayed or over-hyped?"

Douglass equivocated: "Well, it was a very controversial story. Obviously, ABC chose to lead with the story that Hastert was allegedly in the mix. They used some loaded words, 'is part of the investigation’; 'the investigation now includes Dennis Hastert.’ So it was a controversial story. My suspicion is that the FBI, which was very angry at Hastert for trying to stop their investigation of congressional offices, may very well have pointed the finger at Hastert. And there has been-"

Kurtz: "In other words, the leak may have come from the Justice Department?"

Douglass: "Well, no, from the FBI."

Kurtz: "From the FBI. Because Hastert, who was among those complaining about the raid on Congressman William Jefferson's office. He's the guy with the $90,000 in the freezer."

Douglass: "Exactly. And trying to stop, perhaps, future investigations in congressional offices."

Kurtz pressed for a definitive answer: "So answer the question in 15 seconds: Did ABC overplay that story?"

Douglass: "Well, I think leading with it was a controversial decision, is what I would say. And I think that saying he was part of the investigation, if in fact his name just came up, was, was a phrase you might want to revisit."
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center