Nets Obscure Ronnie Earle's Partisan Affiliation; CBS Didn't With Ken Starr

The CBS Evening News, which described Ken Starr as the “Republican” independent counsel, on Wednesday night went out of its way to avoid alerting viewers to how Ronnie Earle, the Texas county prosecutor behind the indictment of Tom DeLay, is a Democrat. Anchor Bob Schieffer twice described DeLay not by his title as House Majority Leader, but as the “House Republican Leader.” While Schieffer relayed how DeLay “says he's the innocent victim of a rogue district attorney,” viewers did not learn of Earle's party affiliation until three-fourths the way through Jim Stewart's story when Stewart related how DeLay believes “the personal vendetta of Democratic prosecutor Ronnie Earle” is “the real cause of his problems."

ABC anchor Elizabeth Vargas teased at the top of World News Tonight how “one of the most powerful men in Washington is facing the prospect of jail time” and she proceeded to identify Earle as simply “a prosecutor.” Reporter Linda Douglass cited “District Attorney Ronnie Earle” before, late in her piece, attributing Earle's partisan status to an assertion by DeLay, as if it's a matter of dispute: “DeLay says the prosecutor is a Democrat on a witch-hunt." (Douglass did note that “the indictment provided no evidence that DeLay knew anything.")

In contrast, by citing a claim by DeLay, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams strongly hinted at Earle's affiliation. He teased: "Tonight, indicted. Tom DeLay, facing criminal conspiracy charges. The House Majority Leader calls the prosecutor 'a partisan fanatic.'" Chip Reid noted how "DeLay today unleashed a bitter attack on Earle, who is a Democrat." But Reid countered with how “in an interview with NBC News earlier this year, Earle vigorously denied his investigation of DeLay was motivated by politics."

Complete transcripts follow, along with quotes of Dan Rather tagging Starr as a “Republican.”

From the MRC archive, a sampling of instances when Dan Rather added a partisan label to independent counsel Ken Starr:

> "There is growing controversy tonight, about whether the newly named independent counsel in the Whitewater case is independent or a Republican partisan allied with a get-Clinton movement. Among the questions about Kenneth Starr are these: the involvement of anti-Clinton activists in pushing for Starr's appointment to replace Robert Fiske. Also, Starr's public stand actively supporting a woman's current lawsuit against the President. This is a potentially important and explosive story, correspondent Rita Braver has the latest."
-- Dan Rather on the August 8, 1994 CBS Evening News.

> "The Republican Whitewater offensive is taking an unprecedented turn: First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has been subpoenaed and now must testify before a Whitewater federal grand jury. That grand jury is led by a Republican prosecutor, Kenneth Starr."
-- Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News, January 22, 1996.

> "New indications in a CBS News poll out tonight of how the public perceives Republican special prosecutor Ken Starr's investigation. Our poll suggests only 27 percent believe Starr is conducting an impartial probe. And 55 percent think it's time for Starr to drop his
-- Dan Rather, March 2, 1998 CBS Evening News .

> "Ken Starr drops another load on President Clinton....Good evening. Just as President Clinton was enjoying a day talking up the economy, officially announcing the first U.S. budget surplus in three decades, Ken Starr hit him again. The Republican independent counsel and special prosecutor decided late in the day to announce his decision to press his subpoena for samples of Monica Lewinsky's handwriting, fingerprints and her voice."
-- Dan Rather at the top of the May 26, 1998 CBS Evening News.

> "Al Gore must stand and deliver here tonight as the Democratic Party's presidential nominee. And now Gore must do so against the backdrop of a potentially damaging, carefully orchestrated story leak about President Clinton. The story is that Republican-backed special prosecutor Robert Ray, Ken Starr's successor, has a new grand jury looking into possible criminal charges against the President growing out of Mr. Clinton's sex life."
-- Dan Rather opening the August 17, 2000 CBS Evening News from the Democratic convention in Los Angeles. A federal judge appointed by President Carter admitted he inadvertently leaked the news.

Full transcript of the September 28 CBS Evening News coverage of DeLay, as provided by the MRC's Brad Wilmouth:

Bob Schieffer, in opening teaser: "Good evening. I'm Bob Schieffer. Big trouble for Tom DeLay. The House Republican Leader is indicted on conspiracy charges in a campaign finance scheme. He says he's the innocent victim of a rogue district attorney. We start there tonight, then we'll have these stories."

Schieffer: "The investigation has been under way for over a year now, and today, the indictments were finally handed down. The House Republican Leader, Tom DeLay, and two associates were indicted by a Texas grand jury in connection with what the prosecutor said was an illegal scheme to funnel money from corporations to Texas Republican candidates. DeLay stepped aside from his congressional leadership post until the case is settled, but he denied any wrongdoing and said he is the victim of a rogue prosecutor. Here's Jim Stewart in Washington."

Jim Stewart: "It has not been a good week on Capitol Hill for Republicans, and today it got worse when House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was required to immediately step down from his leadership role following his indictment back home in Texas."

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX): "Now let me be very, very clear. I have done nothing wrong."

Stewart: "The White House quickly came to DeLay's defense, calling him a 'good ally,' but carefully said little else."

Scott McClellan: "The President's view is that we need to let the legal process work."

Clip of protesters: "Tom DeLay has got to go."

Stewart: "The charge against DeLay is Texas in its details, but national in scope. Its origin is in a nasty fight three years ago over control of the Texas state legislature that at one point had local Democrats literally fleeing the state to deny Republicans a quorum. DeLay wanted control of the state legislature in Texas to help build a bigger national GOP majority in the U.S. Congress. But to get it, he and his allies allegedly used corporate funds they funneled through a national Republican committee. They won, but the problem is, in Texas, corporate political funding can be illegal. Now, DeLay believes those twin victories and the personal vendetta of Democratic prosecutor Ronnie Earle are the real cause of his problems."

DeLay: "Mr. Earle is abusing the power of his office to exact personal revenge for the role I played in the Texas Republican legislative campaign in 2002."

Stewart: "There is no such thing as good timing for an indictment, but this one is especially bad for Republicans. The President is slipping in the polls, his initiatives are dying on Capitol Hill, and the man the White House had counted on to turn that fight around now stands indicted."

Schieffer than ran through GOP troubles before Gloria Borger, from Capitol Hill, stressed impending doom and how the indictment “really very much plays into the Democrats' charges that Republicans are abusing their power.”

Schieffer: "As Jim says, this is just the latest news for Republicans. Reports surfaced recently that federal investigators are looking into some of Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist's stock transactions, a White House aide was arrested last week in connection with a scandal involving a major lobbyist, all of this while, as Jim said, the President's approval ratings are sinking. We want to bring in Gloria Borger from Capitol Hill. Now, Gloria, are Republicans worried about the fallout from this? They must be."

Borger: "Oh, you bet they are, Bob. I mean, they understand that this is a real negative for them and that this also really very much plays into the Democrats' charges that Republicans are abusing their power. Republicans control both the House and the Senate. But what they're more worried about, Bob, are those presidential approval ratings which keep heading South. I had one Republican say to me, we're less worried about Tom DeLay right now than we are about the President. And we think that about 70 seats could really be up for grabs in those mid-term elections. That's twice as many as they had originally thought."

Schieffer: "Well, are they really thinking that maybe they could lose control of the House next time around?"

Borger: "They don't want to think that, Bob. And they know that that would be a real uphill fight for the Democrats, but they're beginning to believe that this smells really, really badly for them, and they're very, very worried about it now because they know they cannot depend on this president and his coattails any longer."

Coverage on ABC's World News Tonight:

Elizabeth Vargas' tease: "On World News Tonight, one of the most powerful men in Washington indicted in a campaign finance scheme. He calls it a political witch-hunt. Tonight, the implications for the Republican Party and the President."

Vargas began: "Good evening. They call him 'The Hammer.' Congressman Tom DeLay is known for many things in Washington -- steering President Bush's legislation through the House, keeping his fellow Republicans in line. That's the 'Hammer' part. But most of all, he's been incredibly successful at raising money for other members of Congress. Today, in his home state of Texas, a prosecutor charged Mr. DeLay with violating the state law that regulates how that money is raised. And tonight, one of the most powerful men in Washington is facing the prospect of jail time. We begin with ABC's Linda Douglass on Capitol Hill."

Linda Douglass: "Tom DeLay is the master of political hardball. He forced through the Medicare prescription drug bill. He brought Congress back to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case. He never backs away from a fight."

Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX): "I have done nothing wrong. I have violated no law, I have violated now law, no regulation, no rule of the House."

Douglass: "DeLay was indicted on one charge of conspiracy to violate Texas campaign finance law."

DeLay: "This is one of the weakest, most baseless indictments in American history. It's a sham, and Mr. Earle knows it."

Douglass: "For three years, District Attorney Ronnie Earle has been trying to prove that DeLay and two political associates funneled corporate money into state legislative campaigns, which is illegal in Texas. Prosecutors say the men disguised the donations by sending the money to the Republican National Committee, which in turn sent money back to Texas."

Ronnie Earle, Travis County District Attorney: "Corporate money, which cannot be given to candidates in Texas, was sent to the Republican National Committee where it was exchanged for money raised from individuals, and then sent to those Texas legislative candidates."

Douglass: "The only evidence cited in the indictment, a check for $190,000 used in the alleged contribution swapping scheme. The indictment provided no evidence that DeLay knew anything."

Chris Lewis, prosecutor: "It's a very skeleton indictment, if you will. There's not really a lot of meat on the bone of this indictment."

Douglass: "Sources familiar with the case say there is more evidence. DeLay says the prosecutor is a Democrat on a witch-hunt."

DeLay: "An unabashed partisan zealot with a well-documented history of launching baseless investigations."

Douglass: "Today, House Republicans temporarily replaced DeLay as House Leader with Missouri's Roy Blunt, who insisted DeLay will be back in his job. Now, publicly, the Republicans are defending DeLay. But privately, many of them are fretting, Elizabeth, that his frequent brushes with controversy are hurting their party."

Vargas then turned to George Stephanopoulos, who appeared from Washington, DC:

Vargas: "The indictment today has big implications for the Republican Party and the President. And ABC's George Stephanopoulos joins us. George, Mr. Delay says he's the victim of a, quote, 'political witch-hunt,' by a, quote, 'partisan fanatic.' Is any part of that true?"

Stephanopoulos: "Well, Ronnie Earle is a Democrat, but his office says that he's prosecuted actually more Democrats than Republicans. But he has opened himself up to these questions. He first talked about the DeLay indictment at a Democratic fund-raiser. He brought the indictment on the last day the grand jury was empaneled. And there was a question about his competence. His highest-profile indictment was a Republican Senator, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, and that was dismissed as soon as it got to the judge."

Vargas: "Congressman DeLay is the single most powerful member of Congress. This has got to affect the Republican Party."

Stephanopoulos: "No question. It is a big blow because he is such a big player. He solidified the Republican majority. He's single-handedly done the most of any other member of Congress to pass the Bush agenda. And he's created this network of loyal Republican lobbyists. More than 200 corporations have hired DeLay staffers. As one top Republican told me, him stepping aside, the vacuum created by DeLay stepping aside will create chaos in the House."

Some excerpts from the NBC Nightly News coverage:

Brian Williams teased: “Tonight, indicted. Tom DeLay, facing criminal conspiracy charges. The House Majority Leader calls the prosecutor 'a partisan fanatic.'”

Williams led his broadcast: “Good evening. Tonight a blast out of Texas has taken the place of the ongoing storm aftermath at the very top of our broadcast tonight and it's in the form of an indictment. Tom DeLay, the Majority Leader in the House of Representatives, the second most powerful Republican in the House, was indicted today. He is out of that management job for now. He's an enormously powerful politician and this case is charged with politics. This Texas indictment echoed loudly inside the Bush White House.”

In his subsequent story, Chip Reid noted: “DeLay today unleashed a bitter attack on Earle, who is a Democrat.”

DeLay: “This act is the product of a coordinated, premeditated campaign of political retribution, the all-too predictable result of a vengeful investigation led by a partisan fanatic.”

Reid: “But in an interview with NBC News earlier this year, Earle vigorously denied his investigation of DeLay was motivated by politics.”

Earle, in March: “We prosecuted four times as many Democrats as Republicans. This is not about Democrats and Republicans. This is about cops and robbers.”

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