My colleague Brent Baker has painstakingly documented how the big three broadcast networks have gone out of their way to avoid labeling scandal-scarred New York Governor Eliot Spitzer as a “Democrat.” An examination of the fifteen ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening news shows through Wednesday night finds Spitzer was called a Democrat just 20% of the time — twice on CBS, once on ABC, and never on NBC.
So how do the networks treat Republicans involved in sex scandals? Always, always as Republicans, and as problems for their party.
Last July, Louisiana Senator David Vitter’s name surfaced in the phone records of the “DC Madam,” Deborah Jean Palfrey. Over the next week, ABC talked about Vitter twice on World News and twice on Good Morning America, labeling him as a “Republican” or “conservative Republican” all four times.
The CBS Early Show aired two Vitter stories, and both times called him a Republican. For some reason, the CBS Evening News did not report on Vitter that week. NBC’s Today mentioned Vitter on two different mornings, and called him a Republican both times. The NBC Nightly News reported on Vitter once, and called him a Republican.
ABC’s Jake Tapper began his story on July 10 with Vitter’s party ID: “REPUBLICAN Senator David Vitter is a self-proclaimed defender of family values....” On July 16, NBC’s Brian Williams also stressed Vitter’s conservative credentials: “Now we move to Louisiana, where REPUBLICAN Senator David Vitter made his first public appearance tonight in a week. He went underground after being caught up in what is become known as the DC madam sex scandal. Vitter is one of the Senate's most conservative members.”
As for Craig, the bathroom sex sting was a much bigger story, and unfolded on a schedule uncannily similar to Spitzer’s. The news broke on a Monday afternoon, and was mentioned on Monday’s evening newscasts. Over the next two days, every morning and evening show featured at least one story on Craig — and every one of these broadcasts labeled him a “Republican.”
Here’s Katie Couric opening the August 28 Evening News: “The story exploded on front pages all over America today: another member of Congress caught up in a scandal, a sex scandal. REPUBLICAN Senator Larry Craig caught in a police sting at the Minneapolis airport....”
On ABC’s Good Morning America that same day, Claire Shipman saw the whole GOP “rocked” by Craig’s immorality: “We begin with the latest scandal to rock the REPUBLICAN Party. Idaho Senator Larry Craig is denying any wrongdoing after getting arrested on charges of lewd conduct in a Minneapolis airport men’s room earlier this month....”
Over on NBC, Matt Lauer began the Today show: “Good morning. Politician in peril. Idaho Senator Larry Craig, an opponent of gay rights, admits pleading guilty to disorderly conduct after a police officer accused him of soliciting sex in an airport men’s room. Can the right wing withstand yet another scandal involving one of its own?...On Monday word leaked out that the conservative REPUBLICAN was arrested and pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct...”
The list of examples goes on, but the bottom line is that in the early days of their scandals, Vitter and Craig were labeled as Republicans on every broadcast news program — 100% — that mentioned their wrongdoing. For Democrat Spitzer, four out of five news programs (80%) have skipped his label. On NBC’s Today and Nightly News through Wednesday night, reporters never once acknowledged that Spitzer was a Democrat.
The media’s message: Republicans enmeshed in personal scandal are a moral stain on their entire party; Democrats in similar circumstances are just individuals, not “Democrats” — and certainly not representatives of the liberal cause.