All three morning shows on Wednesday highlighted the revelation that a conservative activist had been arrested in connection to an attempt to tamper with the phones of Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu. Despite jumping on the "Louisiana Watergate" story only 17 hours after it was first reported, the networks took five days to file full reports on the same James O’Keefe and his undercover footage exposing corruption at ACORN.
On ABC’s Good Morning America, reporter Pierre Thomas recounted O’Keefe’s previous expose, charitably describing ACORN as "an advocacy group which helps the poor." On NBC’s Today, Pete Williams found sinister motives in right-wing outrage at the organization. He sneered, "Because ACORN helped register thousands of low income voters, Republicans pounced." (Could the illegal activities and voter fraud associated with the group have been another reason for GOP attacks?)
Both Today and Good Morning America, though, at least managed to use the liberal label when describing ACORN and the videos showing employees attempting to help him obtain money for a prostitution ring. However, in an anchor brief, Early Show’s Erica Hill only referred to the group as "the community organizing group, ACORN."
In his special report Omitting for Obama, the MRC’s Tim Graham described the media’s limited coverage of the scandal:
While the video aired heavily on Fox News, the networks evening news shows stayed silent for six days, until after both houses of Congress moved to deny the group’s millions of dollars in federal funding. Eventually, ABC and CBS aired only one full story. NBC aired three.
ABC broke the network blackout on Saturday morning, September 12, with a brief anchor update from Ron Claiborne about the Census Bureau cutting its "ties to the community group ACORN for the 2010 Census."
CBS did the first full story, on the September 15 Evening News. Correspondent Cynthia Bowers strongly brought the ACORN side of the story: "ACORN says the workers caught on tape were fired, but contends the videos were illegally obtained, doctored and deceptive, and is threatening legal action against the undercover filmmakers posing as the couple." NBC’s Lisa Myers picked up the story on Today the next morning. While Myers used the conservative label five times in her report to describe ACORN’s critics, like CBS’s Bowers, she never described the community organization as liberal.
And, yet, just 17 hours after it was reported O’Keefe and three others had been arrested at Landrieu’s New Orleans office, ABC’s Thomas hyperbolically announced, "This morning, some Democrats are calling this case the Louisiana Watergate." NBC’s Pete Williams ironically referred to O’Keefe as a "media sensation." (He may have been one on Fox News, but the networks certainly had no interest in making O'Keefe a "sensation.")
The detached, out-of-touch response by journalists to the original scandal was summed up best by World News anchor Charles Gibson. Appearing on a radio station in Chicago on September 15, five days after the story broke, he was asked to comment on the lack of coverage. Gibson responded by laughing and then gave this bewildered reply: "I didn’t even know about it. Um. So, you’ve got me at a loss. I don’t know. Uh. Uh. But my goodness, if it’s got everything including sleaziness in it, we should talk about it this morning. "
A transcript of Wednesday’s Good Morning America’s coverage of the phone tapping story, which aired at 7:12am EST, follows:
JUJU CHANG: Well, we begin with accusations of political espionage. Four, young conservatives have been arrested in Louisiana in connection with a phone scheme targeting Senate Democrat Mary Landrieu. Among the suspects, the filmmaker behind an expose on the liberal group ACORN. Our Pierre Thomas is following the investigation. Good morning, Pierre.
ABC GRAPHIC: Louisiana’s Watergate? Phone Scheme at Senator’s Office
PIERRE THOMAS: Hi, Juju. This morning, some Democrats are calling this case the Louisiana Watergate.
JAMES O’KEEFE: Sex is kind of like dancing, right?
UNIDENTIFIED ACORN EMPLOYEE: Yeah.
THOMAS: Seen here in this undercover video, disguised as a pimp with his prostitute, James O'Keefe appears to enlist support for his illegal enterprise from employees of ACORN, an advocacy group which helps the poor.
SECOND UNIDENTIFIED ACORN EMPLOYEE: Let me make sure there’s a code for it, okay?
O’KEEFE: A code for prostitution?
THOMAS: The sting set off a firestorm of controversy and led to a congressional vote cutting off federal money for the organization. O’Keefe recently received an award for his investigation and he promised more.
O’KEEFE: So, this is not 15 minutes of fame. This is no joke. We are called to do this and we are going to devote our lives to doing it.
THOMAS: But, now, O'Keefe's undercover work has left him in the sights of the FBI. Authorities claim on Monday, O’Keefe posed as a visitor in senator Mary Landrieu's New Orleans office, wheel two associates impersonated employees of a telephone company. Complete with tool belts and hard hats.
JIM LETTEN (U.S. attorney, Eastern District of Louisiana): They were asking a number of probing questions. And that certainly, you know, triggered some suspicion.
THOMAS: They are now charged with sneaking into a federal building under false pretenses And trying to tamper with the Senator's phone. They could face up to ten years in prison. The senator called the incident, "unsettling." And said she wanted to know their motives and purpose. O'Keefe's attorney declined comment. It's unclear, Juju, whether this was an innocent prank gone too far or something far more sinister.
CHANG: Thanks, Pierre. Serious allegations. Thanks for the update.