On February 18, Rep. Joe Sestak, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania, revealed in a Philadelphia TV interview that the Obama White House offered him a job in an effort to talk him out of opposing Sen. Arlen Specter, who’d recently switched parties. Network interviewers asked the White House for comment, but the network news bosses at ABC, CBS, and NBC kept any mention of this possible quid pro quo off the airwaves of their morning and evening news programs for more than three months.
Then ten days after Sestak defeated Specter, the White House issued a brief statement on the Friday afternoon heading into the Memorial Day weekend, claiming they asked former President Bill Clinton to offer Sestak an unpaid position on a presidential advisory board. That drew perfunctory reports on Friday night and some brief mentions over the holiday weekend.
During the following week, the White House narrative fell apart, since Sestak could not serve on these advisory boards as a member of Congress. Press Secretary Robert Gibbs obfuscated and dodged reporters when peppered with questions, which led to some newspaper and cable coverage, but ABC, CBS and NBC all blacked out the story as it crumbled.
Then Andrew Romanoff, a Democratic Senate candidate in Colorado, emerged with a similar story, complete with a White House e-mail he received that touted several positions in foreign aid programs he could have. This spurred two network morning show stories, but the networks weren’t acknowledging any kind of scandal was occurring. There’s now been 12 days of network silence on Team Obama’s Sestak maneuvering.
Media Research Center analysts monitored all network morning and evening news coverage in 2010 on Sestak’s Senate campaign. The Sestak job-offer scandal drew only nine stories or mentions on the three networks. NBC offered only one evening anchor brief. CBS featured an evening anchor brief, a morning anchor brief, and a Saturday night interview where analyst John Dickerson dismissed the scandal. ABC did the most with five offerings: three stories or discussions on World News, and two on Good Morning America. All of these nine segments were contained within the Memorial Day weekend.
It sounded odd for ABC’s Jonathan Karl to announce on May 28 that “after months of dodging questions,” Team Obama offered an answer. How would anyone watching just network news have any idea the story wasn’t brand new?
The networks even failed to note developments on their own Sunday interview programs. On May 23, Sestak dodged questions on CBS’s Face the Nation and NBC’s Meet the Press, while ABC’s This Week ran a soundbite of the February interview with Sestak in Philadelphia. But none of the networks aired a second of the Sestak story until the following Friday night.
Only ABC reported a full story that Friday evening. On CBS, anchor Katie Couric offered only a 30-second brushoff. Couric’s sense of its news value was summed up seconds later when she followed that with a light story about frogs: “Thousands of them have been disrupting traffic along a busy highway in northern Greece for days now. And why did the frogs cross the road? To get to the food on the other side.”
NBC anchor Brian Williams offered a 73-second anchor brief with a no-news-here tone: “The story got out back in February, and the White House, as the President pledged yesterday, set the record straight today.” Williams signaled his lack of interest by putting that story after a two-minute obituary for ‘80s child star Gary Coleman. That was the only time NBC’s morning and evening newscasts have touched the story, even as MSNBC star Chris Matthews declared the whole Clinton-offer story "a big case of bluffing and BS."
ABC offered the most follow-up, offering a story on Saturday’s Good Morning America and a question to Jake Tapper on Sunday’s morning show. They also threw Tapper a Sestak question on Saturday’s World News, and a Sestak question to ABC political analyst Rick Klein on Sunday night’s newscast.
CBS added a few touches over the Memorial Day weekend as well. CBS threw in an anchor brief on Saturday’s Early Show and a couple of questions on Saturday’s Evening News to political analyst John Dickerson, who insisted Democrats saw nothing wrong and Republicans “don’t own the leverage of power to actually force an investigation, so it might just die there.” Especially if the networks want it to die there.
The only time CBS offered a full report came on The Early Show on June 3, when White House correspondent Chip Reid reported on the Andrew Romanoff case. ABC mentioned Romanoff briefly on its morning show, but NBC never did. None of the three evening news shows have touched the Romanoff story at all.
The networks cannot plausibly claim that this job-dangling is not a news story because it’s a commonly sleazy practice – not after years of claiming the choice of Obama was so idealistic and inspiring. Their inaction not only ignores Obama’s yellowed promises to be transparent and accountable, but also Joe Sestak’s new pledge on the night he defeated Specter that “accountability has been missing for far too long, and I want to help bring it back.”