Much as when then-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was caught with a prostitute last March, the arrest Tuesday of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich on allegations he was trying to sell Barack Obama’s vacated U.S. Senate seat raises the issue of whether or not the Big Three networks will forthrightly tag him as a “Democrat.”
Among wire services, the Associated Press has included the “Democrat” label in its round-up, but not in the lead paragraph, while Reuters linked Blagojevich to "fellow Democrat President-elect Barack Obama."
So what would happen if the corruption charges were flung at a Republican Governor of Illinois? Well, just a few years ago, Illinois Governor George Ryan (Blagojevich’s predecessor) was himself embroiled in a scandal stemming from trading commercial trucking licenses for campaign contributions when he was Secretary of State. (National Review has a fine summary of the case here.)
That scandal did not get as much national attention because Ryan was not indicted and convicted until after he left office, but the three evening newscasts generally (about three-fourths of the time) identified him verbally or on-screen as a Republican. Some examples:
■ CBS Evening News, March 10, 2000
CYNTHIA BOWERS: [Illinois Secretary of State Jesse] White's predecessor, George Ryan, is now the governor and at the center of a widening investigation into an alleged scheme where commercial drivers' licenses were issued in exchange for contributions to Ryan's political war chest.
GOVERNOR GEORGE RYAN (R-Illinois): Was I involved in selling drivers' licenses to people illegally? Hell no I wasn't. I didn't have anything to do--would I have tolerated it? Hell no I wouldn't tolerate it.
■ CBS Evening News, April 2, 2002
BOB SCHIEFFER: The campaign committee and two former top aides of Illinois Governor George Ryan were indicted today for racketeering. The case dates back to a time when Ryan was secretary of State. Employees of his office allegedly sold truck driver licenses in return for campaign contributions. Ryan, a Republican, has not been charged, but the scandal prompted him not to seek re-election this year.
■ ABC’s World News Tonight, October 23, 2002
DEAN REYNOLDS: Name recognition is vital to a politician, but it's presented Jim Ryan, the state's Attorney General, with a real problem. People here recognize the name Ryan all right, but many associate it with the current governor, George Ryan. One of the least popular office holders in Illinois, a man who faces questions about bribes and payoffs virtually everyday....Like Jim, George is a Republican, but he is not running for re- election. And with many of his former top aides under indictment, it was probably a wise call.
■ NBC Nightly News, December 17, 2003
TOM BROKAW: In this country, former Illinois Governor George Ryan was indicted today on multiple counts of racketeering, conspiracy, mail fraud, tax fraud and making false statements. Prosecutors said the 69-year-old Republican and family members took cash, gifts and other favors in exchange for state business while he was governor and in his previous job as secretary of state in Illinois.
■ ABC’s World News Tonight, December 30, 2003
TERRY MORAN: The new special prosecutor for this [Valerie Plame] case is the US attorney in Chicago Patrick J. Fitzgerald, who recently indicted former Illinois Governor George Ryan, a Republican, on corruption charges.
■ ABC’s World News with Charles Gibson, September 6, 2006
CHARLES GIBSON: Former Illinois governor, George Ryan, was sentenced today to six and a half years in prison, in connection with a corruption scandal that ended his career. The 72-year-old Republican was convicted in April of racketeering, conspiracy and fraud, and taking payoffs in exchange for state business.
In the course of surveying the networks’ coverage of George Ryan’s career, the media’s agenda bias also comes through loud and clear. Apart from the corruption scandal, nearly all of Ryan’s national TV coverage came from two instances when he adopted liberal positions: against the death penalty and in favor of ending the embargo against communist Cuba. (The death penalty stories sprouted during the 2000 presidential campaign, when the liberal media were trying to embarrass then-Republican nominee George W. Bush on the issue of state executions.)
Maybe the networks will step up and identify Blagojevich with his party, but their past history is not encouraging.