ABC on Barney Frank Scandal: No Political Hay for GOP, He's 'Truly Gifted'

Congressman Barney Frank’s scandalous tolerance of a gay prostitution business operating out of his house, uncovered by the Washington Times in 1989, drew from ABC nowhere near the dramatic amount of attention ABC gave Mark Foley. On the August 25, 1989 World News Tonight, Sam Donaldson noted it just once in passing, a mere 67 words:

"Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank, an acknowledged homosexual, today confirmed that his Washington apartment had been used as a callboy headquarters by a male prostitute for a year and a half until late 1987. Responding to a story in today's Washington Times, Frank said he had hired the prostitute out of his own funds as a personal aide and fired him when he found out what was going on."

There's no Brian Ross making dramatic accusations of "X-rated" behavior. To his credit, as World News Tonight stayed off the story, Donaldson went into more detail on the August 31 PrimeTime Live, but notice how Donaldson wants some measure of fairness and accountability (even a little noise about Democratic leaders going easy), and Diane Sawyer wants to make excuses:

Barney Frank: "I thought I was going to be a liberal who got involved directly with an individual who needed help, that I had an individual who was going to get help and he took me."

Donaldson: "Congressman Frank says he was taken. Diane, what do you think? Do you think this is Frank's private business or should the House of Representatives properly get into it?"

Sawyer: "Well, the House is going to investigate. He called for it. Obviously, if he condoned it, if he said to them - and I find it very hard to believe – ‘Go ahead and run your ring out of my house. Be sure and turn out the lights and empty the ashtrays when you're done.’ Obviously they're going to reprimand him and the voters are going to make the final decision. If he didn't know, it is a different issue."

Donaldson: "Well, that's true. And homosexuality is not really the issue there. You put your finger on it. Was his apartment being used as a house of prostitution? I think some may find it very hard to believe that for a year and a half he didn't know this, he didn't have any signs of this."

Sawyer: "But the fact of the matter is if they can't prove it, somebody in Washington has got to stop and say -- 'cause I think the rest of the country has said it a long time -- 'How long are we going to continue to have this persistent, possibly prurient, but certainly punitive interest in people's private lives? When is it going to stop?'"

Donaldson: "Well, I think people's private lives, if they're public officials and they're running for public office, are things that are up for grabs from the standpoint of the voters having a right to say, ‘Look, the guy wants to do this, it's fine, but I'm going to vote against him, so I want to know about it.’ You know, the thing that bothered me at first was that the Speaker of the House and some of the other top Democrats in the House seemed not to get excited about Congressman Frank's problem, not even to the point of investigating. And I think that's very dangerous for the House to take that attitude and for the Democratic Party to take that attitude."

Sawyer: "I think of the last eight sex scandals, six have been Democrats, two have been Republicans, but nobody wants to get into that game of statistics. Nobody's going to win."

Donaldson: "I think everybody's human, but it doesn't matter the party. Everyone should punished equally."

On September 18, 1989, after weeks of studiously ignoring the issue, World News Tonight ran a tough story by Jim Wooten claiming "Barney Frank’s political future has suddenly become precarious." The Boston Globe called on him to resign, as did liberal columnist Mark Shields. Democratic strategist Bob Beckel guessed he wouldn’t last much longer. But the only sources in the Wooten story were worried liberals. Wooten concluded: "Representative Frank is generally pretty eager to be on camera, but today he declined all interviews and issued instead a written statement. It said, ‘I will not resign’. That's fast becoming a minority view among his friends and colleagues in Congress."

But within a few weeks, on October 27, 1989, ABC was amazingly using Frank as an ethical scold against former Reagan HUD secretary Sam Pierce in the HUD scandal:

Sheilah Kast: "[Pierce] said he would keep doing that until what he called an accusatory atmosphere changed. The subcommittee was not impressed."

Frank: "The Fifth Amendment does not say that the atmosphere is too tense and therefore I will not testify."

On July 20, 1990, the House ethics committee absolved Frank of knowing about the prostitution ring, but recommended a reprimand for Frank for fixing Gobie’s 33 parking tickets and wrote a "misleading memo" to secure Gobie’s probation. Reporter Sheilah Kast concluded: "One antigay Republican will try to have Frank expelled. That won't pass, but the full House is likely to vote next week to reprimand Frank, making it difficult for Republicans to use Frank's ethics as a national campaign issue. Sheilah Kast, ABC News, on Capitol Hill."

Six days later, when the House voted to reprimand Frank, Kast once again insisted there was no political hay for Republicans in the Frank scandal: "The House voted two to one against the tougher penalties, most Democrats siding with Frank, most Republicans against him. With Democrats rallying around him, the reprimand is likely to have little impact on Frank's effectiveness here and almost no impact on his chances for reelection. Sheilah Kast, ABC News, on Capitol Hill." (This was true, in the end: he won 66 percent of the vote.)

On the February 20, 1992 Prime Time Live, Sawyer promoted Frank's new book, Speaking Frankly: "Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts. A man called one of the truly gifted legislators of our time. By some accounts, able to influence up to 70 percent of Democrats' votes on his issues, fair housing, defense cuts." She called him "A public figure fierce about private life, a scrappy intellectual who has made a career out of saying exactly what he thinks." The first sentence of Sawyer's segment: "Meet the man who does the most scandalous thing you can do in Washington. He tells the truth." (So much for that "misleading memo" he wrote to secure Gobie's probation.)

Sawyer brought up the Gobie story with a heavy dose of empathy: "Frank has said it all happened because he felt trapped in the closet." She wondered: "Was that the roughest time in politics for you?" When Frank said it showed clumsiness and stupidity, Sawyer interjected: "Loneliness?" Frank replied: "Yeah."

On December 31, 1992, ABC showed its love for Barney Frank by putting on Frank and his then-lover, Herb Moses, in the middle of a celebrity medley singing "Winter Wonderland," awarding them this (suddenly political) part of the lyrics: "And pretend that he is Parson Brown. He'll say are you married, we'll say 'no, man'..."

ABC History
Tim Graham's picture