CNN's Joe Johns and National Public Radio's Ken Rudin declared that portions of a political ad by Minnesota Democratic congressional candidate Patty Wetterling, claiming that "[c]ongressional leaders have admitted covering up the predatory behavior of a congressman who used the Internet to molest children," were false. But neither Rudin nor Johns noted that admitted actions by members of the House Republican leadership arguably had the result of a "cover-up."
While discussing Minnesota Democratic congressional candidate Patty Wetterling's recent campaign advertisement criticizing the Republican leadership's response to allegations that Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) engaged in sexually graphic exchanges with underage congressional pages, CNN congressional correspondent Joe Johns and National Public Radio (NPR) political editor Ken Rudin simply declared that portions of the ad were false. The advertisement states that "[c]ongressional leaders have admitted covering up the predatory behavior of a congressman who used the Internet to molest children." On the October 6 edition of NPR's Morning Edition, Rudin asserted that the Republicans have "absolutely not" admitted "to a cover-up ... of course, that's not the case." Likewise, in a segment that aired on both the October 4 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 and the October 5 edition of CNN's American Morning, Johns stated that there has been no "admission of a cover-up." Yet, neither Rudin nor Johns noted that members of the House Republican leadership have admitted to knowing about the emails as early as late 2005; to informing only the Republican chair of the House Page Board and the then-Clerk of the House of the allegations; to not calling for an investigation into the matter by the House or the FBI; and to not informing any Democrats about the emails. While some Republicans have denied a "cover-up," their admitted actions arguably had that result.
Additionally, Johns asserted that Wetterling's advertisement contained "[u]nproven allegations" because "no evidence made public so far suggests a molestation charge." In fact, the Wetterling ad did not say that Foley has been "charge[d]" with a violation of laws prohibiting molestation or that he will be. The ad says only that he "used the Internet to molest children." Merriam-Webster's online dictionary defines "molest" as "to make annoying sexual advances to," and Foley's alleged instant message conversations with teenage former pages indeed contained "sexual advances."
In flatly declaring false Wetterling's advertisement's claim that "[c]ongressional leaders have admitted covering up" Foley's alleged actions, both Rudin and Johns ignore statements by congressional leaders acknowledging their own actions:
- Fall 2005: According to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's (R-IL) September 30 statement on the matter, the chief of staff for Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-LA), the congressional sponsor of the underage page, placed a "a telephone call" to Hastert's staff assistant Tim Kennedy and "expressed that he and Congressman Alexander were concerned about" an email exchange allegedly between Foley and the page. Hastert's deputy chief of staff Mike Stokke "called the Clerk and asked him to come to the Speaker's Office so that he could put him together with Congressman Alexander's Chief of Staff. The Clerk and Congressman Alexander's Chief of Staff then went to the Clerk's Office to discuss the matter." According to Hastert, "[t]he Clerk then contacted Congressman [John] Shimkus [R-IL], the Chairman of the Page Board to request an immediate meeting," but the clerk did not inform the full House Page Board.
- Late 2005: Shimkus stated: "[I]n late 2005, I was notified...about an email exchange between Congressman Foley and a former House Page. I took immediate action to investigate the matter." Shimkus asserted that he approached Foley about the matter and "ordered Congressman Foley to cease all contact with this former House Page." Shimkus did not inform the other two members of the board, Rep. Dale Kildee (D-MI) and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), of the incident. Shimkus defended his decision to not inform other Page Board members, stating, "I'm the chairman of the page board. ... The Clerk and I addressed this issue."
- Spring 2006: Both National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Tom Reynolds (R-NY) and House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-OH) were informed of the alleged email exchanges. Reynolds claimed that "Alexander brought to my attention the existence of emails between Mark Foley and a former page," and subsequently, Reynolds "told the Speaker [Hastert] of the conversation Mr. Alexander had with me." Boehner initially claimed, upon learning of the incident, that "I talked to the speaker and he told me it had been taken care of. ... My position is it's in his corner, it's his responsibility." Boehner has since made conflicting statements as to whether he informed Hastert, as Media Matters for America has noted.
At no point has any Republican leader indicated that he informed a single Democratic member of Congress or law enforcement official about the situation involving Foley's alleged communications with an underage page. Indeed, an October 2 Washington Post article by staff writers Charles Babington and Jonathan Weisman quoted an anonymous aide in the Republican leadership saying that the GOP had "erred in not notifying the three-member, bipartisan panel that oversees the page system" after Hastert reportedly learned of the email communications in late 2005.
From the October 4 edition of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 (the segment also aired on the October 5 edition of American Morning):
JOHNS: For the Democrats, right now, some say the danger is the campaign ads. Democrat Patty Wetterling is running for the House in Minnesota.
NARRATOR [video clip]: It shocks the conscience. Congressional leaders have admitted covering up the predatory behavior of a congressman who used the Internet to molest children.
JOHNS: Unproven allegations; no evidence made public so far suggests a molestation charge. Nor has there been any admission of a cover-up. And even some Democratic strategists warn that if the party is seen to be politicizing something this serious, it could backfire.
From the October 6 edition of NPR's All Things Considered:
RUDIN: I mean, Patty Wetterling is an interesting case. Sixteen years ago, her 11-year-old son was abducted and has still not and never been found -- and that issue is certainly resonating. The issue of sexual predators and preying on young children plays in that Minnesota district. It's almost like -- it's almost like the Republicans wish that we could talk about Iraq again.
STEVE INSKEEP (host): Can -- can we truth-squad that ad very briefly? Have Republican leaders admitted covering up?
RUDIN: No, absolutely not, and as a matter a fact, the Democrats all around -- a lot of Democrats around the country are saying that the Republicans are part of this cover-up, admitting to a cover-up, but, of course, that's not the case.
INSKEEP: You know, for both of you, Lanny -- Lanny Davis, former adviser to President Clinton, has said a number of things about this. One of them is, the Democrats can go too far. They could blow this political opportunity by trying to exploit it too nakedly. What do you think?
MARA LIASSON (NPR national political correspondent): Well, sure, that's the -- that's the case with any kind of negative or attack ad that you're going to run, but don't forget, the Democrats aren't running a national campaign around the Foley scandal. These are happening in specific districts, each -- each member is going to -- each challenger is going to make the decision on what kind of ads to run. But don't forget, we are in the final stretch here. These attack ads are running fast and furious from both sides, and there's not a whole time for people -- a whole lot of time for people to step -- step back and parse every one of them.