FOX News Channel reporters and commentators on the October 7 edition of Special Report with Brit Hume downplayed the importance of the House ethics committee's two-part admonishment of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) by distorting the committee's findings and by suggesting that rival news outlets had exaggerated the admonishment's severity.
Host Brit Hume introduced general assignment correspondent Major Garrett's report on the admonishment by noting that the ethics panel gave DeLay "the lightest possible penalty that could have been levied against him." Garrett began his report by stating that the ethics committee had found that DeLay made "mistakes." Garrett said: "The House ethics committee said Majority Leader Tom DeLay made two mistakes, worthy of a warning, but not worthy of an investigation or harsh punishment." In fact, the panel admonished DeLay for "actions" that were "objectionable under House standards of conduct" and that "raise serious concerns under" these standards. The word "mistake" never appears in the letter of admonishment or the accompanying memorandum.
Garrett concluded the report by implying that DeLay's accusers were themselves ethically suspect; in doing so, he distorted facts:
GARRETT: DeLay has complained throughout this process the charges against him were based largely on innuendo and speculation. The committee found what it called, quote, "a significant gap," unquote, between the violations alleged and the facts presented. The committee said it will now investigate whether some of the ethics charges themselves violated House rules.
But the memo that detailed the committee's findings used the term "significant gap" not as an overall characterization of the three distinct complaints against DeLay but, rather, in reference to one particular complaint: the charge that DeLay "made a solicitation of campaign funds from [Kansas energy company] Westar that was improperly linked with official action [i.e., the House-Senate conference on energy legislation, H.R. 4 (107th)]." Moreover, while the committee found insufficient evidence of a demonstrable quid pro quo between DeLay and Westar -- necessary for DeLay to have received a harsher penalty -- this complaint still resulted in DeLay being rebuked for creating the "appearance that donors were being provided special access" by attending a Westar golf fund-raiser in 2002. Garrett noted this rebuke but not the fact that it had arisen out of the same complaint the panel was addressing when it spoke of the "significant gap."
And while, as The Washington Post noted in its October 7 report on DeLay's admonishment, "[t]he two-pronged rebuke marked the second time in six days -- and the third time overall -- that the ethics panel has admonished" DeLay, Garrett failed to note any previous admonishments of DeLay. On September 30, the panel rebuked DeLay for offering support for the congressional candidacy of Representative Nick Smith's (R-MI) son in exchange for Smith changing his vote on an important Medicare bill. The October 6 rebuke was for two separate matters: the Westar golf fund-raiser; and DeLay's "intervention in a partisan conflict ... using the resources of a Federal agency, the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA]." In the latter case, DeLay asked the FAA to track down Texas Democratic legislators who had left Texas in order to obstruct attempts by the legislature's Republican majority to redraw Texas's congressional district map.
In the "FOX All-Star Panel" at the end of the show, Hume made a bogus semantic distinction between a "rebuke" and an "admonishment" in order to suggest that by using "rebuke" to describe the ethics committee's action against DeLay, other news organizations were overstating the warning's severity:
HUME: Well, Tom DeLay was not exactly cleared of all charges, as he claimed. But he was not rebuked either, as Nancy Pelosi, the Associated Press and The New York Times claimed. What he was was admonished.
[I]t was referred to repeatedly as "rebuke." A synonym for "rebuke" is "reprimand." "Reprimand" is something that the House does -- periodically do. And it's one of the stronger penalties it imposes. It didn't do that in this case but it -- that's how it played in a number of quarters -- AP, The Washington Post. Does that magnify in any meaningful way the damage to DeLay or to the Republicans from this?
But according to the Merriam-Webster Online Thesaurus, "rebuke" is a synonym for both "admonish" and "reprimand," so it's not misleading to refer to the House action as a "rebuke." The House ethics rules indicate that "reprimand" is an official term denoting a specific sanction that the panel may recommend as a result of an investigation. By contrast, "rebuke" has no official meaning under the rules and is merely a synonym that reporters chose apparently to avoid excessive repetition of "admonish."
Weekly Standard executive editor and FOX News Channel contributor Fred Barnes insisted that the ethics rebuke was based solely on partisan maneuvering:
BARNES: Oh, it's kind of a warning. It's kind of a slap on the wrist. It's, you know, "just don't do this again" kind of thing. It's not a finding of an ethical violation at all. And most of this is just, you know, Democrats trying to embarrass the strong man on the Democratic Party in the House of Representatives.
But the ethics panel is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats and has a Republican chairman, so it's unlikely that Democrats could have successfully used baseless charges to win a rebuke of DeLay. Moreover, as explained above, the ethics panel found DeLay's actions "objectionable under House standards of conduct," so Barnes's claim that the panel's rebuke was "not a finding of an ethical violation at all" is incorrect.
Nationally syndicated Washington Post columnist and FOX News Channel contributor Charles Krauthammer also minimized the severity of DeLay's offense:
KRAUTHAMMER: What happens is these committees periodically cover for the rest of Congress, by slapping on the wrist somebody who does it [influence peddling] slightly or too obviously. That, I think, was the crime that DeLay had committed. Slightly obvious on this. And I think ultimately he should be more careful. But on the scale of one to ten, this is a half.