Depoliticizing corruption: Media figures miscast GOP-laden scandals as "nonpartisan"


A number of national media figures have cast the recent spate of political scandals as "nonpartisan," despite the fact that the vast majority of government officials who have been indicted or are under investigation are Republicans. In breaking down the "series of scandals ... currently dogging high-level elected officials," Washington Post staff writer Chris Cillizza lumped a former Democratic member of Congress in with current government officials, apparently to beef up the numbers on the Democrats' side of the ledger. MSNBC host Chris Matthews asserted that "there's no difference in the saliva test" between corrupt Republicans and Democrats. Post staff writer Jeffrey H. Birnbaum quoted a Republican pollster in reporting that "voters think less of both political parties the more prominent the issue of corruption in Washington becomes." By framing the recent political scandals as affecting "both political parties" (or "Washington" in general), Cillizza, Matthews, and Birnbaum obscured the fact that the vast majority of these scandals involve Republicans.

The number of scandals involving high-level Republicans in the House, Senate, and White House continues to grow:

  • On November 28, former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-CA) resigned from the House of Representatives after pleading guilty to accepting bribes from defense contractors.
  • Cunningham's resignation follows GOP lobbyist Michael Scanlon's November 21 unrelated admission to conspiring to bribe a member of Congress and other public officials. The federal investigation into the alleged defrauding of Indian casinos by Scanlon and GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff may expand to members of Congress, such as House Administration Committee chairman Bob Ney (R-OH), who was reportedly identified (though not by name) in court papers regarding the case, according to a November 22 New York Times article.
  • The Abramoff investigation also led to the October 5 indictment of former General Services Administration chief of staff David Safavian for obstruction of justice and lying to investigators.
  • I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, was indicted on October 28 for perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements in the investigation into the alleged outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald reportedly continues to investigate other White House officials over their possible involvement in the leak.
  • Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) stepped down from his leadership post after being indicted on September 28 on charges of money-laundering and conspiracy to violate Texas campaign finance law.
  • Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) is under investigation by federal prosecutors and the Securities and Exchange Commission for initiating the sale of stock in HCA Inc., a hospital chain founded by his family, shortly before a weak earnings report caused the company's share price to plummet.

Cillizza, in a November 29 entry on his Post weblog, The Fix, wrote that "scandals are nothing new in politics," and noted that Cunningham's guilty plea "is just the latest in a series of scandals -- some large, some small -- currently dogging high-level elected officials." Cillizza offered a "political scandal scorecard," which included DeLay, Ney, Cunningham, Frist, and a number of other Republicans, as well as Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-LA) and Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat*. Cillizza claimed that the "scorecard" was limited "to members of Congress and governors currently in office to keep the list manageable," but then said he was making a "small exception to the rule" for former Rep. Frank Ballance (D-NC). Ballance, who resigned in June 2004 after less than one full term in office, pleaded guilty in November 2004 to charges that he illegally redirected $2.3 million in state funds to a charity he operated. According to Cillizza: "Yes, we said we're limiting this list to current members, but this is a fairly recent case so we're making a small exception to the rule."

Matthews, in discussing Cunningham's resignation with former House counsel Stan Brand on the November 29 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, cast political corruption as a nonpartisan issue:

MATTHEWS: Just to brag about my profession, a good newspaperman went out there and noticed, apparently, that this guy [Cunningham] was selling his house at about double the market rate to a defense contractor -- a contractor who's doing business with the government. And that's these pass-throughs, these -- same thing with [former Rep. James] Traficant [D-OH]. Remember, they bought his houseboat at some exorbitant price, the congressman, the Democrat? You're in this business, you've defended a lot. Is this basically nonpartisan, this kind of corruption?

BRAND: Oh, absolutely.

MATTHEWS: Just stealing money?

BRAND: Because look, in the past, we've certainly had Democratic scandals. There were more Democrats --

MATTHEWS: So there's no difference in the saliva test of these guys. The corruption is in a person's character, not in their politics?

BRAND: I think so, but again, the notion that they would get away with it is engendered by the fact that there was no adverse party to look at any of the stuff and force the issue. And they thought they were insulated from review.

MATTHEWS: Because he could.

BRAND: Because he could.

Birnbaum reported in a November 29 Washington Post article: "But pollsters say that voters think less of both political parties the more prominent the issue of corruption in Washington becomes. ... No fewer than seven lawmakers, including a Democrat, have been indicted, have pleaded guilty or are under investigation for improper conduct." Birnbaum also quoted GOP pollster William McInturff as saying: "The indictments and investigations have strengthened the feeling that people have that in fact there's too much money in Washington and that the money is being used to influence official decisions." Birnbaum's report missed a key point: One reason that allegations of corruption are hurting both political parties is because media figures such as Birnbaum are casting current national scandals as a "bipartisan" problem when, by his own tally, Republican lawmakers who "have been indicted, have pleaded guilty or are under investigation" outnumber Democrats 6 to 1.

* According to an August 14 Washington Post article, "Investigators are looking into whether Jefferson, 58, illegally pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars of an investor's money from business transactions." The Chicago Tribune reported on October 30 that Blagojevich "has found his administration subjected to federal and state investigations into allegations ranging from pay-to-play politics to potential political kickbacks involving his appointees."

Posted In
Government, Ethics
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