Disregarding Fitzgerald's warning, media use Blagojevich scandal to engage in guilt-by-association against Obama

››› ››› ERIC HANANOKI, SIMON MALOY, LAUREN AUERBACH & MORGAN WEILAND

Disregarding U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's warning to "not cast aspersions on people for being named or being discussed" in the criminal complaint against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, several in the media have used the scandal as an opportunity to engage in suggestions of guilt-by-association against President-elect Barack Obama, by rehashing Obama's purportedly "questionable associations," or suggesting that Obama is a product of corrupt "Chicago politics."

Disregarding prosecutor and U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's warning to "not cast aspersions on people for being named or being discussed" in the criminal complaint against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), several media figures and outlets have used the Blagojevich scandal as an opportunity to engage in suggestions of guilt-by-association against President-elect Barack Obama. This guilt-by-association has taken the form of rehashing Obama's purportedly "questionable associations," or suggesting that Obama is a product of corrupt "Chicago politics." A number of these media figures have linked Obama to Blagojevich or convicted Chicago businessman Antoin Rezko but ignored the fact that Obama has not been accused of any wrongdoing with regard to either case. Other media outlets, like the Associated Press, have used the Blagojevich scandal to revisit Obama's associations to controversial figures who have not been accused of any criminal wrongdoing, such as Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi and Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.

"Questionable associations"

  • In a December 10 article headlined "Questionable associations of Obama," The Associated Press discussed "notable figures who have drawn scorn and scrutiny" with whom "Obama has crossed paths." However, more than half of the individuals the AP cited have not been charged with any criminal wrongdoing: Wright, Khalidi, Illinois Senate President Emil Jones, and Rev. Michael Pfleger. As for the three "figures" who have been charged with wrongdoing -- Blagojevich, Rezko, and former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers -- no criminal accusations have been brought against Obama in connection with these cases.

    While the AP article did note that the charges against Rezko "have no connection to Obama" and that Obama "had a very limited relationship with Ayers" that began years after criminal charges against Ayers were dropped, the article did not mention, as reporter Liz Sidoti pointed out in a separate December 10 AP article, that "Obama isn't accused of anything" in the criminal complaint against Blagojevich.

  • During the December 9 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, host Sean Hannity asked fellow Fox News host Mike Huckabee: "Why is he [Obama] friends with all these radical, corrupt people? What -- what does that say about him?" Huckabee responded: "Well, I think that his past relationships are certainly questionable. I still think Bill Ayers ought to be in prison." Co-host Alan Colmes then said, "Didn't we have an election? Didn't we just decide all this?" to which Huckabee replied: "Yeah, we did. But I'm just talking about Bill Ayers. But Barack Obama, I don't think has any connection to the specific bribery issue."

    Hannity later added: "I wonder if we're beginning to see, perhaps, a lot of what we suspected about Barack Obama. A lot -- that I think the Tony Rezko issue is going to be a big problem for him, especially because he's all over this document. The pres -- the word president-elect is mentioned 44 times in the document. Pretty troubling." In fact, none of the references to "President-elect" in the complaint against Blagojevich indicate any wrongdoing by Obama. Rather, some of the instances in which the term "President-elect" is used suggest that Obama and his advisers were unwilling to conspire with Blagojevich, while other mentions were mere descriptions of the Senate seat vacated by Obama or references to his forthcoming presidential administration.

  • Discussing the charges against Blagojevich during the December 10 edition of MSNBC Live, anchor Norah O'Donnell asked NBC News political director Chuck Todd: "[C]an Obama avoid being tainted by all this?" Todd replied that "obviously, Chicago Democratic politics, Illinois Democratic politics has a lot of concentric circles. People who used to work for Blagojevich, maybe in his 2002 campaign, have connections now with Obama." Todd went on to assert that "the guilt-by-association stuff, it'll serve as a Republican talking point probably for four or eight years, depending on how long Obama is president," but did not condemn such "guilt-by-association stuff" in any way. O'Donnell subsequently noted that "prosecutors said yesterday that there is no evidence of involvement by the president-elect."
  • As Media Matters noted, during the December 9 edition of MSNBC Live, co-host Contessa Brewer baselessly speculated that the criminal charges against Blagojevich might "taint" Obama. Newsweek investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff responded, in part, that "this is a very sticky matter for Obama." He added: "There are a lot of -- a web of interrelationships between Obama and Blagojevich's political world that's gonna make this awkward. For one, one of the key witnesses against Blagojevich who has recently cut a -- believed to have recently cut a deal with the prosecutors is none other than Tony Rezko, Obama's long-time fundraiser, a guy that got a lot of scrutiny during the campaign because they bought adjoining houses together -- they being Obama and Rezko. It's also interesting that Blagojevich had previously held the congressional seat that -- that went on to be held by Rahm Emanuel, the new White House chief of staff."

"Chicago's extreme corruption"

  • In the December 10 edition of ABCNews.com's The Note headlined "My Kind of Town," Rick Klein asserted that "President-elect Barack Obama wanted to bring some Chicago with him to Washington. But with one stiff wind, Chicago has grabbed Obama and his transition -- and blown it off-course for the first time since Election Day." Asserting that "[i]t isn't about the direct implications," Klein went on to write that the "stunning charges leveled against Gov. Rod Blagojevich, D-Ill. mean ... [t]he underbelly of the Obama political operation, with all its Chicago tints and taints, is now fair game for reporters looking for a story."
  • While noting that "Fitzgerald made clear that Obama was not implicated" in the criminal charges against Blagojevich, Chris Matthews also said during the December 9 edition of his MSNBC program, Hardball, that "Barack Obama, of course, rose to political power in a city, Chicago, in a state, Illinois, known for corruption."
  • In a December 9 blog post on National Review Online's The Corner, conservative author David Freddoso wrote that "Barack Obama was always willing to turn a blind eye" to "Chicago's extreme corruption." Freddoso added that Fitzgerald "has worked doggedly to send corrupt politicians (many of them Obama's friends and political allies) to prison."
  • In a December 10 Politico article, senior political writers Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin noted that Fitzgerald said "'there's no reference in the complaint to any conversation involving the president-elect or indicating that the president-elect was aware of it." However, Smith and Martin also asserted that Republicans are attempting "to show that Obama is more a product of Illinois's malfeasance-prone political culture than he is letting on" and reported: "[O]ne prominent Chicago Democrat close to many of those named in the indictment suggested the risk for Obama is 'Whitewater-type exposure.' ... What this Democrat meant with his analogy -- which on the facts so far seems a bit premature -- was that Obama could suffer by being in the proximity of a back-scratching and deal-making culture, even if he was mostly a bystander." Smith and Martin concluded the article by asserting that Obama "seemed still to be in that Chicago straddle when asked about Blagojevich's arrest yesterday, mustering only word that he was 'saddened' and 'sobered' at a time when even other Illinois Democrats were demanding Blagojevich resign."

From the December 9 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: Barack Obama, of course, rose to political power in a city, Chicago, in a state, Illinois, known for corruption. But Fitzgerald made clear that Obama was not implicated today. Here he is, quote, "The complaint makes no allegations about the president-elect whatsoever." Obama said this afternoon that he had no contact with Governor Blagojevich over who was gonna fill that Senate seat.

Still, there are many unanswered questions, including that one. What conversation did occur between Blagojevich and Barack Obama about who would fill his Senate seat once he became president? Obama said this afternoon there were none at all.

What conversations, if any, did Governor Blagojevich have with Rahm Emanuel about his replacement as a Democratic candidate in the special election in Chicago? Will this Illinois scandal in any way distract Obama from dealing with the financial crisis? What happens to Obama's Senate seat now? Who gets to fill it? The disgraced indicted governor? The state legislature? Who? And what is it about Illinois that seems to make the state's politics so relentlessly corrupt?

From the December 9 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:

HUCKABEE: I think the greater issue is that the corrupt -- the corruptible person is the governor. I do not see that Barack Obama would be stupid enough to even worry with it.

HANNITY: All right. Why is he --

HUCKABEE: I just don't.

HANNITY: -- friends with all these radical --

COLMES: Here we go.

HANNITY: -- corrupt people? What -- what does that say about him?

HUCKABEE: Well, I think that his past relationships are certainly questionable. I still think Bill Ayers ought to be in prison. I think he ought to be in prison.

HANNITY: Yeah.

COLMES: Didn't we have an election? Didn't we just decide all this?

HUCKABEE: Yeah, we did. But I'm just talking about Bill Ayers. But Barack Obama, I don't think has any connection --

HANNITY: Yeah.

HUCKABEE: -- to the specific bribery issue --

HANNITY: You know what's interesting?

HUCKABEE: -- because he just has nothing to gain from it. Nothing.

HANNITY: Everything that we heard in the Gennifer Flowers tapes came true.

HUCKABEE: Yeah.

HANNITY: I wonder if we're beginning to see, perhaps, a lot of what we suspected about Barack Obama. A lot -- that I think the Tony Rezko issue is going to be a big problem for him, especially because he's all over this document. The pres -- the word president-elect is mentioned 44 times in the document. Pretty troubling.

HUCKABEE: But one thing let's keep in mind. You never saw the two of them out campaigning a lot together. They weren't doing a whole lot of stuff.

HANNITY: All right. Governor, thanks for being with us.

From the 9 a.m. ET hour of the December 10 edition of MSNBC Live:

O'DONNELL: You know, some Republicans already jumping on this. The Republican National Committee says Obama's comments so far are insufficient at best. Can the president-elect, can Obama avoid being tainted by all this?

TODD: Well, it depends on your definition of taint. I mean, obviously, Chicago Democratic politics, Illinois Democratic politics has a lot of concentric circles. People who used to work for Blagojevich, maybe in his 2002 campaign, have connections now with Obama. But, you know, the guilt-by-association stuff, it'll serve as a Republican talking point probably for four or eight years, depending on how long Obama is president. But, you know, the next thing I think that the Obama folks have to brace themselves for is it's possible somebody in the Obama transition team is on tape talking to Blagojevich, that it's possible that they returned a phone call to the governor. Wouldn't be -- it wouldn't be surprising.

It's unlikely that any of these people would have said anything or somehow agreed to Blagojevich -- I mean, the most exculpatory part, I think, for Obama are Blagojevich's own words and the criticism that he had for Obama's folks that they weren't playing ball with him. So that's -- if there's an upside for Obama. I also expect you will see Obama today probably have a stronger statement condemning Governor Blagojevich. I think yesterday there were some folks who were surprised that he -- that it was a passive statement -- very much in Obama's demeanor. He always is very cautious in initial reactions to things like this. I imagine we might see a stronger statement today.

O'DONNELL: Yeah, and prosecutors said yesterday that there is no evidence of involvement by the president-elect --

TODD: Right.

O'DONNELL: -- but people are raising questions about Obama's relationship with Blagojevich.

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