Network news broadcasts give scant coverage to Frist stock scandal

Despite having found the time to cover Kate Moss's purported cocaine use and to put one of its correspondents in a wind tunnel to demonstrate the effects of hurricane-force wind, ABC's World News Tonight has yet to mention the brewing scandal over the sale of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's (R-TN) stock in HCA Inc., the hospital chain founded by Frist's father, just two weeks before a bad earnings report caused the stock price to drop sharply. The nightly news broadcasts of CBS and NBC didn't do much more, both giving the story brief mentions on September 23.

Since September 19, when Congressional Quarterly quoted a Frist aide acknowledging that Frist had ordered the trustee of his blind trust to sell all of his, his wife's, and his children's HCA stock, the Associated Press picked up the story September 20, followed by The New York Times (September 21), The Washington Post (September 22), and the Los Angeles Times (September 24).

The AP reported on September 23 that federal prosecutors had served HCA with a subpoena for documents related to the sale of Frist's stock, and officials from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had contacted HCA to informally request the same documents. The AP also reported that Frist's office had been contacted by both the SEC and federal prosecutors.

Catching Frist in an apparent lie, The New York Times reported September 24 that in a statement to the National Journal two years ago, Frist had denied knowing whether his blind trust still held HCA stock, although Senate ethics rules require the manager of a blind trust to inform the owner if all of an asset is sold. Moreover, the AP reported September 24 that in a January 2003 television interview, Frist also denied knowing whether he owned HCA stock, although his trustee contacted him at least three times in 2002, informing him of transfers of HCA stock into his trust.

As of September 26, ABC's World News Tonight has yet to cover the Frist story, although the program devoted broadcast time on September 21 to reporting on model Kate Moss's purported cocaine use. On September 23, World News Tonight featured a segment in which ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper reported from inside a wind tunnel to demonstrate the effects of hurricane-force winds on the human body.

CBS' Evening News gave passing mention to the Frist story on September 23 but did not report the subpoena of HCA documents by federal prosecutors or the informal request for documents by the SEC. CBS also failed to report that Frist's office had been contacted by federal prosecutors and the SEC. NBC's Nightly News also briefly covered the scandal September 23, reporting the prosecutors' subpoena and the SEC's document request, as well as the contact between Frist's office and federal officials. As of September 26, however, none of the networks' nightly news broadcasts has reported that Frist was caught in a lie regarding the extent of his knowledge of his blind trust's contents.

From the September 23 broadcast of CBS Evening News:

BOB SCHIEFFER (anchor): Federal investigators are looking into Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist's sale of stock in HCA, a giant hospital company founded by his family. Frist had his blind trust sell all his shares in June, when the stock was near its peak. Then two weeks later, a disappointing earnings forecast drove the stock price down. Frist's office says the senator had no inside information when he ordered the sale.

From the September 23 broadcast of NBC Nightly News:

BRIAN WILLIAMS (anchor): Investigators are looking into Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's sale of stock in a hospital operating company founded by his family. Soon after Frist sold his shares, the company issued a disappointing earnings forecast. That drove the stock down by about 15 percent. Frist's aides say the senator traded using only public information. They say prosecutors and the SEC have contacted them but that Senator Frist has not been subpoenaed. The company, however, says it has.