Media figures have argued that the scandal surrounding former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff is good news for Sen. John McCain because, unlike other members of Congress, he is untainted by the scandal and could benefit politically from being cast as a reformer. But these media figures failed to note that, like many Democrats who they have suggested are tainted, McCain received campaign money from Abramoff's clients, as reported by the Associated Press and the Center for Responsive Politics. *
In covering the federal corruption scandal surrounding former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff, many in the media have focused attention on Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who chairs the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs -- which is investigating the Abramoff matter -- and who has introduced, in light of Abramoff's abuses, legislation to regulate lobbying activities. Media coverage has largely cast McCain as “untainted” by the Abramoff scandal, while at the same time, implying that lawmakers who received legal campaign contributions from Abramoff or his American Indian clients are not. Some commentators have argued that the Abramoff scandal is good news for McCain: They assert that McCain has no connection to Abramoff and could therefore benefit politically from being cast as a reformer.
But a January 5 Associated Press article reported that Mark Salter, McCain's chief of staff, confirmed that McCain received “at least two donations from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians while Abramoff was their lobbyist.” The AP reported that Salter said he expects McCain will give this money back. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that McCain received $5,000 from the Mississippi Band of Choctaw while Abramoff was their lobbyist: $1,000 during the 2000 election cycle and $4,000 during the 2004 election cycle. In addition to those who have overlooked these contributions while focusing positive attention on McCain, CNN congressional correspondent Ed Henry drew attention to campaign contributions Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) -- the Democratic vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs -- received from Abramoff's clients but did not inform viewers of the contributions McCain received from the lobbyist's tribal clients.
While simply receiving campaign contributions from Abramoff clients is not an indication of corruption, news reports have portrayed such contributions as “tainting” lawmakers -- lawmakers other than McCain, that is.
A Media Matters for America review has found the following examples of media outlets portraying the Abramoff scandal as good news for the purported reformer McCain while failing to note McCain's receipt of campaign money from Abramoff's clients:
- New York Post Washington bureau chief Deborah Orin: In a January 5 column titled," Mr. Clean Can Come In & Wipe Up Floor of Congress," Orin asserted that the Abramoff scandal “could ... be good news for Mr. Reformer, Sen. John McCain.” Orin stated that "[t]he revolting Jack Abramoff scandal ... is tainting everyone in Washington," but quoted Republican strategist Rich Galen, who argued that “an untainted outsider who can play to that has an huge advantage” in the upcoming 2008 presidential race. Orin stated that “Democrats would like to paint the Abramoff mess as a Republican scandal, but Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid [D-NV] got plenty of Abramoff-linked money.” But she did not inform her readers that McCain had also received “Abramoff-linked money.”
- Newsweek chief political correspondent Howard Fineman: In a January 4 MSNBC online column, Fineman listed “the political losers and winners” in the Abramoff scandal. Among the “losers,” Fineman cited "[l]awmakers fingered by the feds in Abramoff probe, or who received campaign contributions through the networking of Abramoff, and who are facing re-election this November." Also included among the “losers” was House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL), who, as Fineman wrote, “hastily returned all of his Abramovian campaign contributions, but that only served to underscore his visibility.” But among the “winners,” Fineman cited McCain, explaining, “If Sen. John McCain doesn't win the Republican presidential nomination, I could see him leading an independent effort to ”clean up" the capital as a third-party candidate." Fineman did not note that, like Hastert and other lawmakers on the “losers” list, McCain also received “Abramovian campaign contributions.”
- MSNBC and NBC host Chris Matthews and his January 15 Chris Matthews Show panel: On the January 15 broadcast of the NBC-syndicated The Chris Matthews Show, Chris Matthews discussed the Abramoff scandal with a panel consisting of NBC chief Washington correspondent Norah O'Donnell, Time magazine assistant managing editor Michael Duffy, Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial page editor Cynthia Tucker, and Time columnist and former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan. Duffy asserted that “part of the problem [facing Democrats in the Abramoff scandal] is they've got ... Harry Reid and [Rep.] Patrick Kennedy [D-RI] and Byron Dorgan also took some of this money from Abramoff's clients.” When O'Donnell later argued that “the Republicans have, to some degree, beaten [Democrats] to the punch” in proposing lobbying reforms in the scandal's wake, Sullivan added: “They haven't just beaten them to the punch. In McCain, they have a person whose record on this is so long and so strong.” But neither Matthews nor his panel members informed viewers that McCain had also taken “some of this money from Abramoff's clients,” along with Reid, Kennedy, and Dorgan. Matthews's failure to note that McCain received contributions from Abramoff clients stands in marked contrast with his repeated references -- during three separate segments on the January 5 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews -- to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's (D-NY) decision to donate $2,000 she received from Abramoff's clients, despite the smaller amount of money she received and the fact that Clinton does not sit on the committee investigating the Abramoff scandal.
Additionally, on the January 3 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, Henry reported on contributions Dorgan's campaign received from Abramoff clients. But Henry did not inform viewers that McCain had also received money from Abramoff's clients. When host Wolf Blitzer asked Henry which members of Congress were “sweating ... out” the Abramoff scandal, Henry said of Dorgan:
HENRY: Now, there's a Democrat who Republicans keep bringing up, Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. He is somebody who has been leading this investigation in the Senate of Jack Abramoff. He recently gave back some money that was given to him. His office points out that it was actually money that Abramoff's clients gave, not maybe directly from Abramoff. Dorgan says he has never met Abramoff. He doesn't know anything about Abramoff himself. But it's a sign that both sides are taking a close look at all of this money.
From the January 15 broadcast of the NBC-syndicated The Chris Matthews Show:
MATTHEWS: Then there's the Abramoff scandal. What a fat target this is -- which keeps going on, by the way. Tom DeLay is now officially out as [House majority] leader. He's pulled himself out of leadership politics. And at least a handful -- and that's being modest -- of Republicans in the Congress are figured in this investigation. Their names keep popping up. Mike, how come this has metastasized into a -- not a Democratic opportunity, not a Democratic win and a Republican loss, but this vague kind of “Washington stinks.”
DUFFY: The best thing you can say about the Democratic strategy here is that they know that when the opposition party is in trouble, the best thing to do is stay out of the way. That's the smartest spin, but I don't think they're even thinking that much. I think part of the problem here is they've got, you know, Harry Reid, and Patrick Kennedy -- and Byron Dorgan also took some of this money from Abramoff's clients. Not all of those people have given it back, by the way. And that's not a good thing if you're trying to say --
MATTHEWS: OK. Are we to believe that they could be the reform party? I have never -- if they become -- let me ask you this: How can the Republicans effectively mean -- the main problem area here, losing their leadership over it, now come back and offer themselves up as the reformers? [Former Speaker of the House] Newt Gingrich is posing as a reformer now. The Democrats are blowing this chance.
DUFFY: These are different kinds of reformers. When [President] Gerald Ford and [Defense Secretary] Don Rumsfeld took over from [former House Majority Leader] Charlie Halleck [R-IN] (ph) in '64, they were reformers. When Newt Gingrich and [former Rep.] Vin Weber [R-MN] took over from Bob Michael, they were reformers. This is the same group that was in charge last week, now deciding to grab every lobbying proposing bill -- reform bill they can find, and say, “We're reformers.”
MATTHEWS: Why don't the Democrats offer themselves as reformers?
O'DONNELL: They are. They're trying to do that. I mean, [Senate Democratic leader] Nancy Pelosi [D-CA] is banding with others and inviting them to come back early in January to put forward a reform proposal. But again it remains -- the Republicans, to some degree, have beaten them to the punch. But that's going to be the big battle, right after the State of the Union.
SULLIVAN: They haven't just beaten them to the punch. In McCain, they have a person whose record on this is so long and so strong. Again, the opposition in this country is in the Republican Party. It's not in the Democratic Party. The Democrats are just whiners and spectators.
TUCKER: But the Democrats still have a chance on the Abramoff scandal because that is still brewing. They can find their voice on that and turn it into a credible campaign issue.
MATTHEWS: I think you nailed it, Andrew. I think the split between the Democratic true believers and the people that pay for the campaigns are very different. The conservatives are paying the bill, and the conservatives are keeping that party confused in its voice.
From the January 3 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:
BLITZER: So, who's sweating it out the most?
HENRY: Well, I can tell you, one name that always comes up, obviously, is Tom DeLay. He's the former House majority leader who is very close to Jack Abramoff, used him to raise money and whatnot. But DeLay, again, has insisted throughout this, no wrong -- you know, absolutely no wrongdoing, and time will tell. He's not mentioned at all -- it's important to point out -- in this plea deal.
But a name that does get mentioned in this plea deal today is Republican Bob Ney of Ohio. He very clearly has been linked to Abramoff. He says he was duped by Abramoff; he was misled; he did nothing wrong as well. But, in this plea deal, it mentions a trip to Scotland that Bob Ney took with Jack Abramoff to play some golf -- that trip still getting a lot of scrutiny.
Now, there's a Democrat who Republicans keep bringing up, Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. He's somebody who's been leading this investigation in the Senate of Jack Abramoff. He recently gave back some money that was given to him. His office points out that it was actually money that Abramoff's clients gave, not money directly from Abramoff. Dorgan says he's never met Abramoff. He doesn't know anything about Abramoff himself. But it's a sign that both sides are taking a close look at all of this money.
And, finally, you're going to -- you're going to see Democrats using this as an issue to say, “This is another sign” -- in their eyes -- “that there's a culture of corruption in Washington.” And they want to throw the Republicans out of power.