The press frets about Pelosi


During an October 22 profile of House Speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on CBS' 60 Minutes, correspondent Leslie Stahl was busy fretting over Pelosi's uncivil rhetoric and wondered how the Democratic leader could possibly work with President Bush if her party prevailed in November. Reading back some of Pelosi's quotes about the Bush administration being "failed" and "arrogant" and -- gasp -- even criticizing the government's inept response to Hurricane Katrina, Stahl insisted, "You're one of the reasons we have to restore civility in the first place."

During an October 22 profile of House Speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on CBS' 60 Minutes, correspondent Leslie Stahl was busy fretting over Pelosi's uncivil rhetoric and wondered how the Democratic leader could possibly work with President Bush if her party prevailed in November. Reading back some of Pelosi's quotes about the Bush administration being "failed" and "arrogant" and -- gasp -- even criticizing the government's inept response to Hurricane Katrina, Stahl insisted, "You're one of the reasons we have to restore civility in the first place."

Pelosi disagreed, noting that rhetoric is the everyday language of political debate in this country. And plus, she said, it was accurate. But an overly anxious Stahl was unconvinced. "How does this raise the level of civility?" she pressed.

Stahl is hardly alone when it comes to current-day hand-wringing over how Democrats -- and Pelosi in particular -- will respond if they recapture control of the House after 12 years in the minority. Time magazine worried that some Democrats "would undoubtedly try to use their majority power to exact revenge for Republican overreach" in recent years. And MSNBC host Norah O'Donnell went one better, demanding Democrats go "on the record" and "promise" that if they seize control of the House, they would not issue subpoenas to the White House and make "the president's final two years in office a living hell."

The flood of unsolicited advice about etiquette and manners coming Democrats' way from Beltway insiders -- from the "make-nice crowd," as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman calls them -- rings hollow. The press seems spooked that a Democratic victory would mean Congress would then become too political, too partisan. Yet this is coming from the same Beltway press corps that yawned while polarizing, partisan House Republicans, led by Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL), discarded generations' worth of bipartisan Capitol Hill traditions and protocol in order to radically alter the way the legislative branch functions. But only now, with the specter of a Democratic majority looming, do journalists consider partisanship to be a newsworthy (and disturbing) issue.

The trend highlights two distinct media double standards on clear display during the run-up to November. The first suggests that when Republicans are in power, partisanship, even the jacked-up kind on steroids, is dubbed healthy hardball. But if Democrats practice any (or even contemplate it), that's deemed to be bad for democracy. The second is that Democratic Party leaders are routinely held to a different press standard; a standard usually constructed by Republican smears.

In this case, it's the false claim that Pelosi is wildly unpopular and out of the mainstream. It's those sorts of Republican talking points that allow Today show co-host Matt Lauer to refer to Pelosi as "controversial" without citing any reason for the unflattering description, as he did on October 20.

Not surprisingly, Fox News has become obsessed with Pelosi this campaign season. Between September 19 and October 19, "Pelosi" was mentioned 330 times on Fox News, according to, compared with 163 mentions on MSNBC, and just 84 references on CNN. Fox News even found Pelosi's little-known California congressional opponent and invited him on the air to trash Pelosi's "San Francisco values." Meanwhile, Fox News host Sean Hannity warned, "I don't think America has a clue who this woman is that would be third in line to be president of the United States."

But does America have a clue, for example, who Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is? If Republicans manage to keep a thin majority in the U.S. Senate, it's likely McConnell would replace Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) as the Senate leader. So why hasn't the press focused much attention on McConnell, a fundraising machine who's badly out of step with a majority of Americans on a whole range of issues, including teen smoking, the war in Iraq, and regulating campaign contributions. Where are the "Is McConnell too conservative?" cable-TV roundtable discussions and chat-fests? Where are the news profiles that ask whether McConnell is a likable figure who can connect with everyday Americans? A search of the Nexis database for news articles and transcripts over the past 60 days that mention Mitch McConnell at least five times retrieves 91 matches. But a similar search for news mentions of Nancy Pelosi retrieves 493 matches.

Hastert as the Everyman

During the Bush years, Republican leaders of Congress have mostly been shielded from aggressive press coverage. (The flamboyant -- and currently indicted -- former Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) was a notable exception to the rule.) Just look at the mountain of fawning media clips Speaker Hastert managed to assemble, most of which paint the enviable portrait of him as a good ole boy, a sort of Accidental/Anti-Politician. U.S. News & World Report dubbed him "The Steady-Handed Hastert," while the Associated Press described him as "jovial," "low-key" and a "distinctly middle-American politician" with "a reputation for courtesy and politeness." And that was after the Foley scandal broke.

Indeed, try to find an article about Hastert in which his long-gone days as wrestling coach aren't mentioned. It's as if Beltway newsroom keyboards are hot-wired to spit out the phrase, "Hastert, a former schoolteacher and wrestling coach ..."

"Hastert has absolutely gotten a pass from the press," says Thomas Mann, a veteran, nonpartisan Congress watcher and co-author of the book Broken Branch: How Congress is Failing America and How to Get It Back On Track (Oxford University Press, August 2006). "The image of Hastert as just a regular guy who would never do any harm to the institution of Congress, that everybody likes him. I think that has cushioned him from more rigorous coverage."

Despite his almost grandfatherly press image, Hastert has acted as an aggressive (radical?) partisan throughout his time in office, even stepping in to personally remove the chairman and two Republican members from the House ethics committee after they rebuked DeLay for misconduct. And don't forget that during the final push of the 2004 campaign, Hastert publicly attacked liberal donor George Soros, floating the idea that the billionaire financier (and Holocaust survivor) is subsidized by overseas drug cartels. (Hastert cribbed the loony allegation from Lyndon LaRouche.)

The unspoken truth about Hastert, according to Noam Scheiber at The New Republic, is that the speaker is "a bumbling half-wit," a fact the Beltway press politely avoids addressing. "Reading back over the last several years of Hastert coverage, one is astonished by the lengths to which reporters go to avoid outing him as a guileless nincompoop," Scheiber recently wrote.

Mann says the soft press coverage also cushioned Hastert from serious questions surrounding a recent, sweetheart land deal of his, first highlighted by the Chicago Tribune. (The deal ballooned Hastert's wealth to more than $6 million; so much for his modest, good-ole-boy roots.) To date, the national press corps hasn't shown the slightest interest in the details of Hastert's miraculous land deal, in which he pocketed a 500 percent profit in just four years' time, thanks entirely to the fact that Hastert used the power of the speaker's office to personally ram through legislation that directly increased the value of his own land holdings. Does that sound like news to anyone? (Read the astonishing details here.)

Yet as Media Matters for America recently noted, CNN devoted 50 times as much coverage to a recent allegation about a land deal by a prominent Democrat, Sen. Harry Reid (NV), as compared to the allegations against Hastert.

Corruption or hardball?

Set aside Hastert's get-rich-quick scheme. The real story of Hastert's reign, and the one that has been criminally underreported, is the extraordinary transformation Congress witnessed under his control, when party leaders who saw themselves as White House lieutenants rather than independent legislators literally rewrote the way laws are made in this country, mostly to ensure that Democrats had no say in the process. Writing in the current issue of Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi spells out what so many reporters have avoided discussing for years:

The Republicans who control this Congress are revolutionaries, and they have brought their revolutionary vision for the House and Senate quite unpleasantly to fruition. In the past six years they have castrated the political minority, abdicated their oversight responsibilities mandated by the Constitution, enacted a conscious policy of massive borrowing and unrestrained spending, and installed a host of semipermanent mechanisms for transferring legislative power to commercial interests. They aimed far lower than any other Congress has ever aimed, and they nailed their target.

The sweeping changes instituted were radical, damaging, and clearly newsworthy, yet for years the national reporters yawned, doing a dismal job explaining how drastic the transformation on Capitol Hill was. "Their attitude was, 'That's hardball, that's how it works. Our job is to tell them who won and who lost,' " says Mann, who complains that the press even ignored obvious, brewing scandals up on the Hill. "Everybody in town knew about [disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack] Abramoff, yet most national reporters and editors did not do anything. It was really quite stunning." (Note that for years the Beltway press collectively boycotted reporting on the GOP's crooked K Street Project.)

And yet even today, when journalists belatedly address the ways of the Republican Congress, it's done in an overly naive and understated manner. For example, last week The Washington Post reported, "For years, Republicans have been mostly deferential in scrutinizing the Bush administration." [Emphasis added.] If, by "mostly deferential," the Post meant that Republicans, after issuing more than 1,000 subpoenas while investigating the Clinton administration during the 1990s, have yet to issue a single subpoena as part of their oversight of the Bush administration, then yes, Congress has been "mostly deferential."

Following Foleygate, Time magazine took a timid look at life in Congress under recent Republican rule: "Far more than in the past, they brought bills to the floor with no chance of amendment and allowed the normal appropriations process to be circumvented so that pet projects could be funded without scrutiny." It's all true -- Democrats have essentially been barred from introducing legislation (via amendments) for the past six years. But why didn't the magazine report the phenomenon in real time? Searching the Nexis database, I cannot find a single previous article published in Time that detailed the extraordinary measures taken by the arrogant Hastert Congress to ensure that Democrats were clinically neutered.

And that's to say nothing of the GOP's naked abuse of power:

  • In July 2003, hothead Rep. Bill Thomas (R-CA) summoned the Capitol Police to disperse Democrats who were meeting in the House library.
  • In November 2003, desperate to pass Bush's Medicare prescription plan, the normal 15-minute final House vote was held open for nearly three hours while Hastert broke tradition by lobbying on the floor of the House himself during the vote. Keep in mind that back in 1987, when then-Democratic Speaker Jim Wright of Texas extended a crucial vote for an extra 10 minutes, Republicans went bonkers, claiming abuse of power.
  • In June 2005, Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI), chairman of the House Judiciary, became so annoyed with the questioning taking place during a hearing on the USA Patriot Act that he shut the hearing down, turned off the microphones as well as the lights, and stormed out of the room with the gavel in his hand.

In truth, the wildly partisan Hastert Congress should have been a godsend for reporters eager for muckraking and detailing and all kinds of institutional abuses of power. Instead, reporters snoozed. Only now are they being roused in time to fret about whether Democrats, and Pelosi, will play fair.

Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CBS, Time Magazine
Norah O'Donnell
60 Minutes
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.