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MediaWatch: July 1989

Vol. Three No. 7

Study: No Singles Standard For Sleaze

When Attorney General Ed Meese resigned last year, he was found innocent of wrongdoing but the media still portrayed him as an example of what news accounts called the "ethical insensitivity" of the Republican administration. But less than a year later, when Speaker of the House Jim Wright resigned rather than face action by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, reporters assumed a new emphasis, growing concerned that an "ethics war" was damaging the political process. Meese was "the crown jewel of the sleaze factor;" Wright a "casualty of the ethics thunderstorm."

That's the double standard MediaWatch analysts documented by studying how the media covered Meese and Wright when each resigned from office. First, coverage of Meese's resignation focused on his personal ethics problems, while reports of Wright's resignation focused on the fate of the House in the midst of "mindless cannibalism." Second, the media used differing terminologies to report the controversies of Meese and Wright, focusing on the "sleaze factor" for Meese and "ethics war" for Wright. To measure these trends, analysts investigated print reports in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report, and viewed broadcasts of ABC's World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, CNN PrimeNews and NBC Nightly News.

1. THEMES. To study the dominant themes underlying both episodes, MediaWatch compared stories within the first four days of Meese's resignation announcement on July 5, 1988 and the release of special prosecutor James McKay's report on July 18. For Wright, we surveyed the first four days after his May 31 speech to the House.

a) Continuing ethical/legal problems. Although special prosecutor James McKay failed to indict Meese, 12 of 25 print stories (48%) and four out of nine network segments (44%) predicted further difficulties for Meese, most notably an investigation by the Justice Department'sOffice of Professional Responsibility. Despite possible Justice Department investigations against Wright, however, only two of nine network stories (22%) and two of 25 print stories (8%) speculated on further troubles. Not one newspaper account touched on further ethical problems for the Speaker, focusing instead on stories like the Los Angeles Times' "'Liberated' Wright Explains Why He Resigned."

b) Partisan atmosphere. The tenor of the Wright coverage was stringently critical of the "partisan bloodbath" that led to Wright's resignation. 21 out of 30 print stories (70%) and 7 of 12 broadcast reports (58%) described some form of "partisan rancor" on Capitol Hill when Wright quit. As Michael Oreskes led off coverage in The New York Times June 1: "The House to which Speaker Jim Wright announced today his plan to resign is a House beset with fear, one in which every rumor, every phone call from a reporter, every partisan spat could be the beginning of the end of a career." Although the investigation by the House ethics committee took more than a year to complete, the Los Angeles Times headlined a June 2 story "Rush to Judge Politicians Held Damaging to Nation." Out of this atmosphere, ABC's Jim Wooten could sympathetically report of Wright: "And if his moving speech today does not restore those decencies he so wistfully remembered today, then perhaps history remembered that at least he tried." But Meese got no such treatment. In 25 print stories, only one New York Times story (or 4 percent of articles) mentioned in passing that "old-line conservatives" thought partisanship might have been involved. None of the nine evening news stories raised the issue.

Headlines and subtitles were also a signal of the double standard. When Meese protested McKay's report, the Newsweek headline read "Meese Plays the Martyr." When Wright resigned, Time asked "Have We Gone Too Far?" Los Angeles Times subtitles were just as pronounced: in one Meese story, the Times used "'Became a Caricature'," "Other Failures," and "'Personal Obtuseness'." In Wright articles, subtitles included "Embraced by Colleagues," "'Hounded from Office'," and "Atmosphere of Mistrust."

2. TERMS. A comparison of ethics terminology illustrates how the media presented the debate to the Democrats' advantage on both occasions. "Sleaze factor" was used to describe Republican appointees accused of impropriety, whether they were eventually found guilty or not. But the martial metaphors of an "ethics war" over Speaker Wright implicitly charged Republicans with dirty pool and excused the Democratic corruption by portraying them as the victims of a "partisan bloodbath."

In 1988, reporters from newspapers and magazines made unattributed reference to the "sleaze factor" 56 times, mostly as a description of the Reagan Administration's "legacy of easy ethical virtue," as The New York Times put it. To media minds, the term related only to Republican ethics controversies. Thus, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's deflated ploy to charge lobbyists $10,000 for breakfast "might blunt" or "make it tougher to exploit" the Democrats' use of the "sleaze factor" instead of being an example of the "sleaze factor." In spite of all the ethics coverage, reporters used the term only 6 times so far in 1989.

But in the aftermath of the Wright resignation, print reporters made unattributed use of a thesaurus of "ethics war" terminology (including "ethics purge," "ethics reign of terror," and "ethics epidemic") 37 times, often in headlines. Newsweek made "Ethics Wars" a section heading for all its Wright stories in its June 12 edition.

In contrast, conservative phrase coiners were stiffed. Only three print news stories in 1989 mentioned Newt Gingrich's pet phrase "corrupt liberal welfare state," and when they did it came with criticism: The Washington Post's Myra McPherson wrote "Newtisms have indeed appalled members on both sides of the aisle." In fact, print stories that included the words "corrupt" or "corruption" with unattributed reference to the Democrats, have appeared only 16 times so far this year, and most of them showed up in sentences like "Democrats tired of being lumped together as corrupt and venal will support Wright as a demonstration of their own self-worth." This sentence by Tom Kenworthy appeared in the only Washington Post news story to use the word "corrupt" anywhere near the name of Jim Wright since the beginning of May.

Impartiality in ethics coverage requires that scandals involving liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans be covered in a balanced fashion, with a single standard. Circumstances may differ, but to tar the accused conservative Republican in one case and then assail the conservative Republican accuser in the next is proof positive of a double standard.