As the broadcast network morning newscasts on Thursday each interviewed former Delaware Republican Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell regarding allegations that she misused campaign money, in the setup piece on each network, the correspondent failed to inform viewers of credibility weaknesses on the part of O'Donnell's accusers and omitted O'Donnell's contention that she did not use campaign money to pay for rent on her home. Additionally, only CBS's Jan Crawford informed viewers that the group pushing for an investigation - the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) - is a "left-leaning" group, as NBC's Norah O'Donnell vaguely referred to a "watchdog group," and ABC's Rob Nelson did not mention the organization.
Although both accusers who used to work for the O'Donnell campaign were fired - one after less than two weeks on the job - all three networks failed to inform viewers of these details that would suggest they might be disgruntled, and NBC's Norah O'Donnell on the Today show even suggested that the accusers have credibility because they, like Christine O'Donnell, are Republicans, while failing to inform viewers that the group CREW is liberal. NBC's Norah O'Donnell reported: "O'Donnell calls them phony, but it was members of her own party who first raised the issue. During this year's bitter primary battle, Delaware's Republican Party paid for robo calls where O'Donnell's past campaign manager accused her of breaking the law in her failed 2008 Senate bid."
After an audio clip of former campaign manager Kristin Murray making accusations against Christine O'Donnell, Norah O'Donnell continued: "In September, a watchdog group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington alleges O'Donnell used her campaign coffers in this year's race like a personal piggy bank."
NBC's setup piece was so slanted against her that Christine O'Donnell began the interview by quipping, "I was laughing during most of that open."
Over on ABC's Good Morning America, correspondent Rob Nelson related: "Now, two former staffers reportedly allege she used some of that money to pay personal expenses, including her rent, during three consecutive Senate runs, starting in 2006."
Nelson also presented an account of the rent situation that seemed contradictory with O'Donnell's explanation as he asserted: "She already acknowledged she paid part of her rent with campaign money. However, she argued her house had doubled as campaign headquarters. "
But, in interviews on NBC's Today show, CNN's American Morning, and FNC's Fox and Friends, Christine O'Donnell maintained that she had rented living space in her campaign headquarters - and paid rent to her campaign - to escape harassment, vandalism, and break-ins at her private home. On NBC's Today show, she asserted: "Here's where the miscommunication comes in. Because my home was vandalized and eggs thrown at my house, I paid the campaign, I paid the campaign money to use the townhouse as my legal residency. Not the campaign pays me. So they're taking it totally out of context, something innocent, they're trying to twist as negative in order to further this slanderous attack."
Returning to the way the accusers who had worked for O'Donnell's campaign were presented, during the interview on ABC, after O'Donnell identified the group pushing the accusations - CREW - as liberal and noted that its executive director, Melanie Sloan, used to work for Vice President Joe Biden, ABC co-anchor Robin Roberts brought up the accusers without noting any weaknesses in their credibility: "But not just one, but two former people from your campaign are making these allegations, Christine."
On CBS's The Early Show, correspondent Jan Crawford passed on the accusations without relaying any doubts, but did at least label CREW as politically to the left: "Two former staffers have accused her of paying for rent, meals, gas and other personal expenses with political contributions, which is barred under federal election rules. In September, a left-leaning watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, filed a complaint."
CBS anchor Harry Smith had introduced the piece by referring to O'Donnell as "one of the most polarizing figures" of the 2010 campaign, and, during the interview, seemed to mock her at one point as being obsessed with Vice President Biden. Smith: "Yesterday, also, in your statement, you insinuated that Vice President Biden was behind this. Did you not, also, a couple of years ago, suggest that Vice President Biden or then Joe Biden, Senator Biden, was tapping your phone? Do all roads, in your world, lead to Joe Biden?"
NBC's Norah O'Donnell had similarly made a point of labeling Christine O'Donnell as "controversial." Norah O'Donnell began her report: "You know, controversy and Christine O'Donnell seem to go hand-in-hand. And now, federal authorities are looking into a complaint that she broke the law by using campaign funds to pay for personal expenses. O'Donnell says it all amounts to a political witch hunt. ... Christine O'Donnell was this year's most colorful and controversial Senate candidate."
Below are transcripts of relevant portions of ABC's Good Morning America, CBS's The Early Show, and NBC's Today show from Thursday, December 30, with critical portions in bold:
#From Good Morning America on ABC:
ROBIN ROBERTS: Now, to a breaking political story. Reports this morning that federal authorities may have launched a criminal investigation into former Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell. The feds may be looking into whether she may have used campaign money to pay personal expenses. And Christine O'Donnell will join us in just a moment to face those allegations. But first, Rob Nelson has a closer look.
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL, FORMER DELAWARE REPUBLICAN SENATE NOMINEE: They call us wacky. They call us wing nuts. We call us, we, the people.
ROB NELSON: Christine O'Donnell may have lost the race for Joe Biden's Delaware Senate seat, despite Sarah Palin's endorsement, but the Tea Party darling sure made things interesting.
O'DONNELL IN AD: I'm not a witch.
NELSON: She landed a book deal, and her campaign raised more than $7 million, a state record. Now, two former staffers reportedly allege she used some of that money to pay personal expenses, including her rent, during three consecutive Senate runs, starting in 2006. She already acknowledged she paid part of her rent with campaign money. However, she argued her house had doubled as campaign headquarters. Wednesday, O'Donnell's camp said it hasn't heard from authorities and called the allegations politically motivated, saying, quote, "Given that the king of the Delaware political establishment just so happens to be the Vice President of the most liberal presidential administration in U.S. history, it's no surprise that misuse and abuse of the FBI would not be off the table."
ROBERTS: And Christine O'Donnell joins us now from Philadelphia. So, Christine, let's get right to it. Have you ever, in any of your campaigns, ever used campaign funds for personal expenses? For rent or anything like that?
O'DONNELL: No, there's been no impermissible use of campaign funds whatsoever. You have to look at this whole thug politic tactic for what it is. We have heard of no investigation. The AP has been tipped off before my lawyer or our campaign or anyone has ever been notified. The woman leading the CREW complaint is a former Biden staffer who's so far to the left, that she's, you know, to the left of most leftists.
ROBERTS: But not just one, but two former people from your campaign are making these allegations, Christine.
O'DONNELL: Right. And the other one is someone who was fired after a week and a half. So, you know, you have to look at the credibility of their sources. And as these two fired, disgruntled, former people involved with my campaign have started making these allegations, even more people who were involved with the 2008 campaign have risen up to say, hey, you know, I was involved with her for months, more than just a week and a half, and didn't see this. I'm confident that we have always done everything to comply with all the rules and regulations, and I'm confident that we will be cleared of any charges.
ROBERTS: In your statement, you alluded to the Vice President and gave the impression that you believe that he may be a part of the reason of this investigation. Do you really believe the Vice President has a part in this?
ROBERTS: You have run three times. You've lost three times. You're right about the fact that you defeated Castle in the primary, and that got a lot o people's attention, but you were soundly defeated in the general election. Why do you believe that you are seen as a threat?
ROBERTS: So, despite your defeat, you still have a campaign manager. Are you planning a future run for office?
ROBERTS: So, again, you deny that you have used campaign funds inappropriately for any personal expenses?
O'DONNELL: Absolutely, uncategorically, and, you know, we've got one of the best attorneys in Washington, the best attorney in politics, involved in this campaign. And, you know, she's thoroughly investigated. And she, too, is very confident that there's been no wrongdoing, and that's what she tells me behind the scenes, you know, so, you know, I'm very confident we've done nothing wrong.
#From The Early Show on CBS:
HARRY SMITH: One of the most polarizing figures from the 2010 election back in the news. Federal prosecutors are now looking at complaints that Republican Senate candidate and Tea Party favorite Christine O'Donnell illegally spent campaign money on herself. We're going to ask O'Donnell about this in a moment. But first, CBS News chief legal correspondent Jan Crawford is in Washington and has details. Jan, good morning.
JAN CRAWFORD: Good morning, Harry. Good morning. Well, you know, it was her, that surprising win in the Delaware Senate primary that put Christine O'Donnell in the national spotlight, and, Harry, that spotlight is still shining bright.
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL, FORMER REPUBLICAN DELAWARE SENATE NOMINEE: No more politics as usual.
CRAWFORD: But Christine O'Donnell was not the usual politician, either.
O'DONNELL IN AD: I'm not a witch. I'm nothing you've heard.
CRAWFORD: She rallied voters angry at the Republican establishment and set a state record by raising more than $7 million before she lost to Democrat Chris Coons in the general election. But throughout the campaign, stories swirled that O'Donnell was using campaign funds inappropriately. Her financial disclosure forms indicated that in the 18 months before the race, she had earned only $5800. Two former staffers have accused her of paying for rent, meals, gas and other personal expenses with political contributions, which is barred under federal election rules. In September, a left-leaning watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, filed a complaint. The U.S. attorney's office in Delaware said it was reviewing the allegations. O'Donnell's campaign manager, Matt Moran, flatly denied the charges: "Let us be clear, there was no impermissible use of campaign funds, period." O'Donnell has acknowledged paying part of her rent with campaign money but says she used her house as campaign headquarters. Now, in a statement Wednesday, she said the allegations were political dirty tricks and designed to undermine Tea Party candidates leading up to the 2012 presidential elections. Harry?
SMITH: Jan Crawford in Washington, thanks. And Christine O'Donnell joins us now to talk about these allegations. She is in Philadelphia this morning. Ms. O'Donnell, good morning.
O'DONNELL: Good morning.
SMITH: Yesterday, in a statement, you called all of this phony. Does that mean it doesn't exist or you just think it's baloney?
O'DONNELL: Well, you know, it's obviously politically motivated. You know, you look at the fact that, first of all, we haven't been notified of any investigation from any federal authorities, other than the FEC. And that's the same complaint that's been circulating for months. You also look at the fact that the Associated Press was called before anyone else. And I think the most salient two points are that Melanie Sloan, the woman from CREW who's leading this charge, is a former Biden staffer who's to the left of most leftists, and their so-called credible witness is a disgruntled volunteer who gave so many people the creeps in 2008 that he was let go and has resorted to posting pornographic comments about me on Facebook. You know, so, this man, who is the backbone of their case, is not a credible witness if you look at his actions right now.
SMITH: Okay. Well, the AP has reported it, Politico now is saying that, in fact, there is an ongoing investigation, said they talked to a high-ranking Republican source in Delaware. Yesterday, also, in your statement, you insinuated that Vice President Biden was behind this. Did you not, also, a couple of years ago, suggest that Vice President Biden or then Joe Biden, Senator Biden, was tapping your phone? Do all roads, in your world, lead to Joe Biden?
O'DONNELL: No, I don't know about that. That might be something that was, that was taken out of context. But we did receive several tips from credible sources that both the Republican and Democrat political establishment in Delaware were joining forces to launch fake accusations and phony lawsuits and continue these, these false accusations to circulate in the media in order to stop this movement in its tracks. I mean, you know, the Delaware Republican Party, the leaders of the Delaware Republican Party, are, also behind some of these complaints because you have to look at what happened.
O'DONNELL: We unseat-
SMITH: Of which we are well aware. Just very quickly.
O'DONNELL: Right, we beat Mike Castle, their anointed candidate.
SMITH: Sure. Last but not least, the thing I'm curious about, because in your own financial statements you're a person of very limited means-
SMITH: -and people want to know - I know you have a book deal now - but over the last 18 months, did you use campaign money to-
SMITH: -pay your rent or pay your personal expenses?
O'DONNELL: Absolutely not. There has been no impermissible use of campaign funds. And, you know, you got to look at how many ridiculous accusations have been taken out of context. Even though it is legally permitted, I have never taken a dime in salary from the campaign.
SMITH: All right.
O'DONNELL: They're taking things out of context like, like expenditures for volunteer appreciations, or, or the rent for our campaign office. This is what's being twisted in order to slander my reputation.
SMITH: Christine O'Donnell, we thank you for your time this morning, appreciate it.
O'DONNELL: Thank you, Harry.
#From the Today show on NBC:
ANN CURRY: Now to politics, Delaware Republican Christine O'Donnell made a big name for herself during her failed U.S. Senate bid. Well, now, she's facing an investigation into her use of campaign funds. We'll speak with Christine in just a moment. But first, NBC's Norah O'Donnell has the latest on this story. Hey, Norah, good morning.
NORAH O'DONNELL: Hey, good morning, Ann. You know, controversy and Christine O'Donnell seem to go hand-in-hand. And now, federal authorities are looking into a complaint that she broke the law by using campaign funds to pay for personal expenses. O'Donnell says it all amounts to a political witch hunt.
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL, FORMER DELAWARE REPUBLICAN SENATE NOMINEE, IN AD: I'm not a witch.
NORAH O'DONNELL: Christine O'Donnell was this year's most colorful and controversial Senate candidate.
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL, ON ABC'S POLITICALLY INCORRECT WITH BILL MAHER: -because I dabbled into witchcraft-
NORAH O'DONNELL: Backed by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party-
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL: You betcha!
NORAH O'DONNELL: -O'Donnell lost the election and is now facing serious allegations.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So if someone were to use official campaign money to subsidize their lifestyle by either paying for rent or non-campaign-related expenses, that would be a violation.
NORAH O'DONNELL: Questions about O'Donnell's use of campaign funds have haunted her in the past.
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL: That's why they're creating baseless accusations-
NORAH O'DONNELL: O'Donnell calls them phony, but it was members of her own party who first raised the issue. During this year's bitter primary battle, Delaware's Republican Party paid for robo calls where O'Donnell's past campaign manager accused her of breaking the law in her failed 2008 Senate bid.
VOICE OF KRISTIN MURRAY, FORMER CAMPAIGN MANAGER OF CHRISTINE O'DONNELL: I found out that she was living on campaign donations, using them for rent and personal expenses.
NORAH O'DONNELL: In September, a watchdog group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission. Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington alleges O'Donnell used her campaign coffers in this year's race like a personal piggy bank. O'Donnell has denied the allegations.
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL: We have been ethical. We have not, I personally have not misused the campaign fund.
NORAH O'DONNELL: And in a new statement, O'Donnell would not confirm a criminal investigation but denounced what she called "thug tactics." "This is simply an establishment trick to stop the anti-establishment Tea Party movement in its tracks. Heck, the presidency is at stake in 2012."
PAT BUCHANAN, REPUBLICAN ANALYST: -and if the FBI and the U.S. attorney in the state of Delaware don't have anything better to do than to investigate whether Christine O'Donnell may have used campaign funds to pay her rent, they ought to go into a new line of business.
NORAH O'DONNELL: Now, legal experts that I talked to point out that even if she is charged, it is a pretty high standard to convict someone. For her part, Christine O'Donnell has not ruled out a future run for office. She raised over $7 million for her campaign, and she's still got about a million dollars left in her campaign coffers, and she's inked a new book deal. Ann?
CURRY: All right, Norah, thanks. Well, Christine O'Donnell is now joining us . Good morning, Christine.
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL: Good morning, good morning, and thank you, Ann, for the opportunity to set the record straight. I mean, I was laughing during most of that open.
CURRY: Okay, well, let me get to my, let me get to my first question, though, because, last night, your campaign office released a statement saying that these reports of an investigation were just rumors, but then, the U.S. attorney's office has since now confirmed that there is, in fact, an inquiry, a reviewing of a complaint made about your campaign spending. Have you been contacted? And what is your response to this news?
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL: No, we still have not been contacted, and I find it very suspicious that the AP was tipped off before my lawyer or any formal notice has been made to my campaign. But you can see right through these, if you look closer. That soundbite that you played from Kristin Murray, who was fired from my 2008 campaign after a week and a half of working on the campaign, these allegations, these false accusations of using funds for rent the CREW complaint states 2009. She worked in 2008 on the campaign, so that soundbite that you played where she said, oh, I saw that she was using it for rent. What, you saw into the future with your crystal ball? I mean, this is exactly why we had to fire her. And if you look closer, this is the same CREW complaint that was filed several months ago by Melanie Sloan, a former Biden staffer from CREW, which is a George Soros, left-wing organization, and their key witness here, this is what's most telling, their key witness was a volunteer from 2008, who was also let go, who has since become so obsessed with this whole thing he's posting pornographic statements abt me on Facebook, so-
CURRY: Now, let me interrupt you here because people don't know what CREW is. CREW is Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and saying that you've misused more than $20,000 worth of campaign funds, quote, "as your own personal piggy bank" for things like rent and gas and meals and even a bowling outing. So let me ask you now point blank, have you ever used any of the campaign funds you have raised - and you've raised millions - have you ever used any of your campaign funds for personal use?
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL: No.
CURRY: Not for rent?
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL: There has, there's, no, the rent they're talking about is the townhouse that is our office, and we've, you know, we housed the staffers who are from down state and out of state. We're talking about volunteer-
CURRY: But weren't you living in that townhouse, Christine?
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL: No, I was using that, here's where the miscommunication comes in. Because my home was vandalized and eggs thrown at my house, I paid the campaign, I paid the campaign money to use the townhouse as my legal residency. Not the campaign pays me. So they're taking it totally out of context, something innocent, they're trying to twist as negative in order to further this slanderous attack.
CURRY: Now, you mentioned Kristin Murray, and I'm going to interrupt you here because I want to get to this other statement made, in fairness to you, your 2008, again it's 2008, but he was your campaign finance director, as you know, David Keegan. He told the New York Times in September - let me just get this out - that he quote, "was consistently trying to hold you back from spending," and that you were quote, "financially completely irresponsible." This seems to be, you know, his statement and Christine's statement and the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, seems to be sort of the source of all of this. What's your response to that?
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL: Right, well, again, he was not a finance director, he was a volunteer who organized a fund-raiser at his home, and he gave so many people on the team the creeps that we had to let him go. By late August, he was not invited to any more campaign events, and it was an ongoing issue in 2008. Again, Kristin Murray, we fired her. She was fired from the Delaware GOP. We tried to give her a chance, and she was fired after a week and a half for incompetence.
CURRY: You're saying this is really disgruntled employees and politically motivated?
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL: Absolutely.
CURRY: But let me ask you this then-
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL: And since then, well, let me finish on this-
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL: -because since then, since then, many people involved with the 2008 campaign, including a real campaign manager, John Mosley, have stepped up to the plate and say, look, I was involved much longer than Dave Keegan, much longer than Kristen Murray, and saw them for what they were. We've had numerous people step up and say look at this for what it is, people involved in 2008. So, you know, again, these are disgruntled employees, and look at the source, check out their credibility. Again, Kristin Murray is saying she saw something. The CREW complaint says that in 2009, I was misusing funds. She worked for us for a week and a half in 2008. So, again, what, she saw it through her crystal ball? Look at this for what it is.
CURRY: Let me just interrupt to ask you this question because I think you're going to want to answer it. You go beyond saying that this is just about disgruntled employees, and, you actually go on to say, your campaign has said that you have been warned of a plan to quote, "crush me with investigations, lawsuits and false accusations so that my political reputation would become so toxic that no one would ever get behind me." So, Christine O'Donnell, who is behind this plan, this conspiracy to get you?
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL: Well, you know, I wouldn't say the word "conspiracy," I mean, look at what's happening. You know, exactly what we were tipped off is coming into play, false accusations. You know, you don't have to-
CURRY: But who do you think is orchestrating this if, in fact, there is a plan, Christine?
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL: Look at the people behind it. Look at, I mean, we've got the Delaware GOP, because we upset the establishment candidate. We beat Mike Castle very soundly because we turned the political process back over to the people. Melanie Sloan used to work for Biden. This is part of the political apparatus who wants to make sure that this anti-establishment movement is stopped in its tracks. They're trying to discredit me. Again, that robo call that you quoted was paid for by the Delaware GOP. The Delaware GOP also launched an investigation arm in arm with the CREW complaint. This is about establishment versus the new grassroots movement that's rising up to put the system on notice and to say, hey, career politicians, citizen politicians are fighting back. That's something that challenges politics as usual and is holding the system accountable, and they don't want that to happen.
CURRY: On that note, we have to leave it. Christine O'Donnell, thanks so much for joining us this morning.
CHRISTINE O'DONNELL: Thank you, Ann, thank you.
-Brad Wilmouth is a news analyst at the Media Research Center