For most of the last year, Rep. John Murtha has been placed on a pedestal by the major media, painted in red, white and blue hues as a "hawkish" Democrat who courageously declared we needed to "redeploy" (read: withdraw) from Iraq.
The oohs and aahs began last November. "All of Washington listened," announced CBS’s Bob Schieffer, since, "on military matters, no Democrat in Congress is more influential."
Murtha’s words "followed President Bush halfway around the world," boasted NBC anchor Brian Williams. CNN’s Bill Schneider declared Murtha’s withdrawal mantra as the "Political Play of the Week," suggesting it might turn out to be a tipping point just as delicious as Walter Cronkite’s call to get out of a "stalemate" in Vietnam.
Months before the midterm elections, this new media-anointed hero announced he would run for the post of House majority leader under a potential Speaker Pelosi. During that time, Democrats were hammering a so-called Republican "culture of corruption," with Pelosi pledging to "drain the swamp" of the majority’s ruinous ways in Washington. But the national media didn’t exactly wonder how Pelosi would square fighting corruption with installing someone thoroughly tainted with that odor of corruption — John Murtha.
In January, the Cybercast News Service reported a story that made Murtha’s ethical problems clear. In a 1980 video of the FBI’s Abscam sting investigation, Murtha told the FBI agents posing as Arabs that he wouldn’t take money upfront, but might "change his mind" later "after we’ve done some business."
In the end, he was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator. He wasn’t convicted of a crime, or even charged, but the tape makes clear that Murtha was amenable to making corrupt deals if the right circumstances emerged.
So what did the media do? They largely ignored these charges as they touted Murtha’s plausibility as a voice against the war. On the networks, Murtha was interviewed as a great sage, and Abscam went unmentioned. In June on NBC’s "Meet the Press," Tim Russert discussed Murtha’s run for the House Democratic leadership, but when it came to ethics, Russert only mentioned that "some Democrats have pointed out that you were just one of four Democrats to vote against lobbying reform." Nada on Abscam.
As the elections drew closer, Murtha gained more interviews, but ethics questions were rare. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos was the only broadcast-TV interviewer who used the word "Abscam" before the election, on his Sunday show on Oct. 1: "I am starting to hear from Democrats who worry that having you as leader will send the wrong message. They point to your involvement in the Abscam scandal two decades ago." Murtha claimed they showed him the money and he said he didn’t want it. That’s not exactly what the tape showed, and he knew it, of course.
CBS was especially kind to Murtha late in the game. On the Oct. 29 "Face the Nation," Schieffer was still on the boosters’ bandwagon. He offered no question on the Democrat leadership race or Abscam, just antiwar softballs such as: "We keep hearing from people who say the American military is turning against the war. Now, you have a lot of contacts in the military community. Do you think there’s anything at all to that?"
Even after the election, with Democrats ascendant, CBS anchor Katie Couric was still syrupy with Murtha, lamenting that he had been called a "defeatocrat" and a "liberal turncoat." She asked, "Did you feel vindicated last Tuesday?"
Then, suddenly, the day after Couric’s shoeshine, the front page of The Washington Post raised the Abscam scandal and warned that Murtha was damaged goods, and that Pelosi’s backing of Murtha clashed with her vow to make this the most ethical Congress ever. The Post editorial page also endorsed his opponent, Maryland’s Steny Hoyer, for majority leader. The next day, Post columnist Ruth Marcus began her anti-Murtha column: "The videotape is grainy, dark and devastating."
NBC’s Lisa Myers reported a story with the old videotape, complete with pro- and anti-Murtha soundbites on his ethics. They were alone among the major networks. CBS aired nothing on the race before it was over. ABC only aired two perfunctory morning-show anchor briefs and an evening mention by George Stephanopoulos before Murtha was defeated. On the night of Murtha’s loss, both ABC and CBS discussed how it didn’t look good for Pelosi, but even then, neither could be prodded to mention Abscam.
In the final analysis, the networks pulled out this historical chestnut only when it became unavoidable, and certainly not while it might help dreaded Republicans in the midterms. The question they’ve yet to ask, however, is this: What right does Speaker Pelosi have to denounce the GOP "culture of corruption" when she tries to appoint, as the second most powerful leader in the House, and her top lieutenant, a clearly corruptible man?
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