Do Rocky, Post give Dems a break?

Analysis of two recent scandals says they do

March 22, 2008

by David Kopel

A common complaint of conservative media critics is that the mainstream media downplay the party affiliation of a Democrat who is involved in a scandal, while playing up the party identification of a Republican in a scandal.

So I decided to see how the Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post had treated two recent scandals, one involving New York Democratic Gov. Elliot Spitzer and the other involving Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Foley. Spitzer, of course, resigned March 12 after a federal investigation suggested that he had multiple liaisons with a prostitute. Foley resigned in September 2006 after the revelation that he had sent salacious text messages to congressional pages, some of whom had been minors at the time.

The Foley citation counts are from the ALLNEWS database on Westlaw, which has most Rocky and Post articles, but has been known to have some omissions; for Spitzer, I supplemented Westlaw with searches of the newspaper Web sites for articles during the week of March 10-15, and counted articles found on the Web sites, even if they did not appear in the print editions of the papers. I counted all articles, including editorials and Op-Eds (which don't affect the totals much), and did not count letters to the editor.

The first data set is for each politician in the years before their escapades became public.

From 1995 through mid-2006, Foley was mentioned in 11 stories in the Rocky, all of which noted that he is a Republican. He appeared in nine stories in the Post, all but one of which mentioned his party.

In the past three years (prior to the scandal), there were 23 Post articles which did not indicate Spitzer's party, and four of which did. During that same period, Spitzer's party was named in five Rocky articles, and not identified in 67. One reason that Spitzer appeared so much more often in the Rocky was that the Rocky national business briefs included many short items about his work as New York attorney general.

The vast majority of pre-scandal Spitzer stories involved enforcement actions from his attorney general days, often with an angle related to a Colorado company, such as the mutual fund firm Janus Capital, or as a sideline to the Joe Nacchio-Qwest coverage. In the stories, there was little or no questioning of Spitzer's very aggressive tactics or his prosecutorial judgment. In general, these stories portrayed Spitzer favorably, as a law enforcement official acting against alleged corporate abuses.

Arguably, the omissions could be seen as anti-Democrat bias, although the more plausible explanation is party identification is considered a more important fact about a congressperson (such as Foley) than about an elected law enforcement official in another state.

Although the omission of Spitzer's party from any particular article can be justified, the Rocky and the Post let down their readers by running so many articles about Spitzer with so rarely a mention of his party.

How about coverage after the scandals broke?

Foley's text messages had been known to some insiders for months, but their release was delayed until late September 2006, for maximum influence on the mid-term elections. Between late September and the end of 2006, there were 20 Rocky stories which indicated that Foley was a Republican, and 14 which did not.

In the Post, 25 stories revealed Foley's party, and eight did not. So both papers mentioned Foley's party more often than not, while the Post did so at a higher rate.

For coverage of Spitzer last week, the difference between the papers was astonishing. Seven stories in the Post (including print and online) said that Spitzer was a Democrat, and 15 did not.

In the Rocky last week, only three stories noted Spitzer's party, and 24 did not. Spitzer's party didn't make it into the print edition of the Rocky until the Thursday story covering his resignation the day before.

So during the scandal coverage, both papers mentioned Spitzer's party at a rate far below the rate of mentioning Foley's party.

It is easy to identify some stories where Spitzer's party was irrelevant, such as biographies of his call girl. But it is difficult to defend the word "Democrat" being omitted from some of the other stories, such as the Spitzer biography in the March 10 online Rocky.

The overall results give some credence to suspicions about media bias in party ID in scandal stories. On the other hand, it should be remembered that even in the pre-scandal days, Spitzer was identified as a Democrat much less often than Foley was identified as a Republican.

In 2007-'08, mentions of Foley's party (two of the six Post articles, and one of the five Rocky articles) has dropped, as his name has become a shorthand for a genre of misconduct. Time will tell if "Spitzer" becomes a concise way to say "faithless hypocritical bully."


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