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Please Recuse Me...A fantasy.

Op-ed by Tim Graham, former director of media analysis, MRC,
as printed in the December 2, 2000 edition of National Review Online

By Tim Graham

One big unacknowledged winner in yesterday's court decisions was Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris, which would make an unacknowledged loser out of the national media, which suggested Harris was too partisan, and should have recused herself from ruling on the election. But the media's hunger for Republican recusals didn't stop there. On November 16, CNN's Bob Franken explained the makeup of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta: "There are twelve members. Seven are Republican-appointed by Republican presidents, five by a Democrat. Of the Republicans, four were appointed by President Bush, father of the presidential candidate, and on the Democratic side, four were appointed by President Clinton of the Clinton-Gore administration." 

Notice how Judy Woodruff doesn't feel a careful balance of ethics, but only thought the Republicans would be too partisan to be trusted: "Bob, on that very point, would the fact that they were, those who were appointed by President George Bush, the father of the candidate vitally interested in the outcome here…would that be cause for any of those justices, or judges, to recuse themselves?" 

Now that the recusal calls are moot, perhaps it would be fun to turn the tables and consider which media entities and personalities might be considered too compromised to cover "Chad Infinitum," as a witty Washington Post headline writer dubbed it. 

1. CBS. In 1982, CBS aired one of its celebrated hatchet jobs, "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," which charged that Gen. William C. Westmoreland conducted a conspiracy to mislead the president, Congress, and the public about the size of the enemy forces during the Vietnam War. Westmoreland filed a $120 million libel suit, and CBS hired the lawyer…David Boies of Cravath, Swaine, & Moore. 

2. Jeffrey Toobin. ABC's resident legal analyst got in trouble in the late 1980s after a brief tenure as a prosecutor in independent counsel Lawrence Walsh's Iran-Contra investigation. Toobin explained: "The Walsh office would take on Reagan and all the President's men, with their contempt for the Constitution, disdain for the Congress, and hostility to the truth, the qualities epitomized by the diversion scheme. We had nothing less than a blank check to uncover and rectify the misdeeds of a corrupt and dishonorable administration. We wouldn't stop until we reached the top." But Toobin stopped as soon as he had enough inside dope for a book, called Opening Arguments (the source of the quote above). Walsh charged him with absconding with government documents. Toobin's lawyer was…David Boies. 

3. Dan Abrams. The Court TV star turned NBC legal reporter is the son of liberal lawyer Floyd Abrams, who led the legal effort by The Nation and other leftist publications to sue Dick Cheney and the Pentagon in 1991 over its press-management policies during the Gulf War. 

4. Pete Williams. To be fair, if Cheney ties are an issue, clearly NBC legal reporter Williams, Cheney's spokesman at the Pentagon, would be a target of any recusal regime. Williams has not faced much criticism from left-wing media critics for conservative bias during his NBC tenure, and his recent reporting on the court fight is indistinguishable from other correspondents in tilting toward pro-Gore legal analysis. 

5. Nina Totenberg. National Public Radio's Supreme Court reporter has always been very chummy with the liberal bloc of the court, and was recently remarried by…Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. How chummy is too chummy? No one's asking. 

6. Katie Couric. Katie is one of the news stars to inaccurately claim that Katherine Harris was a "Jeb Bush appointee." But she should be the last to pick on the partisan appearances of siblings in office, since her sister is Virginia state senator Emily Couric, a thoroughly partisan Democrat who was elected in 1995 by running commercials during local broadcasts of The Today Show. (An unfortunate bout with pancreatic cancer sidelined Emily's embryonic campaign for lieutenant governor.)

7. George Stephanopoulos. Doesn't it all begin and end here? Everyone who thinks partisans should not be involved in deciding this election would put Boy George in a closet. ABC's promotion of this Clinton-Gore spin tool to chief political analyst proves that when it comes to the media, partisan appearances mean absolutely nothing — if you belong to the right party. In the last few days, Stephanopoulos has referred to Al Gore as a noble hero. "Now the General's decided to go out on horseback and really lead the charge himself," he said last week. Today, he praised Gore since "he likes the idea of a noble loss." As if there's anything noble in Gore's refusal to concede before the media concede for him. 

8. Maria Shriver. Forgive me. Maria has not been very visible in this entire contretemps, but she is perpetually able to be a Kennedy (donating to her assorted Democratic relatives without any fuss) and a reporter at the same time. 

So much for fantasy. There are undoubtedly other reporters, editors, and producers who have connections to Al Gore or other Democrats (my colleague Brent Baker has established that there are literally hundreds who've revolved into the media from the Democratic side or vice versa). Recusal is almost unheard of in newsrooms. When media people called for the recusals of Harris or Republican judges, they didn't expect recusals to become reality, but asking for them had its own effect of creating the impression of partisan impurity. It's just another day in the perpetual attempt of the media pot to call the Republican kettle black. 

National Review Online | Back to Op-Ed Archives



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