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August 12, 2008

Volume 2, Number 15

TV Waited on Edwards’ Adultery But Leaped on McCain Rumors

ABC, CBS, and NBC all waited for weeks to touch the emerging story of the adultery of John Edwards as the National Enquirer nailed down the story. None even breathed the name of Edwards until he decided to confess. But when the New York Times used far weaker editorial standards than the Enquirer, reporting on February 21 that there might be adultery between John McCain and lobbyist Vicki Iseman, citing hearsay from unnamed former McCain aides who were "convinced the relationship had become romantic," all three networks leaped on the story.

McCain's outraged denials didn't stop the story from erupting on TV the very morning it hit the Times. CBS Early Show host Harry Smith touted "This bombshell report that Republican front-runner John McCain may have had a romantic relationship with a lobbyist who was a visitor to his office and traveled with him on a client's corporate jet." ABC's George Stephanopoulos said it could be deadly. On a scale of one to ten, with ten being fatal, he warned it was a "six or a seven...a damaging story, there's no doubt about that." NBC's Tim Russert said the story would "play out today in a very big way."

By the evening newscasts, the networks began including critics of the Times, but they still played the story up. NBC's Brian Williams began with insinuation: "Good evening. When it hit the Internet last night and the front page of the New York Times this morning, it was the shot heard ‘round the political world. It's a story about a female lobbyist in Washington and her relationship, business and perhaps otherwise, with Senator John McCain."

The networks explained that there was no hard evidence of adultery, just second-hand rumors, but pressed ahead anyway. On ABC, anchor Charles Gibson asserted the lack of an evidentiary standard: "John McCain began his day answering questions about a story in the New York Times alleging an improper relationship eight years ago with a female lobbyist," before cautioning: "The story had no evidence the relationship was romantic, only unnamed sources reportedly claiming they were convinced it might be."

The TV rules are apparently based not on evidence, but on the party label, and a reluctance to give Democrats "a damaging story, no doubt about that."

For details, see the February 22 CyberAlert.


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