Scandals are non-stories for 'America's Mayor'
Does Republican presidential hopeful Rudolph Giuliani have some dirt on the press corps? How else to explain the free pass journalists have repeatedly granted him on stories that would threaten to sink less-favored candidates, particularly of the Democratic variety? (See sidebar.)
If Ronald Reagan was the “Teflon president” to whom no bad news would stick, then Giuliani would seem to be the Teflon candidate.
Consider Giuliani’s campaign in South Carolina, perhaps the most important primary in the GOP schedule, and the state on which Giuliani has pinned his hopes for the nomination. In June, Giuliani state campaign chair and South Carolina Treasurer Thomas Ravenel was indicted for conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine (Rock Hill, S.C., Herald, 6/19/07) and forced to step down from the campaign. On September 6, he pled guilty to a federal charge of possession with intent to distribute cocaine (Charleston Post and Courier, 9/6/07).
Ravenel’s campaign job was quickly filled by his father, Arthur Ravenel, who nearly as quickly was revealed to have smeared the NAACP as “the National Association for Retarded People” in 2000 (Austin-American Statesman, 1/9/00).
The news that an important official in the supposed law-and-order candidate’s campaign was moonlighting as a crack dealer was surprisingly hard to find. The Washington Post (6/20/07) covered the bust with a 100-word squib on page A4, mentioning that Ravenel had endorsed Giuliani but failing to mention his key campaign job. The New York Times ran an Associated Press report (6/20/07) on page 11. Neither paper reported on the guilty plea, nor on the elder Ravenel’s NAACP slur.
With so little attention from these agenda-setting papers, it’s unsurprising that Giuliani’s hapless South Carolina campaign received little national coverage: No nightly network news show so much as mentioned it.
Hsu as in ‘shoo’
When the Ravenel indictment was mentioned on NBC’s Meet the Press (9/2/07) by pundit and former Democratic strategist James Carville, anchor Tim Russert dismissed it with one word: “Hsu.” Russert was referring to recently indicted volunteer Democratic Party fundraiser Norman Hsu, as if Hsu’s escapades somehow rendered Ravenel a non-story.
Russert’s equating of the two stories is instructive. Both stories feature scandalous misbehavior: Hsu was a fugitive from a 1992 fraud conviction who, according to a September indictment, bilked investors out of millions more dollars; he’s alleged to have used some of the money to illegally reimburse contributors who made campaign donations to Democrats of Hsu’s choosing—including hundreds of thousands to Hillary Clinton’s campaign (subsequently returned). Ravenel, meanwhile, was a criminal picked for a key role by a candidate billed as the country’s pre-eminent crime-fighter—an irony made richer by the drug-trafficking Ravenel’s pre-arrest tribute to Giuliani as the mayor who “rescued New York City from the cesspool that it was” (Washington Post, 6/20/07).
But reporters found only the Hsu story compelling. The New York Times has run two dozen stories mentioning Hsu and Clinton, including several page-one stories (e.g., 8/30/07, 9/22/07); the Washington Post has published about half as many, with several of those also appearing on page one (e.g., 9/11/07, 9/3/07). Hsu’s story and his connection to Hillary Clinton has been discussed on nine network evening newscasts.
Defining ‘family values’ down?
The South Carolina scandal was just one of the seemingly juicy stories about Giuliani that political reporters didn’t bite at. On June 22, for example, Salon reporters Alex Koppelman and Joe Strupp revealed that Giuliani employs an old friend who has been linked to child sexual abuse:
The reason Placa wasn’t indicted, according to a National Catholic Reporter article (2/21/03), is because the suspended priest, who is also an attorney, expertly stalled his case and those of other accused priests beyond the statute of limitations. Through his office, Giuliani has said he believes Placa is falsely accused, though Placa’s efforts to thwart lawsuits by sex abuse victims are a matter of public record.
Though Placa is not part of the campaign, his relationship to the candidate is extremely close: The two attended the same high school, and were fraternity brothers in college. Placa was best man at Giuliani’s first wedding (which he later helped to annul) and officiated at his second, as well as at Giuliani’s children’s baptisms and both parents’ funerals. In 1985 (6/9/85), the New York Times reported that Placa slept over at Giuliani’s apartment as often as once a week.
The New York Times ran a single article about Placa back in 2003 when he joined Giuliani Partners (2/20/03), but nothing since Giuliani’s campaign launch. Placa earned only a passing mention in a Washington Post report (5/13/07) about the controversial nature of some of Giuliani Partners’ executives and clients. As Extra! went to press, Giuliani’s relationship to Placa received its first mention on a nightly network newscast (ABC World News, 10/23/07).
Likewise, when Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) showed up on a client list kept by accused “D.C. madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey—suggesting that the married senator was not only an adulterer but a lawbreaker as well—the fact that Vitter was a Giuliani campaign spokesperson got only passing mention. Considering the speculation about Giuliani’s own rocky “family values” record—which includes three marriages and an ugly, televised split from his second wife—the Ravenel, Placa and Vitter sagas might have been campaign-enders for another presidential hopeful facing “socially conservative” GOP primaries.
The lack of coverage of Giuliani’s links to a cocaine trafficker, an alleged pedophile and an apparent prostitution client suggests the former mayor’s protective shield may be made of something sturdier than Teflon—perhaps Kevlar is more like it.
The bullets that Giuliani has so far dodged involve more than his dubious associates; they include his own under-scrutinized record, particularly revolving around the September 11 attacks, which his campaign presents as a central reason to vote for him.
In May, Giuliani brushed away a key question about his preparations for a disaster like September 11 by shifting the blame for locating the city’s emergency command post in the World Trade Center complex—which had already been targeted by terrorists in a 1993 bombing—onto Jerome Hauer, a security expert who served as the city’s emergency management director. In a surprisingly tough interview on Fox News Sunday (5/13/07), anchor Chris Wallace asked Giuliani about placing the command center inside a known terror target “even though your director of emergency management . . . recommended that you not put it there.” Giuliani reversed the accusation: “My director of emergency management recommended 7 World Trade Center.”
Wallace came back at Giuliani with documents refuting the former mayor’s claims:
Giuliani responded with a nervous chortle, continuing to claim against the evidence that Hauer, not he, had chosen the site.
For a candidate receiving more than a modicum of media scrutiny, uttering a lie—particularly one that goes to the candidate’s professional competence—would likely have been a defining moment. Yet this national exposure of Giuliani’s “I did not locate that emergency management center” moment received little attention.
Over the summer, as Jerome Hauer began to actively challenge Giuliani on the issue, producing ever more evidence, the story still only garnered scant attention, with the most prominent coverage appearing in the international press. In the London-based Sunday Telegraph (8/5/07) Hauer accused Giuliani of “re-inventing history,” commenting that Giuliani’s controlling and vindictive nature would make him a “terrible president.”
The New York Times, which ran a far tamer story (5/27/07) quoting Hauer about Giuliani’s command center fable, went out of its way to attack Giuliani critics in another story (7/12/07) about September 11. When the International Association of Fire Fighters produced an ad faulting Giuliani for failing to replace inadequate FDNY radio equipment in the years before the attacks, the Times dismissed the union’s reasonably argued political ad as “factually questionable” (FAIR Action Alert, 7/13/07).
A history of free passes
Several other well-documented September 11 stories that emerged in local New York City media also haven’t garnered much attention at the national level—e.g., stories about the former mayor’s deadly missteps during the attacks (Extra!, 5-6/07) and his potentially even more deadly mismanagement of the World Trade Center site cleanup (Extra!, 11-12/06).
Some journalists have noticed that critical journalism about the former mayor doesn’t gain national traction, even though it’s fairly common in New York City. MSNBC Countdown host Keith Olbermann asked Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter (9/11/07) if negative views of Giuliani were making any “impression on the rest of the country, or is he still seen as he portrays himself?” Alter responded:
Why journalists have to wait for political rivals to do their jobs for them, Alter doesn’t explain.
Ted Koppel, former Nightline anchor and currently the managing editor of the Discovery Channel, addressed the same issue on Meet the Press (10/6/07):
When Russert asked Koppel why, the best television journalism’s éminence grise could muster was, “It beats the hell out of me.”
Here’s a possibility: The media’s pro-Giuliani bias, which began with its heavy investment in mythmaking around his September 11 role and his media acclamation as “America’s Mayor,” continues largely because he is hawkish, fiscally conservative and somewhat more centrist on social issues like abortion and gay rights. In other words, the former mayor, despite his myriad scandals, faux pas and nefarious associations, fits the mainstream media ideal for a presidential candidate more closely than any other contender.
There is no need for America’s Mayor to blackmail or coerce members of the press into docility when they go along so willingly.