Topic: Media

Respect, Credibility, and Congressman Murtha

An unethical and irresponsible columnist exposes the news media’s unethical and unprofessional failure to inform the public that a prominent political figure is unethical and untrustworthy.

This story is already depressing, and that’s just the lead-in.

Robert Novak, the columnist whose irresponsible decision to reveal Valerie Plame’s secret status as a C.I.A. agent has ruined lives and reputations while costing taxpayers millions of dollars, suddenly recalled and revealed that Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha had been an unindicted co-conspirator in the 1978 ABSCAM scandal. ABSCAM was the F.B.I sting operation that filmed one U.S. Senator and several Congressmen accepting what they thought were bribes from a fictional construction company’s lobbyist. Murtha, who has been lionized by the media and Iraq war opponents for his vigorous advocacy of U.S. withdrawal, avoided indictment because the F.B.I. tape showed him declining the bribe while encouraging further “negotiations” and emphasizing the value of his influence on the legislature. In other words, he was almost certainly angling for more money, a rare example of greed masking outright corruption.

Why is this significant? It is significant because when Murtha suddenly broke his 32 year long pattern of maintaining a low profile in Congress to attack the Administration’s handling of the Iraq conflict, he was presented to the public as a respected sage with a distinguished war record. That continues to be the image carried by the press, emboldening Murtha to announce his intent to run for House Minority Leader while becoming ever more strident in his war policy criticism. Murtha, by the standards of the Ethics Scoreboard, should not even be in Congress. His Pennsylvania constituency has voted him into office for decades despite clear evidence that his vote could be bought for the right price.( When the Democrats on the House Ethics Committee refused vote to censor or discipline Murtha for his ABSCAM involvement, the committee’s counsel resigned in protest.) Murtha’s lack of the integrity required of a U.S. Congressman is preserved on film.

In 2006, Murtha’s war record has been used effectively by both the press and his party to elevate the credibility of his arguments. Although Murtha himself implies that this is justified because military service gives him some special expertise, the reason his veteran’s status gives him credibility is the public trust and respect it creates. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the former GOP California Congressman whose epic bribe-taking spree recently resulted in a prison sentence, has a far more impressive military record, but nobody is especially interested in his opinions about the Iraq campaign or anything else. Cunningham is a criminal betrayer of public trust, and this decisively obliterates whatever respect and trust his military record might otherwise support. Murtha, unlike Cunningham, never actually accepted a bride from a lobbyist (as far as we know). He is certainly entitled to a greater level of trust and respect than “the Dukester, ” but how much more depends on how much an individual respects and trusts a congressman whose response to a bribe offer was not, “Get out of my office! I will report this conversation to law enforcement officials and the press!” but rather, “Not now, but let’s continue to try to work something out.” For many of the Pennsylvanians who voted for Murtha when he was up for re-election in his district in 1980, the fact that he is political servant who will consider a bride apparently doesn’t matter to them that much. To the Ethics Scoreboard and perhaps you, it matters a lot. There are plenty of honest and trustworthy individuals who have informed opinions on the Iraq war, thanks. I’ll listen to them, and ignore the views of Michael Jackson, Barry Bonds, Ann Coulter, Woody Allen, Michael Moore, Brad Pitt, Tom DeLay, William Jefferson and yes, Robert Novak, as well as dozens of other figures in and out of politics whose integrity I have good reason to question.

It’s true, of course, that Rep. Murtha’s position on the war may be logical and wise. It’s also possible that Michael Jackson or Woody Allen have brilliant insights on U.S. foreign policy, but in the forum of national debate, the actual quality of an individual’s opinion is not what determines its impact on public opinion. That is why the media’s failure to give the public the full story, good and bad, on John Murtha’s career is unethical and inexcusable. His ABSCAM conduct is considerably more relevant to his credibility than his military record: it came later, and it involved his work in Congress. The public, whether the ABSCAM embarrassment is a significant factor in its judgement of Murtha’s views or not, has a right to know about it; indeed, the public cannot assess Murtha without knowing about it. The media, once again, failed in its core duty: telling the American people what they need to know. Media bias? The Scoreboard will leave that argument to the conservative bloggers and Sean Hannity. Robert Novak is certainly no closet liberal; he’s old enough to remember ABSCAM, and he only just recalled Murtha’s role in it. The Scoreboard will assume that Novak’s colleagues did not intentionally burnish Rep. Murtha’s credibility by sly omission, but were simply, as is too often the case, lazy, inept, and unprofessional.

That’s bad enough.

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