Torch Song Silliness

Sen. Bob Torricelli stood by Speaker Jim Wright in 1989 as he decried the "mindless cannibalism" of "ethics wars" over his unique means of wallet-padding. In the 1990s, he staunchly supported Bill Clinton throughout his overboiling cauldron of scandals - financial, political, and sexual - and still professes his ardor for the man's greatness.

But Bob Torricelli doesn't have one argument the other men used (implausibly): it can't even be suggested he was ruined by the media.

It's true that the local reporting on WNBC in New York, culminating in a 38-minute interview with Torricelli's human ATM, David Chang, played a part in his plummeting polls. But throughout the ordeal the nation's Big Three news networks refused to get excited over Torricelli's scandalous behavior. Only NBC, just days before Torricelli withdrew, had a sentence that concretely underlined his corruption: "Government sources say over five years, Torricelli spent three times more cash than he withdrew from his personal accounts."

Let's rewind through the sparse coverage of Torricelli's ethics the last two years. On April 18, 2001, the New York Times reported that he was being accused of taking personal gifts. In fine Clinton form, Torricelli responded, "I have never, ever done anything at any time to betray the trust of the people of the state of New Jersey. Never!" NBC aired a story, making the obvious political point that if Torricelli was forced to resign, it would tilt Senate control back to the Republicans. ABC and CBS aired nothing.

A few weeks later, on June 5, after Jim Jeffords went party-swapping, CBS decided to sing a Torch song, employing a too-typical Dan Rather introduction: "Attention is shifting to one member of the new majority, Democrat Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, and the possibility of what he sees as a Republican-motivated and -led criminal investigation of him could lead to yet another change of power back to the Republicans." In one of his last reports, Phil Jones relayed that Torricelli "believes the Republican-controlled Justice Department is out to get him," and that they were planning to ask for a special counsel to go around the hopeless bias of Ashcroft & Co. Once again, this was somehow a GOP plot.

Fast forward to January 3, 2002. The supposedly partisan Justice Department announced it wouldn't file criminal charges. All three anchors mentioned this development in a couple of sentences. There was nothing more on the Torch beat until July 31, when the Senate Ethics Committee severely admonished Torricelli for his conduct. Yet again, only NBC mentioned it that night. Four nights later, when Peter Jennings wasn't hanging around, ABC political director Mark Halperin did file a story. CBS aired nothing. Only NBC returned to the story in September, with Lisa Myers summarizing the WNBC findings, before Torricelli pulled the plug.

There was no network investigation a la Cheney. No one spent any time detailing what the ethics committee had found that caused the "severe" language. The 3-3 panel couldn't be dismissed by the Dan Rathers of being "Republican-motivated and -led," either. Despite polls going south after the ethics committee ruling, the networks stayed quiet. These are the same networks that began dark intimations of "Newt Incorporated" with the first whiff of a Republican majority in 1994.

Typically, other Democratic outrages are going mostly ignored this fall. While Democrats in New Jersey fought to remove a healthy Torricelli from the ballot, Democrats in Hawaii touted the ballot-worthiness of deceased Rep. Patsy Mink, with Sen. Daniel Inouye suggesting that everyone vote for Mrs. Mink as a gesture of affection and gratitude. Just like Missouri in 2000, they're out selling the message that a dead Democrat beats a living Republican any day. None of the networks have reported this. Only CBS "Sunday Morning" reported Mrs. Mink's passing.

In Iowa, Sen. Tom Harkin's campaign leaked a transcript of a strategy session held by Republican opponent Greg Ganske. What a Richard Nixon move: Harkin was in minimal danger of losing, but they couldn't resist the slime. The political backlash caused Harkin's numbers to plummet and aides were forced to resign, but only CBS gave it any evening news play: two sentences. (ABC's George Stephanopoulos did report it on "This Week.")

Maybe the Torricelli episode can spur the networks to contemplate that it's unfair to bombard the White House with cheesy charges like the supposed Halliburton scandal, and then yawn when a Democratic senator is caught spending three times his personal holdings. But I doubt it.