The scandal that broke in early March regarding alleged sexual misconduct by freshman Representative Eric Massa (D-NY-29) was more than just another example of a Congressman run amuck. It underscored the wildly different treatment by major news outlets of Congressional sex scandals when it comes to Republicans and Democrats, particularly if there are large political gains at stake.
A review of relatively similar Congressional sex scandals over the years indicates that treatment by major newspapers followed a very distinct pattern. The modus operandi appeared to be report the scandal if it involves a Democrat or provide over-the-top, wall-to-wall to coverage if the alleged perpetrator is a Republican — especially if there are major election gains to be made. Consider the following examples.
In July 1983, a House Ethics Committee investigation reported that Congressman Gerry Studds, a Massachusetts Democrat, had engaged in a homosexual relationship with an underage male page that began when the boy was only 16 years old. The page testified to Congressional investigators the affair began when Studds invited the youngster to the Congressman’s apartment, got him drunk by serving him alcohol, and then had sex with the teen.
In the months that followed, Studds periodically had sex with the youth in the Massachusetts politician’s apartment. He even took the teen abroad during a two and one-half week trip to Europe. In a written statement given to Congressional investigators, Studds acknowledged “that he had made sexual advances to two other male pages” in addition to having admitted carrying on a homosexual affair.
When the committee completed its investigation it recommended a reprimand for Studds. The full House ignored the committee’s recommendation and instead chose to levy the more harsh punishment of a public censure.
It was learned in 1989 that Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank hired a homosexual prostitute he had paid for sex to be his live-in “boy toy” lover at an annual salary of $20,000. The prostitute, Steven Gobie, had a long criminal record having been convicted of several felonies, including sex offenses and cocaine possession. Frank later admitted he knew that Gobie continued his work as a prostitute when he hired him. After moving in with Frank, Gobie began using the Congressman’s Capitol Hill apartment as his base of operations to run a homosexual prostitution ring.
Frank went out of his way to “fix” several traffic tickets for Gobie when the pimp was cited while using Frank’s car bearing his Congressional license plates. Frank’s excuse was that Gobie was performing official duties on behalf of the Congressman.
The story broke about Illinois Democratic Congressman Mel Reynolds having had sex with a 16-year old campaign volunteer in August 1994. Reynolds was eventually convicted in both federal and state courts for numerous felonies and was sentenced first to state prison, and then to federal prison.
Reynolds was given executive clemency by Bill Clinton when he left the presidency. Upon his release, Reynolds was hired by Jesse Jackson to work for Operation PUSH.
The story broke in late September 2006 that Republican Congressman Mark Foley of Florida had been sending lurid text messages to Congressional pages. Foley resigned from the U.S. House of Representatives the very next day.
Over the next several weeks numerous stories emerged alleging Foley had sent inappropriate instant messages to several Congressional pages, many of whom reportedly were uncomfortable with the content of the IMs. One news organization claimed a pair of unnamed men, who were formerly pages, had engaged in sexual activity with Foley after they had reached legal age and long after they left the page program.
Then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi offered a resolution to create special House subcommittee to investigate Foley. Instead, the House unanimously voted to refer the matter to the House Ethics Committee.
After prodding by Pelosi, the House Ethics Committee expanded its investigation to include several Republican leaders to ascertain what they might have known of the scandal before it was reported by the press.
Federal and Florida state law enforcement agencies opened criminal investigations into the Foley affair. In two years time, the U.S. House, FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement had all closed their investigations after determining no House rules or federal or state laws were broken.
On June 11, 2007, a police officer occupying a men’s room stall at the Minneapolis Airport alleged the man in the stall to his left displayed signs indicative of someone seeking to engage in sexual activity.
According to the officer, Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho tapped the toe of his right foot several times and then moved his foot toward the officer’s left foot, swiping the officer’s foot in the process. It was alleged Craig then waved his left hand underneath the stall at which time the officer waved his police badge in return.
On August 1, Craig pled guilty to a misdemeanor of disorderly conduct and paid $575 toward fines and fees. On August 27, 2007, Capitol Hill’s Roll Call newspaper broke the story of Craig’s arrest and guilty plea.
Within days, Senate GOP leaders asked Craig to step down from his leadership positions on three Senate committees. On September 1, while professing his innocence, Craig announced he would resign from the Senate effective September 30, 2007. He later withdrew this announcement and instead served out the remainder of his term, retiring in January 2009.
First-term Representative Eric Massa, a Democrat from upstate New York, made a surprise announcement on March 3, 2009 that he would not seek reelection, claiming ill health as the reason. In a matter of hours news broke that the House Ethics Committee was reviewing allegations that Massa had engaged in sexual misconduct with members of his own Congressional staff. Two days later, Massa announced he would resign from the House on March 8.
According to numerous sources, Massa hired only unmarried male staff for his office and as many as five of them were living with the Congressman in his townhouse. It was alleged Massa had groped and made inappropriate sexual comments toward several staff members, and, on one occasion, he suggested he ought to be having sexual relations with one staffer while both were attending a social function.
On a cable TV appearance, Massa admitted to having groped a staffer and “tickled him until he couldn’t breath” during an all-male wrestling session in his townhouse to celebrate his 50th birthday. Word also emerged that Massa allegedly propositioned numerous male Congressional staff members and interns during his one year on Capitol Hill.
In the days after his resignation, several Navy veterans came forward alleging a pattern of sexual misconduct by Massa while he was serving in the U.S. Navy. They claimed Massa groped and made unwanted sexual advances to male crewmembers. In most cases, Massa’s behavior involved subordinates. It was also learned that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi neglected to take any disciplinary action or refer ethics charges even though she was informed of Massa’s inappropriate behavior the previous year. Three years earlier, Pelosi demanded the heads of then-Speaker Dennis Hastert and other GOP leaders for having allegedly ignored warnings about Representative Mark Foley’s lurid text messages.
Shortly after Massa left office, House officials shut-down the Ethics Committee investigation into his behavior and the circumstances surrounding an apparent hostile work environment.
THE DIFFERENCE IN HOW specific press outlets reported these scandals is startling. In the first week after the story broke that Studds had engaged in a homosexual affair with a 16-year-old page and had propositioned other youngsters, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and USA Today published a total of 32 stories and editorials.
One week following the revelation of Frank having a cocaine-addled, male prostitute and homosexual pimp as his live-in lover resulted in 25 articles and stories from the same newspapers.
In the first seven days, these same papers published a mere ten stories and editorials regarding Reynolds engaging in what turned out to be several criminal acts for which he served time in both state and federal prison.
Coverage of Massa’s alleged sexual groping and unwanted advances resulted in about the same amount of news coverage. These newspapers published 29 articles and editorials addressing the scandal.
However, the press treatment of the Republican Craig and Foley affairs was markedly different from that of the four Democrats.
These five newspapers published 58 stories and editorials — about twice as many as published on any one of the Democrats — regarding the Senatorial toe-tapper even though the “victim” was an undercover officer. Craig did plea guilty to a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct; however, there is no evidence — or even an allegation — he sexually assaulted anyone or engaged in any illegal activity.
In contrast, Gerry Studds’ having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old — below the age of consent in the District of Columbia — and later taking the page out of the country to engage in sexual relations was not only deeply repugnant but also illegal.
Similarly, prostitution is against the law in Washington, D.C., even when operated out of the Capitol Hill apartment of Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank.
Likewise, it was illegal for Mel Reynolds to have sex with a 16-year-old girl (the phrase “campaign volunteer” took on a whole new meaning for Reynolds). Fortunately for society and the girl, Reynolds went to prison for his sexual dalliance.
As of this moment, the chapter may not yet be closed on Massa when it comes to his victims. It is not yet known if any of them will pursue civil litigation against the apparent sexual predator.
On the other hand, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who insisted on thorough investigations into the Foley affair appears to have escaped any official scrutiny of her own role in not initiating proper action when she was informed of Massa’s sexual misconduct.
Yet, none of those events rose to the level of “hey-the-public-must-be-warned-about-this-at-all-costs” by the aforementioned newspapers as was the case of the Mark Foley matter. It is apparent the timing of the Foley scandal was critical regarding the amount of press coverage. The Congressional midterm elections were only a month away and control of the U.S. House and Senate was in doubt. The expectation in late September 2006 was that the Democrats were unlikely to gain the minimum 15 seats necessary to retake control of the House.
Foley’s texting of lurid messages caused all five newspapers to hyperventilate as they published a stunning total of 235 articles and editorials hyping the scandal, which was perhaps the least scandalous scandal of them all. The Foley affair is generally credited in turning close mid-term elections into a rout as Democrats captured 31 GOP seats, more than double what they needed to take control of the House.