Thursday, October 6, 2005

It took the New York Times 16 days to acknowledge the theft of the personal credit report of Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, Maryland Republican, by a pair of operatives working for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, led by Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York.

Yesterday, the Times addressed the fraudulent act in an A-section news story — on page 28 — headlined “Democrats are on defensive in Maryland state race,” leading with the fact that Republicans are hoping to “exploit potential legal problems that Democrats are now suddenly facing in that race.”

The clandestine nature of the theft has a whiff of Watergate to it, but not the press coverage to match.

The two staffers used Mr. Steele’s Social Security number to obtain the records, reportedly seeking evidence of damaging debts. The first black elected to statewide office in Maryland, Mr. Steele is expected to run for the U.S. Senate next year.

The incident — the subject of a felony investigation by the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington — took place in July and first was reported Sept. 20 by the Associated Press.

To date, the theft has been covered by only four major dailies — The Washington Times, The Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun and Newsday — along with Roll Call, the Daily Standard, the weekly Montgomery County Gazette and McClatchey News Service.

There have been no splashy investigations on broadcast networks or news channels, and limited editorial indignation over press indifference.

“Maryland is not, say, New York or California. Perhaps news editors reason that most Americans haven’t heard of Mr. Steele,” Brent Baker of the Media Research Center (MRC) said yesterday.

The center has tracked such selective coverage elsewhere; an online poll of MRC readers, for example, found that 93 percent agreed the mainstream news “applied a liberal double-standard in their coverage of Bill Bennett and his abortion comments.”

Meanwhile, quips like “Creditrategate” and “Chuckaquiddick” have surfaced among Web loggers. Syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin called the theft “Democratic dumpster diving,” while Investor’s Business Daily theorized that a “media firing squad” would have assembled if staffers for Sen. Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, had snitched personal information from Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat.

Blair Lee, a political analyst for Maryland-based WBAL Radio and the Gazette, called it “Steelegate,” asking, “The media is all over this illegal act, right? Wrong. So far, the media’s take has been: (1) hey, the two defendants are only in their 20s (like that’s relevant?) and (2) everybody in politics does this kind of stuff.”

An online Carolina Journal editorial noted, “The media have a long history of playing defense attorney for Democrats and prosecutor for Republicans,” calling the dearth of Steele coverage “a good example.”

The theft drew only a single editorial from The Post on Sept. 23, which observed that Republicans were also guilty of “political dirty tricks.”

• Contact Jennifer Harper at or 202/636-3085.

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