Accuracy in Media

Two members of the House of Representatives were admonished by the House Ethics Committee last week. One got in trouble for not taking action quickly enough to remove an aide who was accused of sexual harassment; the other because he himself made improper comments to female staffers.

But in CNN’s coverage of the Ethics Committee report on the two instances, it not only tried to paint the offenses as equal in severity with its headline, it reported far more extensively on the first accusation – against a Republican congressman – than the second, which was against a Democrat.

“House Ethics Committee chides Meadows, Kihuen over sexual harassment allegations,” read the headline on CNN’s story by M.J. Lee and Ashley Killough.

It continued the theme in a tweet promoting the story: “The House Ethics Committee admonished two male lawmakers – Republican Rep. Mark Meadows and Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen – related to investigations of alleged sexual harassment.”

It also did so in the lead, which read: “The House Ethics Committee admonished two male lawmakers Friday related to investigations of alleged sexual harassment,” the story began.

It then explained the actual news: “Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina was cited for ‘failure to take prompt and decisive action to deal with the alleged sexual harassment in his congressional office’ and Democratic Rep. Ruben Kihuen of Nevada for marking ‘persistent and unwanted advances toward women who were required to interact with him as part of their professional responsibilities.”

After mentioning Meadows first even though his charge was less severe, Lee and Killough then again dealt first with the Meadows accusation, with emphasis on how vigorous the committee was in its condemnation of Meadows.

“The committee said that its unanimous vote to issue Friday’s report [which pertained to both members] serves as ‘reproval’ of Meadows’ conduct, and it is requiring the congressman to reimburse the Treasury Department for ‘overpayment’ made to the congressman’s former chief of staff, Kenny West, of around $40,000. The committee says the matter will be closed once Meadows pays back the money.”

It then goes on for six more paragraphs on Meadows and his former chief of staff. It says Meadows removed West as chief of staff, made him a senior adviser and continued to pay his salary – that is the $40,000 that must be repaid. It did not mention Meadows cut off contact between the former chief of staff and the alleged victims.

When it finally began to deal with Kihuen, it began by pointing out not what he had done wrong but that he did not seek re-election after the charges that three women had accused him of “’unwanted physical and verbal advances towards them between 2013 and 2017.’”

Most of the writeup of Kihuen is devoted to his quote apologizing and claiming he never intended to make anyone “feel comfortable or disrespected,” but “what matters is how my actions were perceived by the women who came forward.”

“It saddens me greatly to think I made any woman feel that way due to my own immaturity and overconfidence. I extend my sincere apologies to each of these women. Though I do not agree with aspects of the Report, …”

Even reporters for left-of-center outlets noticed. “I don’t understand why so many outlets are reporting on these separate Ethics matters as a single story, because it leads to dangerous tweets & headlines like this. Kihuen allegedly sexually harassed people. Meadows did not, as is implied from the headline. His former staffer did,” tweeted Lindsey McPherson of Roll Call.

Alyssa Farah, now press secretary for Pence but a Meadows staffer at the time, also pointed out the problems.

“This headline is misleading – so let me clear it up,” Farah tweeted. “Meadows never sexually harassed anyone. His former staffer did. I know. I am 1 of the women in the report. I respect the Ethics Cmte but my experience was that Meadows had my back, took me at my word, & respected & protected me.”

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