Massa vs. Ensign

Steve Benen is scratching his head over WaPo’s disparate treatment of two political scandals.

eric-massa-john-ensign-400According to a Nexis search, the newspaper has run 26 stories that mention Eric Massa since March 1. Some of those articles were Style-section pieces that mentioned Massa in passing, but most are substantive news stories — some on the front page — about his alleged misconduct.

Now, let’s contrast this coverage with the Post’s reporting on Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, who is the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation into his humiliating sex-ethics-corruption scandal.

While the paper has run 26 stories that mention Massa since March 1, it’s run 12 stories that mention Ensign since Jan. 1 — and only five deal with his scandal. The Post’s editorial board has only mentioned Ensign once during that time, and that was to praise him for supporting public funding of private schools.

The Post is heavily invested in researching a scandal involving a former House member, but it’s choosing to ignore a scandal involving sitting senator. Massa drew scrutiny from the House ethics committee; Ensign is being investigated by the FBI.

To Steve’s commenters, the answer is obvious:  Republicans are held to lower standards by the press, who bend over backwards to prove they’re not guilty of liberal bias.

But that explanation doesn’t hold up very well. Recall that the recent news of Republican officials expensing trips to bondage clubs got plenty of coverage.  Or, looking into the not-too-distant past, how much buzz the Mark Foley scandal sustained.

A better explanation may be that one is a better story than the other.

First, Massa’s scandal is more salacious and unusual than Ensign’s.   A male politician cheating having an affair with a female staffer just isn’t as shocking as a male politician making numerous unwanted advances on his very young male underlings. This is especially true in the post-Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky era.

Second, Ensign’s scandal is old news.  The most shocking revelations came last summer, long before the window Steve surveyed.  Comparing breaking news — where more juicy gossip came out on a near-daily basis — with a stale story doesn’t make much sense given the vagaries of the news cycle.

Massa’s story hasn’t had the legs of the Tiger Woods scandal, because he was an obscure Congressman and Woods is an international household name.  But they share the features that the media love:  Novelty and an ever-expanding storyline.   It’s a story that keeps on giving.

Of course, if the FBI decides that Ensign did something worthy of criminal charges, I’d expect WaPo to be all over it.  But, until then, it’s just a dog bites man tale.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Media, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Stan says:

    Maybe Ensign’s very public Christian piety had something to do with the coverage. Ever hear of Tartuffe?

  2. Triumph says:

    Recall that the recent news of Republican officials expensing trips to bondage clubs got plenty of coverage.

    Why do you refer to this as a scandal?

    Nothing illegal occured and, frankly, this upped he RNC’s cred in a lot of circles. Anyone against lesbian bondage is fricking feminist commie.

  3. Franklin says:

    Second, Ensign’s scandal is old news.

    Seriously, news has the word “new” in it. Why is Benen complaining about this? Does he also complain that there has been no coverage of Watergate in today’s paper?

    I used to enjoy Benen’s writing when he ran The Carpetbagger. Now he’s nothing but a hack and I haven’t been to Washington Monthly in at least a year.

  4. Steve Plunk says:

    Did Ensign’s misdeeds rise to the level of employee harassment or was it consensual? Believe it or not it makes a huge difference.

    Massa’s ickiness makes his train wreck all the more interesting for drive-bys with prurient interests.

  5. sam says:

    Massa’s not nearly as interesting as the Tea Party candidate for governor of New York, Carl Paladino.

  6. Steve Plunk says:

    Sam, Paladino is certainly a cad but the Tea Party does not have any candidates. I read the link and found no quotes from any Tea Party officials or members. A loose group like the Tea Party may have some members endorsing him but that’s a far cry from saying he’s a “Tea Party candidate”. This isn’t another attempt to besmirch the Tea Party is it?

  7. anjin-san says:


    Paladino is a central figure in the tea party movement. If you want to throw him under the bus now that he has been revealed as a complete slimeball, that is fine, but lets not pretend that that is not what you are doing.

  8. sam says:


    Sam, Paladino is certainly a cad but the Tea Party does not have any candidates.

    Steve, live by the press, die by the press — the dude’s been identified with the Tea Party from the jump, and no Tea Party person, heretofore, has said “He ain’t one of ours”. He certainly identifies himself as a Tea Partier:

    The Buffalo waterfront served as the focal point for one of America’s most talked about political forces Monday as more than 1,000 “tea party” types gathered at Erie Canal Harbor to protest everything from high taxes to government intrusion to the new health care reform plan.

    The “Tea Party Express,” a three-bus convoy that began last month in Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s Nevada hometown and worked its way across the nation, stopped at the Buffalo waterfront for an almost three-hour rally. It all culminated with tea party hero Carl P. Paladino — a Republican candidate for governor — reiterating his “mad as hell” mantra against Albany. [From Palidino for the People, Apr. 13, 2010]

  9. just me says:

    Well I think you nailed it on the two points-the Massa scandal is easy to understand and is definitely on the salacious end of the scale. But I also agree that a better comparison would be the number of articles/news stories when Ensign’s scandal broke.

  10. Marty says:

    Are we sure this isn’t just an east coast-west coast thing? There’s certainly a lot more “media density” surrounding Massa’s district than the entire state of Nevada, I would guess.

  11. Steve Plunk says:

    Sam, Using Paladino’s press release is ridiculous. Come up with something better before smearing the Tea Party. The attempt to associate bad people with the Tea Party is looking desperate.

    anjin, Please explain what has made Paladino a “central figure” in the Tea Party movement. His own claims? His speaking at a Tea Party event? It takes more than that to make him a “central figure”.