The media have largely accepted without challenge former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik's claim that he had a "nanny problem" that he had previously failed to disclose to the White House. In not unearthing the details of that claim, the media have allowed Kerik, former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and the Bush administration to escape scrutiny over why the purported problem was not discovered earlier, and over the possibility that the nanny issue was a pretext to avoid a full investigation into far more explosive and embarrassing allegations (Columbia Journalism Review's Campaign Desk outlined the allegations here), which the administration either knew about and dismissed, or failed to uncover in its purportedly thorough vetting process. The media's apparent failure to pursue the details of Kerik's alleged illegal domestic employee has also allowed conservative commentators to blame the "nanny problem" for his withdrawn nomination as homeland security secretary and to lament the difficulty viable candidates meet during a confirmation process.
While some members of the media have suggested that the nanny story may be intended to draw attention away from more serious allegations against Kerik, many significant questions about the purported "nanny problem" remain. And of the reports that have given scant details about that purported problem, several have contained conflicting information over the circumstances of the worker's employment.
On December 10, Kerik withdrew his name from consideration as the Bush administration's secretary of homeland security after admitting on December 8 to an issue of "tax filings regarding a housekeeper and nanny that was employed by me in my house" and on December 10 to "a question with regard to her [the nanny's] legal status in the country." When Kerik withdrew, Giuliani said that although Kerik was "about as qualified as you could possibly be" for the job, "[e]very time [the] immigration issue came up this would be a problem. ... it would have been a bitter, difficult battle that probably would have ended without him getting confirmed." In a December 13 press briefing, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said: "Commissioner Kerik brought to our attention last week that he had an issue that was of concern and he said to us that based on that issue, he was withdrawing his name from consideration. We respect that decision; now we are moving forward."
Some members of the media have suggested that the administration and Kerik may have used the nanny story -- whether true or not -- to avoid more scandalous and embarrassing allegations against Kerik. During McClellan's December 13 press briefing, for example, one journalist noted that some Republicans "say that the nanny problem is a convenient umbrella to disqualify him [Kerik] from consideration, and one that would not necessarily bring into the open the other problem that he had. But it was, in fact, those other problems that were the problem."
The Dallas Morning News raised a similar idea in a December 13 editorial. But at the press briefing December 13, reporters did not ask McClellan any specific questions about Kerik's nanny, and their questions presumed that there was indeed a "nanny problem." Nor did the Morning News editorial establish the facts behind the nanny story before arguing for the importance of cracking down on the hiring of illegal immigrants. As blogger Joshua Micah Marshall noted December 13 in his Talking Points Memo weblog, despite the fact that the nanny story could serve Kerik well by distracting from more serious charges against him, "no specific details about this woman's identity or what she did for Kerik's family have ever been published. Nor have I seen any reports in which a given journalist writes as though he or she was privy to such details, even if he or she chose not to publish them to protect the woman's privacy."
On December 14, Marshall noted that various media outlets have provided conflicting reports on when the nanny purportedly worked for Kerik and when she left the United States. On December 12, the Record (Bergen County, N.J.) reported that the nanny worked for Kerik "in 2003," while The Washington Post reported that the nanny "worked for Kerik for about 18 months and had returned to Mexico six weeks ago." The Los Angeles Times reported that the nanny "worked for him as a housekeeper and nanny for his children. She left the country about two weeks ago, under circumstances Kerik has not described."
Despite the lack of information about Kerik's claim and the contradictory nature of the few details that have been reported, numerous news sources continue to report the story as fact. Even mainstream media reports that noted the other damaging personal and professional allegations against Kerik failed to note the dearth of information about his alleged nanny. Nor did they question the truth of his claim. For example, The Washington Post's December 14 lead editorial, which noted "other questions about Mr. Kerik's record," asserted: "It's not just that Mr. Kerik employed a nanny." In a December 14 article titled "Kerik's nanny tip of iceberg," the Associated Press also accepted the nanny story without challenge, noting: "Bernard Kerik's nanny problem might have proved the least of his troubles."
In a December 12 editorial supporting Kerik's decision, USA Today accepted Kerik's nanny problem as proof of his "questionable judgment." Further, as the nonpartisan Columbia Journalism Review's website The Campaign Desk noted on December 13, USA Today took "at face value the administration's (and Kerik's) contention that it was the illegal nanny alone that did Kerik in," and did not mention Kerik's more severe alleged improprieties.
The mainstream media's apparent failure to pursue the full details of Kerik's alleged nanny problems has allowed conservative pundits to not only join Kerik, Giuliani, and the Bush administration in blaming Kerik's withdrawal solely on the nanny issue, but also to lament how difficult it is for good people to survive a confirmation process. On the December 13 edition of FOX News' Your World with Neil Cavuto, syndicated columnist and FOX News contributor Charles Krauthammer said:
I don't want to defend Kerik as an individual for his offenses that were apparently multiple, but I think we have entered the time when the scrutiny that we give to people who put themselves up for high offices is absurd. You know, we go back to the [former Clinton attorney general nominee] Zoë Baird case, back ten years ago where she had a nanny problem. She would have been a fine attorney general. What we're doing is we are thoughtlessly winnowing the process and eliminating many, many people who would be very good public servants over what are essentially misdemeanors.
Later that evening, on FOX News' Hannity & Colmes, Sean Hannity asked, "Do nanny issues really matter?" Hannity then remarked to radio host and syndicated columnist Linda Chavez, whose nomination as President Bush's labor secretary was scuttled in 2001 over allegations that she had hired an illegal immigrant, "I guess the question here is, are we taking so many qualified people, Linda, out of the running because of perhaps -- and I'm not saying this is a superfluous issue -- but for issues that perhaps may not be that important. Are we too rigid?"