Wednesday's World News Tonight and ABCNews.com led with an exclusive story reporting on the federal investigation into the activities of former Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff expanding to include US House or Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert. The report, by ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross, was based on information provided to ABC News by federal officials with knowledge of the probe.
Ross' report on Wednesday night prompted two official denials by the US Department of Justice, the first stating that "Speaker Hastert is not under investigation by the Justice Department." A second denial, released shortly after midnight, quoted Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, who said "[w]ith regard to reports suggesting that the Speaker of the House is under investigation or 'in the mix,' as stated by ABC News, I reconfirm, as stated by the Department earlier this evening, that these reports are untrue."
Earlier Wednesday evening, when asked about Ross' report, Hastert told ABC News producer Dean Norland that he knew nothing of the report and later, in a statement issued by his communications director, demanded a full retraction from ABC News.
ABC News stands by its story. Ross and his team posted a series of updates to the ABCNews.com "Blotter" reporting that "federal law enforcement" authorities had re-confirmed to them that, although Hastert is not a formal subject or target of the probe, "ABC News accurately reported that Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert is 'in the mix' in the FBI investigation of corruption in Congress."
On Thursday, Hastert did a radio interview with Chicago's WGN and said that he believes the Department of Justice had leaked the story to "intimidate" him in response to his vocal opposition to the recent FBI raid on the Capitol offices of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.): "It's just not true, you know. The Justice Department said there is no investigation, and this is one of the leaks that come out to try to, you know, intimidate people, and we're just not gonna be intimidated on it," he said. Hastert reiterated his demand that ABC News retract its story.
In a letter emailed on Thursday to ABC News, attorney's representing Hastert threatened to pursue legal action. In response to the letter, the New York Times quoted ABC News Vice President Jeffrey Schneider: "We stand by the story…[w]e went back to our sources twice after our first report. They affirmed what we reported and what they had told us."
The "Firestorm" of User Response
On the Ross Blotter on ABCNews.com, the Ross report and subsequent updates drew hundreds of user comments. As has been the pattern on the Ross Blotter, an initial burst of comments questioning or dismissing Ross' report were followed by a heated but more balanced mix of responses, some condemning the exclusive report, some praising ABC News for obtaining the scoop.
A user named Elizabeth wrote:
"I actually love the fact that with all this hoopla ABC has been able to deflect attention from the fact that a Democrat on a key committee is apparently as corrupt as the day is long."
A user named "Patriotic Peep" wrote:
"It looks like ABC News has joined CBS News in publishing a false and unsubstantiated story in order to smear a Rupublican [sic]. The Liberal left media, such as ABC NEWS, will stop at nothing to publish fiction in order to promote their agenda."
In response, a user name David wrote:
"It is evident there is a pattern of corruption in Congress, as evidenced by recent scandals including Abramoff, Cunningham, and Jefferson. It's good to see more investigation into these serious matters that threaten ALL Americans (of both parties)."
Another user commented:
"Further, it is important to realize that Brian Ross is almost single handedly keeping close tabs on this White House/Congress. We should be damn grateful to have someone, anyone helping to expose the crimes being committed in the name of the people of America. He has my support and admiration. We need about 200 more Brian Rosses."
And finally, Louis wrote:
"I wish I could protest ABC by not watching World "News" Tonight, but I stopped watching 7 or 8 years ago. I hope they keeping making up stories like this. Nothing advances the cause of conservatism more than the lies of the drive by media."
ABC News will continue to report on this story.