As the far-Right solidifies its stranglehold on all branches of the federal government, more than ever Americans need an aggressive media to demand accountability in a system certain to produce abuses without. And yet, so much of the media appear to be professionally neutered by the results of a three-decade propaganda war to delegitmize their work as somehow part and parcel of a liberal conspiracy. The inability to paint an accurate portrait of Ronnie Earle and Tom DeLay is just the latest in a long line of stories in which the Right has benefited from the media’s misplaced generosity to those who exercise power on behalf of this right-wing juggernaut.
Fearing that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay would likely be indicted by a grand jury as part of an ongoing investigation by Texas’ Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle, Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives recently employed their legislative muscle to vote to overturn an ethics rule—one they, themselves helped to put in place under Democratic leadership in 1993—requiring any leader or committee chairman who had been indicted on a felony charge to relinquish their post. The move was commonplace only in its hypocrisy, and serves as a harbinger of ‘values’ and ‘personal responsibility’ we are likely to see in the future.
Much of the punditocracy—where these same conservatives hold sway—fell into lockstep with the Republicans, charging that DeLay was the victim of a politically-inspired witch hunt. They charge Earle–without the benefit of any evidence of wrongdoing on his part, of course–with the crime of being is a Democrat. FOX News employees quickly closed ranks with the conservative spin, as correspondent Brian Wilson termed Earle an "intensely partisan Democratic district attorney." Conservative US News and World Report, pundit Michael Barone appeared on the network to insist that Earle was a "partisan Democrat who has done some really rotten, political prosecuting." What these talking heads omit out is the fact that that fully twelve of the fifteen politicians Earle has prosecuted over the years were, in fact, Democrats.
As the researchers at Media Matters have helpfully noted, much of the media have followed Fox’s lead in this case, (as with so many others) In October, CNN’s Lou Dobbs and CNN congressional correspondent Ed Henry cherry picked their way through a conversation about the indictments, during which Dobbs said to Henry: ""I think it’s incumbent upon us as well, Ed, to point out that the prosecutor in Houston [Earle] is a Democrat." Henry concurred, adding: "[H]e [Earle] went after Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) several years ago, and that case fell apart."" In addition to this, correspondents for NBC, CBS and ABC all repeated the partisan witch hunt line verbatim, helping to plant the seeds of doubt in the public mind about the merit of Earle’s investigation, yet again quietly debunking the myth of the media’s liberal bias.
On the New York Times op-ed page, conservative pundit David Brooks sought to sugar coat the House with the unsourced observation that the Republicans who voted for the special treatment for DeLay "hated the whole exercise," as they "sat in a conference room hour after hour wringing their hands." But did they? Alas, such evidence is awfully hard to find. Republican leadership arranged a voice vote in which members are invited to "yea" or "nay" in unison. Such votes leave no written record, and thus no individual accountability. Blogger Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo launched a campaign to challenge readers to call their Representatives to find out how they voted on the rule change and a few local papers, including the Chicago Tribune and the Arizona Republic, went to the trouble to query congressmen as well. But these were few and far between, with most of the media having concluded that this part of the story is of little interest to anyone.
Given the weakness of the "partisanship" charge, the attempt to paint Earle as some sort of local zealot is no more accurate. His office has been ranked by the National District Attorneys Association as operating one of ten best in the country. Also largely unreported in most accounts of DeLay’s troubles is the relevant fact, a mere coincidence, that three of his top political aides have already been indicted on related charges of illegally raising political funds from corporations in 2002. Much of those funds were funneled into the Republican takeover of the Texas legislature. These indictments were handed down following a 21-month investigation by three separate grand juries into the activities of DeLay’s political action committee, Texans for a Republican Majority. And as Earle himself has been forced to point out to clarify what out to be Legal Reporting 101, "law requires a grand jury of citizens, not the prosecutor, to determine whether probable cause exists to hold an accused person to answer for the accusation against him or her."
When faced with unchecked power in government, all citizens have to protect themselves is the rule of law. When lawmakers treat its function as a matter for personal protection rather than equal application, our liberties are truly in danger. Someone might think of alerting the media; after all, according to the First Amendment, that falls in their job description.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. Paul McLeary is a New York writer.