As the story of the Bush administration’s firing of eight federal prosecutors snowballs into scandal—complete with calls for a special prosecutor, the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and a possible under-oath subpoena for one-time presidential mastermind Karl Rove—we should pause for a moment and examine how the story finally came to its critical mass. It began all too typically with newspaper reports picked up by blogs, and a blind eye from cable and network TV—apparently in the hopes it would go away and leave them alone to cover Anna Nicole Smith and “American Idol,” but, um, wouldn’t go away thanks to diligent newspaper reporting and that pesky liberal blogosphere.
Time magazine’s Washington bureau chief, Jay Carney, offers a mainstream media mea culpa that is both welcome and instructive:
“When this story first surfaced, I thought the Bush White House and Justice Department were guilty of poorly executed acts of crass political patronage. I called some Democrats on the Hill; they were ‘concerned,’ but this was not a priority. The blogosphere was the engine on this story, pulling the Hill and the mainstream media along. As the document dump proves, what happened was much worse than I’d first thought. I was wrong. Very nice work, and thanks for holding my feet to the fire.” This admission once again blames the Bush administration for “poorly executed acts” rather than its standard operating procedure, which is deliberate deception in the service of ideological obsession. And it comes literally months after Josh Marshall and his team at TPM Muckracker began digging into this story following the dismissal of seven federal prosecutors in mid-January—the majority of whom received positive performance reviews from the Justice Department even though they were supposedly ousted for “performance issues.” The first and perhaps highest-profile dismissal was San Diego U.S. Attorney Carol Lam, who led the investigation that sent corrupt Representative Duke Cunningham (R-CA) to jail. This led to immediate attention in local papers and more national press attention in the next few days as more prosecutors were targeted.
Further questions arose when their replacements seemed to be politically appointees, including one, Tim Griffin, with close ties to Karl Rove. McClatchy Newspapers picked up that story and nailed the first big scoop with an article in late February on the political nature of the firing. A follow-up article went on to reveal that Senator Pete Dominici (R-NM) and Representative Heather Wilson (R-NM) had encouraged U.S. Attorney Daniel Iglesias to speed up indictments in a corruption case against several state Democrats just before the 2006 elections. He refused; Domenici complained to the White House, and months later Iglesias was out of a job. Other U.S. attorneys reported similar occurrences to the press and in testimony to House and Senate committees that began investigating the incident. One fired attorney, John McKay, who was the target of accusations that he failed to pursue voter fraud, would later tell reporters “there was no evidence, and I am not going to drag innocent people in front of a grand jury.” This all comes on the heels of an ongoing study that reveals partisan profiling in political investigations by Bush administration justice officials. The widening media and congressional attention led first to Justice Department officials who planned and executed the firings, and then to complicit White House officials—including former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. Investigators also discovered a provision slipped into the Patriot Act reauthorization in 2005 that would allow the White House to replace U.S. attorneys without Senate confirmation. The final straw was Tuesday’s release of documents demanded by House leadership, including—as reported in yet another McClatchy article—the following revelation about the political motivation behind the Bush administration’s decision: “In an email dated May 11, 2006, [recently resigned Department of Justice Chief of Staff Kyle] Sampson urged the White House counsel’s office to call him regarding ‘the real problem we have right now with Carol Lam,’ who was then the U.S. attorney for southern California. Earlier that morning, the Los Angeles Times reported that Lam’s corruption investigation of former Rep. Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham, R-CA, had expanded to include another California Republican, Rep. Jerry Lewis.” Given the seriousness of these allegations, you’d think they would have demanded a considerable chunk of the evening news, to say nothing of the cable shout-fests. Alas, you’d be wrong.
According to the Tyndall report, a Web site that monitors the three major nightly news broadcasts, no network news broadcast had covered the story by Monday with the exception of a CBS story on March 7. In other news, ABC found time for a human interest piece on members of Congress who live together—promoted as if they had discovered a cure for cancer by the smart boyz on “The Note”—while NBC broke the startling news story that a new season of maple syrup was right around the corner in Vermont, to pick two tempting targets of many.
On cable, the story was naturally overshadowed by whatever the tabloid scandal-of-the-day happened to be. But when the story finally did get reported on CNN, Ed Henry—as Media Matters has pointed out—stated as “fact” that President Bush and Rove told Gonzales they had heard “complaints” that several U.S. attorneys were “allegedly not performing well.” According to a March 13 Washington Post article, however, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that Bush and Rove complained to Gonzales in October 2006 about some prosecutors’ lack of zeal on a specific topic—voter fraud. (Meanwhile, the Project on Excellence in Journalism reported on Friday that the story did not even breach the top 10 for the week on cable, trailing even Ann Coulter’s use of the word “faggot” to refer to John Edwards.)
The story is too big to ignore anymore, thanks to the surprising incompetence of the attorney general who refused to come clean at the outset and then, amazingly, channeled Ronald Reagan during the Iran Contra scandal by admitting that “mistakes were made” —as if using the passive tense would somehow prevent reporters from asking “who” actually made these mistakes and whether deliberate dishonesty and attempts to subvert the law genuinely constitute “mistakes” or something else entirely.
Whatever its final outcome, I suppose the Bushites should congratulate themselves for getting away with it this long, and the rest of us who care about the continued functioning of our democracy should be grateful that we still have newspapers and we now have blogs. Because if all we had were television stations, well—as the playwright Tom Stoppard has written, “No matter how imperfect things are, if you’ve got a free press, everything is correctable. Without it, everything is concealable.”
But a free press only works if the press itself works. And altogether too often, broadcast and cable prefer to look the other way.
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Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books. His popular blog, “Altercation,” has moved from MSNBC.com to Media Matters. The new URL is http://mediamatters.org/altercation/.
Research assistance: Tim Fernholz