No Comment — October 14, 2007, 10:27 am

Searching for Meaning in the ‘B’ham News’

A friend down in Alabama describes a visit from a young local reporter from the Associated Press who proceeded to work his way into the conversation by announcing that “of course, everybody knows that Don Siegelman was shaking down everybody for contributions to this foundation.” To which his counterpart replied, “Yeah, so isn’t it strange that none of that worked its way into the indictment and charges brought against him?” My friend was describing to me a pretty widespread phenomenon, which this reflects very well: local reporters down in Alabama open every discussion and start every article with the principal issue resolved, namely that Siegelman is guilty and that he was properly tried and convicted. They don’t want to hear a word that goes the other way, even as a majority of Alabamians and a majority of Americans across the country now see very clearly that this prognosis rests on a series of false assumptions. This is what psychologists call “lock in,” namely, a view is adopted and it’s adhered to, even in the face of mounting evidence that shows it’s false. That evidence is simply put aside, or ignored, or nitpicked with increasingly ridiculous objections.

A great example came when I debated Eddie Curran on Public Radio’s “To the Point” program. I noted that forty-four attorneys general, Democrats and Republicans alike, had examined the facts of the Siegelman case and had sent a petition to Congress citing five different respects in which the case showed serious irregularities that warranted a special Congressional probe. Congress subsequently agreed, and the probe is underway. So how does Eddie handle this? His response is that Siegelman was once also an attorney general, so he belonged, like all attorneys general, to the national association of attorneys general. So therefore they were all just “Siegelman’s friends,” and their views could be discarded. A breathtakingly inane attitude. No need to look at the specific issues they raised (especially since Eddie would have nothing to say about those issues). In fact in the course of the interview, Eddie was unable to cite to Warren Olney, our moderator, a single charge on which Siegelman was convicted or to justify it; he proceeded with only general and very vague accusations of “corruption.” There’s a very good reason for this campaign of vague innuendo, and it’s that each of the accusations fades into oblivion when it’s exposed to the sunlight. It’s so much easier just to destroy someone with rumor-mongering. And in fact the Siegelman trial rested on exactly that, a conviction procured through judicially-sanctioned rumor-mongering. It made a complete farce of our criminal justice system. And that farce is being exposed, not by the press in Alabama, but by Time magazine, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and CBS News.

As Mark Twain tells us in Life on the Mississippi, “There is no suffering comparable with that which a private person feels when he is for the first time pilloried in print.” And after securing the transcript of the testimony of Jill Simpson from their fellow Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, the writers and editors at the Birmingham News have been going hog-wild after Jill Simpson. Of course, a private person who comes forward with such accusations puts herself in the crosshairs and has to expect to be examined. But the very strange thing here is that the accounts revolve around a series of very public persons: Bob Riley, Rob Riley, William Canary, William Pryor, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, Mark Fuller and Richard Shelby. And the accusations present an opportunity to test them and their acts. But what we see from the Birmingham News is a flat out drive to protect and insulate senior Republican political figures and to try to demolish a Republican insider who turned on them and started telling the truth. And what meaning should we infer from all of this? Let’s start with the obvious: this tells us next to nothing about Jill Simpson, but an awful lot about the Birmingham News.

Is this the way a professional journalist behaves? Now you would think that a newspaper presented with a series of specific allegations concerning misconduct by public officials would look into whether or not these allegations are correct. That’s what a professional journalist would do. It’s what Time, CBS News, and journalists with a number of national newspapers are doing right now. But it’s not what the Birmingham News and its ace reporter do. The articles, two feature-length pieces published on October 12 and 13, are heavily driven by one person—Rob Riley. Instead of putting squarely to Mr. Riley the accusations that were leveled in the Washington deposition (and thus, unlike Riley’s statements, were answered under oath), the News focuses on attempting to show why Simspon shouldn’t be believed. And their principal chain of evidence?

Let’s recall their opening volley. Simpson was just a disgruntled person who sought a government contract from the Riley Administration and didn’t get it, they reported in a banner headline. The article was essentially dictated by Riley’s former chief of staff, Toby Roth. The charge had a minor flaw: it wasn’t true. Simspon hadn’t sought any contracts. She was an attorney for people who sought contracts. In fact that was her business, so her clients won and lost contracts all the time. However, it set the tone for the Birmingham News’s subsequent, equally dishonest, articles on the subject.

But now come the really shocking allegations. Simpson, we learn, had dealings with people who are hostile to Governor Riley! Shock, gasp! Even having contact with people in the enemy camp renders her radioactive, reason the mental midget writers at the News. The core accusation: “she received help from Siegelman supporters, and helped provide research for defense lawyers.”

The article goes on to detail the facts that she talked to a Montgomery lawyer who has sued Riley, and a Tuscaloosa developer who is allied with Siegelman, and an Alabaster lawyer who supported Siegelman! Of course, even having contacts with the Enemy Camp completely disqualifies Simpson as a Truth Teller, because the Truth is a commodity in the exclusive possession of the Republican Party of Alabama, and its authorized communications vehicle, the Birmingham News.

How would a reporter possessed with rational faculties have dealt with this? Simpson tells us that she was an attorney, disturbed by requests that the Rileys put to her to engage in dirty, and possibly illegal tricks, targeting their political adversaries (don’t by the way expect the News to report on any of that), and was disturbed in particular that their abuse of the criminal justice system to persecute the man they saw as the gravest threat to Riley’s hold on the governorship: Don Siegelman. She was astonished to see their plot, coordinated with Karl Rove and others, unfold and be successfully implemented, particularly with the involvement of an ethically-challenged federal judge. She contacted the lawyers for Siegelman and Scrushy and offered to give them an affidavit for the limited purpose of securing a new trial and getting the judge, who never should have sat in the case to begin with, removed.

How do you do this without speaking with lawyers for the party in the litigation? Of course she communicated with them, discussed her affidavit with them and discussed the evidence for it with them. This is what happens in litigations. Or does the Birmingham News think that affidavits in court cases spring full grown from the mind and typewriter of the affiant?

And equally shocking, the News causes the earth to quake by disclosing that Simpson had dealings with Montgomery lawyer Tommy Gallion. Might that be the prominent Republican Tommy Gallion, son of the former attorney general, whose law firm was closely supportive of Riley in his prior election campaign? All inconvenient facts, so let’s discard them (see, I’m beginning to think like a Birmingham News editor). So Simpson actually had dealings with a disloyal Republican. Come to think of it, she is a disloyal Republican herself. Can’t have that.

The tone and argument of the News article is absolutely absurd. One network news editor I spoke with on Friday called them “among the most absurd things I’ve ever seen appear in the print media.” Note the number of words in the article, and the prominent placement given to it. And note the studied avoidance of all the questions of substance raised in the affidavit and in Simpson’s testimony. Very telling signs all.

In a piece on Saturday, the News addresses one of a dozen major accusations made, namely that Rob Riley had told Simpson that an offer was being extended to Siegelman to drop the criminal investigation in exchange for his decision not to contest the very dubious electoral victory that Riley achieved in November 2002. The News shows that in neither camp is there any recollection of such a statement being conveyed nor received. But what gets lost in the News reporting is that Simpson didn’t say that it was: she was reporting on a rather incredible claim that Rob Riley made, not reflecting what she believes actually occurred. Which all really puts the focus more on Rob Riley, his dealings with Rove (which I have since documented through numerous sources in Washington), and Rove’s manipulation of the Justice Department. Now isn’t it strange that the Birmingham News doesn’t want to go there?

And typical of the intellectual sloppiness of the News reporting are the closing lines:

“It wasn’t Washington. It was Louis (Franklin),” prosecutor Steve Feaga said. Franklin was the acting U.S. attorney in the case, and Feaga said Franklin ordered the review. “If they believed they had a selective prosecution argument, they had every opportunity to file that motion and they didn’t,” Feaga said.

But Feaga is making consciously misleading or false statements, which the News typically allows to go unchallenged. In fact the case was being driven from Washington, a fact which has now been repeatedly confirmed by lawyers at the Justice Department in Washington, and you’d just have to ask Feaga about the “pros memo” to get to the bottom of that. Noel Hillman was the key man driving the case, and Noel Hillman was taking his telephone instructions from Karl Rove.

Feaga’s claims about a selective prosecution argument are an even more blatant whopper. In fact, Feaga made a motion to Judge Fuller to preclude a selective prosecution argument, and Fuller agreed. Since Feaga’s forgotten about it, let’s remind him of the Government’s Motion in Limine to Bar Defendants from Presenting Testimony, Evidence, or Argument Concerning Alleged Political Motivation for the Prosecution, filed on April 14, 2006, in which Feaga sought and secured a gag blocking Siegelman from doing exactly what Feaga now says he obviously should have done. And since we don’t have a transcript (and isn’t that strange? Sixteen months later and no transcript? One of many, many truly strange things about this case.) I’ll just point to the trial record of a local TV station, WSFA, in which this is clearly set out in their notes from May 13, 2006:

The judge will not let the defense bring up alleged payments to other politicians not on trial in this case.

“We are not going to get into contributions to other candidates, whether they be Democrat, Republican, Independent or Communist Party, whatever party they are in,” says Judge Fuller.

Fuller barred any argument or the presentation of any evidence on the issue—which we now know would have put the man to whom Fuller owes his job—Jeff Sessions—in the crosshairs. Or perhaps Feaga, like his boss, is having a convenient memory lapse about his own motion papers and argument?

And the reporting dovetails perfectly with the Birmingham News’s editorial page. In a piece entitled “Lanny Young’s Other Friends,” the paper’s editorial board laments Time magazine’s disclosures. Lanny Young, we learn, gave the prosecutors two big fish: Jefferson Beauregard Sessions and William Pryor. What he had on Siegelman was by comparison decidedly small potatoes. Remember what prosecutor Steve Feaga said of Young in the trial: ““These are their guys. We just took them where we found them.” That’s now exposed as another lie, a particularly pernicious one.

And what does the News think of this? They actually rehash the lame excuses which have been ridiculed elsewhere in the media, namely, that “money laundering is not a crime” (not, that is, when Republicans are involved), and that the statute of limitations has passed now blocking action on Sessions and Pryor. No, the News’s view is that all of this is going to open up a “fuss,” and we apparently don’t want to go there. And note how the News neglects to examine the fact that the U.S. Attorney, Leura Canary, is the wife of Sessions’s and Pryor’s campaign manager? We don’t want to go there, either. In fact there is so much corruption, you can’t turn away from it. Everywhere you turn, it’s in front of you. And is the Birmingham News part of a culture of clean government, or of corruption? Well, you know what I think.

And indeed, with a long series of articles looking into who a Republican lawyer turned whistleblower from Rainsville had cups of coffee with, but nothing allocated to examine the accusations of bribery and corruption directed at two of the state’s most powerful Republicans, the News is making quite a statement. We love to rake muck, they say, as long as it involves the Democratic party. In fact, we’re happy to get a little creative when it comes to an anti-Democratic safari. But if you blow the whistle on our team, we’ll use our power to destroy you. I know lots of papers that behave like that. And most of them are on the dark side of our planet.

This case is not a struggle between Democrats and Republicans over the Montgomery statehouse. It is improper to view it that way. In fact, what is the real consequence of partisan politics? As my readers know, I hold it in contempt. Partisanship contributes to corruption in our society like nothing else; it undermines the confidence of citizens in their institutions. And what are these partisan structures but vehicles by which those afflicted with a drive for power achieve it?

This struggle is about whether Alabama will allow its criminal justice system to become just another tool in the partisan political process. That happened many times in the past, the legacy of Scottsboro is there to remind us of the destruction it brought. But we should not recall Scottsboro without also remembering Judge James Horton and the brighter vision for a future that he presented. He destroyed his career by overturning an improper conviction. He reminds us that our jury system does not always work justice; it can be moved to do wrong by prosecutors who violate their public responsibility and newspapers who irresponsibly mold public opinion.

The shocking new development is that the federal system, which used to operate to higher standards, has collapsed into the gutter. Alabamians need to think of this matter not in terms of Don Siegelman and Bob Riley, but in terms of their institutions and whether they will create a state worthy of its citizens and worthy of future generations. The demand for justice cannot and should not be muted by partisan politics. Right now there are many in the inner circles of the state’s Republican machine who know the truth about how power has been shamelessly corrupted. They need to step forward, tell the truth and bring this absurd cover-up to an end. And I have every confidence that several of them will do exactly that.

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