No Comment — February 27, 2008, 8:15 am

The Alternate Reality of the Birmingham News

Yesterday I had a conversation with a prominent former federal prosecutor in Birmingham, and in the course of the discussion he turned to the Birmingham News. “I still remember the Civil Rights movement days, when you simply couldn’t trust the Birmingham News. Hell, they were worse than Bull Connor,” he said, referring to the Birmingham police commissioner famous for brutal tactics, including turning fire hoses on civil rights protestors. “Those times are back.”

The News attempted to expiate its legacy of shame some years ago by mounting an exhibition of photographs of the Civil Rights era that its editors had suppressed. Romenesko reports:

“The editors thought if you didn’t publish it, much of this would go away,” says Ed Jones, 81, a photographer at The News from 1942 to 1987.

Throughout this period, the News offered its readers a different view of reality. They didn’t read about the aspirations of their own fellow citizens, demanding to be treated with dignity, fairness and justice. Instead they were pumped a steady stream of Kool-aid about “outside agitators,” “local radicals” and the ever-present menace presented by “Communists.” But more frequently, it simply ignored what was going on. The Birmingham News lived in a totally different reality–one that it created for its readers.

Reading the News editorial this morning, I note how little times have changed. The News editorializes about the Siegelman case, presenting its readers with a fraudulent aura of detachment and objectivity. The facts are starkly different from those presented by this editorial.

The Birmingham News did not “report on” the vendetta against Governor Siegelman. Rather, it was a principal vehicle of the vendetta, and its coverage is likely to be studied by journalism students of the future as a reprise of the paper’s hideous and reprehensible coverage of the Civil Rights era. And more to the point, if a special prosecutor is appointed, then the very curious special relationship between the News, certain backroom political forces and the prosecutors who led the charge is likely to be right in its crosshairs.

It’s worth taking a few minutes to walk through the series of absurdities spun out in the editorial, because they are not innocuous, but venomous. Start with the lead-in, which tells you everything:

Former Gov. Don Siegelman is waging a two-front war on a public corruption conviction that sent him to prison–one in the courts, the other in the political arena.

So note: the 60 Minutes broadcast, the reporting by Dan Abrams at MSNBC and by Adam Zagorin at TIME magazine, the series of reports by the New York Times, the inquiries brought in the Senate and House Judiciary Committee is presented by the News as “Don Siegelman’s war.” Don Siegelman, who sits incarcerated in Louisiana, upon whom the Justice Department has imposed an extraordinary gag-rule so he cannot be interviewed by reporters—this man is the force behind all the news and doings in Congress. He is a sort of evil puppet master. What sort of stupid pill do people have to swallow to believe such absurdities?

And it continues in this vein:

There was former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, who said he didn’t believe Siegelman had committed a crime in taking $500,000 from HealthSouth’s ex-CEO, Richard Scrushy, for a seat on a state board. Although a jury concluded otherwise, Woods said the case wasn’t valid because the money went to Siegelman’s lottery campaign, rather than to him personally. Though a Republican, Woods contends the case against Democrat Siegelman smacks of politics.

“Though a Republican,” they write. Of course, Woods is the Co-Chair of the McCain for President leadership committee, and is likely to figure on the shortlist of names that McCain, the presumptive Republican 2008 nominee for President, would pick for Attorney General, should he be elected. Facts best not mentioned, of course.

The rehearsing of the argument considerably deflates it. The main thrust of Woods’s argument was even application of a standard: if the Justice Department is going to take the position that donors who give money and take appointments are committing a crime, then we’d need to build some new prisons, he said. And we’d have to start with the 146 persons, including several cabinet officers now serving, who gave $100,000 or more (or collected that much for) the Bush-Cheney campaign and then sought and were appointment to high federal office. Woods is making the same obvious point that every federal prosecutor I interviewed (all of whom felt the Siegelman case was thoroughly corrupt) made, but which somehow has never managed to appear in the pages of the vaunted Birmingham News.

But Woods gets a pass. The News takes aim at Jill Simpson, the Republican lawyer who exposed Rove’s dealings in the matter.

The problem is Simpson. She has dribbled out damaging allegations in such a way as to undermine her credibility. A statement issued months ago recalled secondhand references she’d heard about Rove’s alleged conversations about the Siegelman prosecution. In her later testimony to a congressional committee, she went a little further, claiming she’d heard Rove went to the Justice Department about the Siegelman case and “had it taken care of.” Yet until now, she never revealed the interesting tidbit that Rove had personally asked her to get some dirt on Siegelman. How can that be?

This is falsehood. “Dribbled out damaging allegations?” Really? When her story first appeared, I interviewed Simpson, as did a number of national reporters. One of the first things she told me was that she strongly distrusted the Birmingham News and the Mobile Press-Register. They had an agenda, she said, and they would do whatever they could to destroy her. She was right on the money. Ms. Simpson decided to avoid the two Alabama papers most conflicted in this story and instead to turn to the national media. She agreed to give CBS News an exclusive on her story. She asked me (and I surmise a number of other writers) to abide by that. I agreed. CBS News took five months to do its due diligence and put the story out. The delay was caused by figures named by Ms. Simpson who vehemently contested her truthfulness, and who refused–for reasons they know best themselves–to be interviewed on camera and provide their rebuttal. But as they raised issues, the network had to research hard to corroborate Simpson. So Simpson’s adversaries put sticks in the tires to slow down broadcast of the story, and they did so, for four months. And now this delay in transmission is offered up as the reason not to believe Simpson? What kind of fools does the Birmingham News think it has for readers?

So the accusation that the charges were “dribbled out” is a lie. The statement concerning Rove was on tape and in an editing room within a matter of a few weeks after this case first broke in the press. It was also well known to the Congressional investigators, who made their own decisions as to what matters to pursue in the formal deposition. But the short of it is that the Birmingham News made no effort to investigate the matters it is writing about other than having its star reporter call Simpson under false pretenses to interview her about one single statement in an affidavit. What the News writes is both untrue and dishonest. It’s possible that they have deluded themselves, but I find that hard to believe.

But it gets even worse.

Even if he is unsuccessful through the courts, Siegelman could win on the political front. What’s happening now could be the groundwork for a pardon or other relief if a Democrat wins the White House.

That wouldn’t be good. Politics should not play any role in launching a criminal investigation, or in ditching a case, either. Unless there is more evidence Siegelman was prosecuted for the wrong reasons, or that he wasn’t provided a fair playing field, there’s precious little reason to believe justice wasn’t served when a jury found him guilty.

Let me paraphrase. Ah, so this is all just Democratic politics, and if a Democrat wins in 2008—heaven forbid—Siegelman might be pardoned. And that would be just politics.

Just take a second to parse these words. And let’s start with the suggestion that a “Democrat” president would do this. When the leading advocate for Siegelman is a co-chair of the Republican presidential campaign, we should think that only a partisan Democrat would pardon him? I’d say that the man most likely to issue a pardon and to excoriate the Justice Department over its misconduct shortly after January 21, 2009 is named John McCain.

The CBS News program charged, very convincingly, that the prosecutors went to the jury with critical evidence, which they knew was false, and that they secured a conviction on the basis of it. It also presented allegations that the prosecutors suppressed exculpatory evidence, which would have made their key witness out to be a liar on his core accusations. The Justice Department would not deny any of this and Franklin would not speak on camera and for the record with CBS News, where he knew he would face tough questions. But then, curiously, the prosecutor turns up speaking to his favorite paper, the Birmingham News, where he is showered with bouquets and fluff balls. And this morning, Karl Rove also turns up giving a fluff ball interview with the Birmingham News. Is that coincidental?

The News urges us to honor the jury that convicted Siegelman. It should be concerned about doing justice. Juries make mistakes every day. And they particularly are prone to make mistakes when the process of the trial was corrupted, as this was in a breath-taking fashion. And Alabamans in particular know that. It’s part of their historical legacy. As Judge Horton said in overturning the a false jury verdict in the Scotsboro case:

Social order is based on law, and its perpetuity on its fair and impartial administration. Deliberate injustice is more fatal to the one who imposes it than to the one on whom it is imposed. The victim may die quickly and his suffering cease, but the teachings of Chrisitanity and the uniform lesson of all history illustrate without exception that its perpetrators not only pay the penalty themselves, but their children through endless generations….

Those are words that deserve to be recalled today. As is the appeal of Grant Woods, when asked why, as a Republican, he is making these charges. “I am an American first,” he said. We should all remember that. But in the board room of the Birmingham News that appeal falls on deaf ears.

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