No Comment — March 7, 2008, 6:43 am

A Brain-Dead Press

Back in the sixties, when the citizens of Alabama wanted to get a fair report on the progress of the Civil Rights movement in their state, they had to turn to the national media, and especially the network news, to get it. The local print and broadcast media would either grossly distort what was going on, or, more likely, they would simply report nothing.

In a sense those days are back. There are a handful of independent papers in the state, but the three Advance newspapers published in the state’s major urban areas, operate to the historical tradition of their most shameful moment. The big offenders, as I have chronicled repeatedly, are the Birmingham News and the Mobile Press-Register. If a special prosecutor is appointed to examine the gross irregularities surrounding the Siegelman case—and calls for that step mount with each passing day—then the inexplicably cozy relationship between the two papers in Birmingham and Mobile and the politically directed prosecutors who pushed the case against Siegelman should be right near the top of the matters investigated. It reflects a press that masquerades as independent and objective while it takes up a partisan sword in a particularly vicious style, slashing away at the roots of civil society.

The third paper, the Huntsville Times is regularly held up as something more akin to a newspaper, standing on legs of its own. It’s certainly not as bad as the other two. But the best that can be said is that this paper is slumbering through one of the more important crises in the state’s history, with an attitude of self-satisfied and arrogant indifference. Just take a look at this editorial published yesterday morning. It’s an amazing demonstration of intellectual torpor.

The saga of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman continues. So does Siegelman’s incarceration in a federal prison. If nothing else, the lingering controversy over Siegelman’s trial, conviction and sentence has at least brought public interest to the kind of federal criminal procedures that rarely stir much passion.

On Tuesday, Michael Copps, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, asked for an investigation into the TV broadcast blackout that kept Huntsville viewers from watching most of a CBS “60 Minutes” report on Siegelman Feb. 24. The local CBS affiliate, WHNT-TV, Channel 19, says the problem was technical and had nothing to do with the content.

Skeptics smell a political motive, but if Channel 19 were trying to suppress the report, which seems unlikely, it brought more attention to it than would have occurred otherwise. WHNT broadcast the entire Siegelman segment later that night and again on its 6 p.m. newscast the next day and posted the video on its Web site. That’s a lot of Don.

The timing of the technical problem was unfortunate, but there is no evidence to support the claims by some viewers that the blackout was intentional.

The attitude of visceral contempt towards Siegelman that is typical of the Republican-leaning Alabama media is clear right from the outset. Whereas papers and broadcasters across the country focused on the blackout at WHNT and discussed it—led by the New York Times which made it the subject of two articles and an editorial—the Huntsville Times initially dealt with this national headline grabber on its home turf by reproducing the official statement issued by the station’s management, full stop. Now that’s what we call aggressive journalism! The editorial claims “there is no evidence to support the claims… that the blackout was intentional.” But the initial justification given by WHNT for the blackout was false, and was not corrected until they were caught in the misrepresentation. And the editorial writer does not find it even remotely curious that only one segment of the 60 Minutes program was blocked—the Siegelman segment? Now my, that’s quite a coincidence. It’s just the sort of coincidence that was commonplace back in the Civil Rights era. And my recollection is that back in those days, the Times had just the same take: it’s just a coincidence.

Indeed, the appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals should have been filed before now, but it wasn’t because the original court reporter died after the trial, and preparing the transcript, needed for the appeal, has taken longer than normal.

Same pattern here: whatever lame excuse offered up is accepted as plenty good for this editorial writer. Why take a second to examine the assertions? Might he, for instance, confer with a court reporting service about the average time it would take a professional court reporter to transcribe the record? He would have heard, as I did, “two to three weeks.” So why did this take over 14 months? Of course, it’s impolite to ask such questions. It’s also impolite to note who had responsibility for having the record completed on time. His name is Judge Mark Fuller.

Again, events have proven unfortunate for Siegelman, but no one has suggested the court reporter died on purpose to keep Siegelman behind bars.

Indeed, no one does suggest that the court reporter’s death was to “keep Siegelman behind bars.” What is not just suggested, but is completely clear, is that this is a pathetic excuse cited for just that purpose. The deceased court reporter is not responsible for the delay. The judge’s failure to have the record prepared is. The judge cynically concluded that mention of the misfortune that befell his court reporter would end all queries. And if the world consisted only of the terminally incurious sorts who write pieces like this one, it would.

Yes, it may have been unusual for a defendant of Siegelman’s stature to be refused bond during his appeal, but it is not entirely unheard of. On Monday, international media mogul Conrad Black began serving time in Florida after being convicted of fraud. Like Siegelman, Black will be in federal prison while his appeal is pending. Like Siegelman, he was also convicted of obstruction of justice, a charge which may have resulted in both men receiving similar treatment. But Black was at least given a few days before reporting to prison. Siegelman was whisked from the courtroom after surrendering his belt and shoes. Black is a member of Great Britain’s House of Lords and holds the title of Lord Black of Crossharbour. Maybe that made a difference.

So the editorial writer actually believes that a foreign aristocrat is entitled to different–superior–legal protection from a citizen who served in public office for over a decade and has deep connections to the community. Of course the legal standard is the opposite. A person without roots in the community, for instance, a foreign resident, is considered a flight-risk and is less likely to receive freedom pending appeal. Hard to believe this gets written, and even more amazing that a newspaper publishes it. Ahh, but this is written by one of the editors.

As for Siegelman, it’s hard to avoid two observations. One is that federal prosecutors pursued the case with an unusual degree of fervor. But this also seems true: Don Siegelman did what he was accused of doing, the illegality of which may remain in question but the ethical standards of which leave a lot to be desired.

So here’s the crux of it. The writer also couldn’t be bothered to actually watch 60 Minutes, or even read a summary of what it reported. He’s completely satisfied with his own thoroughly misinformed prejudices (that’s what editorial writers are paid for, isn’t it?) But that won’t stop him from writing about what he hasn’t seen.

Had he watched the segment, he would have seen that the 60 Minutes investigators, and 52 former state attorneys general, found that there was no credible evidence that Siegelman “did what he was accused of doing.” Or more particularly, the evidence offered was false, and was or should have been known to the prosecutors to be false. The editorial writer also has never taken note of the decision issued by a federal judge in Birmingham, who reviewed sworn allegations respecting the misconduct of the Siegelman prosecutors and found them “extremely troubling,” and said that they raised a “prima facie case of impermissible conduct” by the prosecution. That actually had to do with precisely the same false evidence that was the focus of the 60 Minutes segment. Of course, that’s just another coincidence. Aren’t they multiplying? But then of course, I forget, this is an Advance newspaper, and none of the Advance newspapers ever reported on that published opinion. They treated it the way they treated demonstrations in the mid-sixties: they just didn’t happen.

Moreover, the prosecutors suppressed exculpatory evidence which would have rendered the testimony of their principal witness unbelievable. All of this does indeed raise very profound questions about ethical standards—of the prosecutors, and the lapdog press.

Americans deserve less partisanship in their federal court system and Justice Department, and Alabamians deserve more upright conduct from their elected officials.

And even more urgently, Alabamians need genuine newspapers. None of the three Alabama markets served by Advance has one.

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