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Alabama, The View from “Across the Pond”


I am in Britain this week, and impressed by the coverage that the British tory press is giving to the Justice Department scandal in the United States. In their view, it’s world news. I agree. It’s a point of constant discussion, particularly among Britons who count themselves as America’s friends and allies. The Financial Times, the must-read publication of London’s conservative financial community, features a major article on the subject. It says:

Resignations and the on­going furore over allegedly politicised hiring and firing at the US justice department have left so many top positions vacant that the department is all but operating on autopilot, the Financial Times has learnt.

Six top DoJ officials have quit since February, when the sackings of at least nine US attorneys prompted an outcry in Congress. Outside Washington, 23 of the 93 US attorneys’ offices, which investigate and try most cases, are devoid of permanent political leadership.The remaining top officials, including Alberto Gonzales, attorney-­general, are the subject of multiple investigations by Congress and the DoJ’s inspector-general . . .

“There’s open contempt between the field and main justice [DoJ headquarters],” said one career prosecutor, who like others did not want to be named lest they attract attention from Washington. “The field is fine. We just do what we do. The department [in Washington] is crippled.”

Meanwhile, even Alberto Gonzales has recognized the gravity of the situation. He has now twice been reported to have been received with coldness and hostility in meetings with his own political appointees. They don’t understand why he doesn’t resign. But Gonzales addressed his employees by internal TV hook-up yesterday, and he started by insisting that he was in office to stay, as reported by Fox News. He pleaded with employees to help him rebuild the department’s image. No doubt the staff will respond by continuing to use his nickname, which insiders tell me is “Attorney General Torquemada.”

And then we come to the parallel universe of reality that constitutes the media within the state of Alabama. The biggest story in the nation right now is the controversy surrounding the politicization of the U.S. attorneys. And, as the Judiciary Committee’s letter to Gonzales notes, the case of former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman sits front and center in this. So you’d think that the Alabama press would be delighted to be sitting right on top of the nation’s top press story. But you’d be wrong. They seem to be mortified that anybody’s talking about it; indeed, they seem to identify with the political prosecutors.

Therein lies a very curious story. The print media in Alabama is dominated by one corporate entity that runs three of the state’s principal newspapers. These papers run a closely synchronized view of what constitutes the news in the state; and their opinion pages are likewise in lockstep. The Siegelman prosecution was stage-managed by these papers, which had the “inside story” on the prosecution and investigation every inch along the way. Indeed, to say they were “close” to the prosecution would be understating things considerably. Now that the lid is threatening to come off an unseemly miscarriage of justice, these papers are engaged not in news reporting, but in round-the-clock damage control.

This week the mask has come off of their claims to objectivity in reporting the Siegelman story. In addition to the completely absurd editorial in the Birmingham News about which I wrote earlier in the week, Friday saw an editorial in the Mobile Press-Register entitled “‘Free Don Siegelman’ Really Means ‘Let’s Get Karl’” in which the paper dismisses the inquiry into the Siegelman prosecution as an effort by the Democrats to go after Rove. So the Washington Post reports that the White House has adopted a strategy of noncompliance with Congressional subpoenas that threatens to turn the Constitution into scorched earth, and newspapers all over the country are expressing their concern about this situation, which has been completely provoked by the misconduct of Karl Rove.

But down in Mobile, an all-hands-on-deck signal has been sounded for Mr. Rove’s defense. As usual, the editorial is launched with a series of falsehoods and half truths about the Siegelman case in which the evidence of prosecutorial misconduct is dramatically scaled down, misstated, and laid at the doorstep of political activists. However, the hard fact that the Press-Register doesn’t want to face is that the accusations started with Republicans, not Democrats, and has been sustained by Republicans ever since. As one Alabama G.O.P. source told me, he did not want his children growing up in a banana republic–and that’s what he thought Alabama was turning into. Even staunchly conservative Republican Rep. Spencer Bachus of Birmingham has questioned the treatment Siegelman received immediately after his sentencing; similarly, a large number of Republican attorneys general from around the country have flagged the striking irregularities in the Siegelman case as evidence of justice gone off the tracks.

To read the Press-Register, however, is to find Republicans guilty of disloyalty. In this paper’s binary understanding of the universe, either you’re with the Bush White House or you’re against them.

There are many historical touchstones for Republican leadership: Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan. But Karl Rove has no genuine ideological connection to any of these leaders, nor indeed, to any legitimate philosophy of government; indeed, one of the landmarks on Rove’s résumé is that he was fired by the first President Bush for engaging in dishonest and possibly illegal campaign tricks. And yet there is little question about where most of our friends in the Mobile press stand. They’re in favor of a Rovian banana republic, run by banana Republicans.

Rove reflects the rule-from-the-shadows and any-tactic-is-fine-if-it-works mentality that now hangs like a cloud over our nation. And more often than not his worst victims have been fellow Republicans. Ask John McCain about how he lost the tightly-fought but decisive 2000 Republican primary in South Carolina—in which Rove circulated photographs of McCain with his adopted South Asian daughter, and then had callers ask Republicans whether they were concerned about allegations that McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock. Yet this is the Press-Register’s favorite flavor of Republican, and Rove’s is the mindset which shapes their vision of the news.

And so the mask has slipped off and shown the true face that stands behind the print media “news” in Alabama. I’m not advocating a boycott of the Press-Register. Every community benefits from robust political advocacy. But it’s important that the people of Mobile and South Alabama know what they’re looking at when they pick up their news with their morning coffee.

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