Slow News: Lots of Firing, Not Much Smoke
Monday, March 19, 2007
It was a complicated Washington tale that congealed in slow motion.
On Jan. 12, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the Bush administration had quietly asked the local U.S. attorney, Carol Lam, to step down. The next morning, the Web site TPMmuckraker.com posted an item about the firing. Two days later -- under the heading "White House Pushes Out Another Prosecutor" -- the liberal site touted a Las Vegas Review-Journal piece on the dismissal of the U.S. attorney in Nevada.
The breakthrough came on Jan. 16, when the Wall Street Journal reported that as many as seven U.S. attorneys were losing their jobs. The Los Angeles Times and New York Times weighed in the next day, followed by The Washington Post. The seeds of a scandal that would lead to calls for the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had been planted, but would not blossom as a full-blown television story for nearly two months.
Only last week did a stack of e-mails make clear that the White House, despite earlier denials, was heavily involved in the prosecutor firings and that political concerns about protecting "loyal Bushies" -- and not just the supposed concerns about performance -- played a role.
The Muckraker page of TalkingPointsMemo.com acted as a catalyst, vacuuming up press accounts and doing its own digging. Founder Josh Marshall says he was interested in Lam because she was broadening an investigation that had convicted GOP congressman Duke Cunningham. "We're basically building the narrative for the story when there are isolated reports in different newspapers," Marshall says.
Cable television paid little attention, except for two commentators who often criticize President Bush. In mid-January, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann asked whether Bush had "been targeting United States attorneys, squeezing them out because they prosecuted politicians, then changing the law so the attorney general can appoint replacements without anybody confirming them." CNN's Jack Cafferty called the firings "another sign the Bush administration is circling the wagons in the face of possible corruption investigations." The first Fox News story appeared on "Special Report" Feb. 15.
As for the nightly newscasts, they took no notice of the controversy until this month, but by last week it was repeatedly leading "NBC Nightly News," ABC's "World News" and the "CBS Evening News."
What took so long? The dismissed prosecutors were local figures. The plan to replace them without Senate confirmation rested on an obscure provision of the USA Patriot Act. The dispute over whether they were dumped for performance reasons (the president's prerogative) or because of pressure from Republicans (a politicization of the Justice Department) was hard to resolve.
There was some instant tut-tutting about the story. In January, a Los Angeles Times editorial said that "cries of a conspiracy are premature." Time's Jay Carney blogged that "some liberals are seeing broad partisan conspiracies where none likely exist."
Last week's release of incriminating e-mails did more than contradict the administration's claims of no White House involvement. It produced footage of Democrats (along with a few Republicans) calling for Gonzales's scalp, a defensive news conference by the attorney general and the president's "mistakes were made" response to reporters -- the very video elements that television needed to frame the story.
Another big story these days -- the problems of wounded veterans -- had an even longer fuse. In 2005, an investigation by Knight Ridder (now McClatchy Newspapers) found that "tens of thousands of other veterans have returned from war only to find that they have to fight their own government to win the disability payments they're owed."
That same year, Salon.com reported on veterans "who have been misdiagnosed or waited for treatment for traumatic brain injury" and said other Walter Reed patients "with apparent brain injuries say they too have been deeply frustrated by delays in getting adequately diagnosed and treated."