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Slow News: Lots of Firing, Not Much Smoke

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

In February, Army Times reported that thousands of wounded veterans were awaiting decisions on benefits from a military bureaucracy that is "agonizingly slow, grossly understaffed and saddled with a growing backlog of cases."

But while news organizations followed up periodically, the problems seemed diffuse and abstract, and had to compete with daily pictures of devastation in Iraq. What kicked the story into high gear were two symbols -- the awful conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, as revealed by The Post, and reporting by ABC's Bob Woodruff, who had suffered brain damage from an Iraqi bomb. Yet the broad outlines were visible much earlier.

John Walcott, McClatchy's Washington bureau chief, says that much of the news business leans heavily on The Post and the New York Times "to set the news agenda," and "that was a problem in the coverage of the Bush administration's case for war in Iraq . . . The administration can ignore Salon or the Chicago Sun-Times or McClatchy much more easily than it can ignore The Post or the Times, but that doesn't mean that any of us should ignore, much less minimize, good work by our competitors. All of us should have been faster to follow the trail that Salon broke."

Still, while television can be slow to pick up on print reports, sometimes it's newspapers that miss the boat.

When Newt Gingrich told a Christian radio show this month what had long been suspected -- that while married he was carrying on an affair with a House staffer at the same time he was championing Bill Clinton's impeachment -- it was immediately big news on the networks.

"A startling admission," said ABC's Elizabeth Vargas. "Gingrich revisited past sins," said CBS's Jim Axelrod. "A carefully timed confession," said NBC's Brian Williams.

Although the former House speaker, who fessed up to Focus on the Family's James Dobson, is weighing a late-starting presidential bid, you needed a magnifying glass to find the newspaper accounts.

The New York Times (one paragraph), Washington Post (four paragraphs), and Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune (five paragraphs) all ran brief wire stories. USA Today carried nothing.

Were the papers being squeamish, overly high-minded or simply dismissive of what they deemed old news? Gingrich's confession was an important political and cultural moment, and besides, readers would have gobbled it up.

A Question of Diversity

Fifteen percent of stories on the network evening news in each of the last two years were reported by minorities, an all-time high that is more than double the level of 1990.

CBS's Byron Pitts led the 2006 field with 76 stories, followed by ABC's Pierre Thomas, NBC's Jim Maceda, and CBS's Randall Pinkston and Joie Chen, says a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

Women reported 28 percent of the pieces, just under the high-water mark of 29 percent set in 2002. ABC's Martha Raddatz was the most frequent female face, with 137 stories; CBS anchor Katie Couric had 103, and NBC's Andrea Mitchell, 85. Couric nearly lapped the field with reported or narrated pieces, even though the survey includes only four months of her "CBS Evening News" tenure.

Cross-Promotion

Her face peers out from Metrobuses around town, the young star of a promotional campaign for Washington Post Radio.

Now it can be told: She's the 12-year-old daughter of a New York Times reporter.

"It's very cool," says Timeswoman Sheryl Gay Stolberg, though she did stop to wonder about aiding the competition. Her husband, Scott Robinson, is a photographer who was hired by Post Radio's ad agency. Asked to submit images of ordinary people, he included a shot of their daughter, Olivia, in her karate class. "She and her sister are very happy they didn't select a photo of them in the bath," Stolberg says.

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