ABC and CBS Lead Again with Fired Attorneys, Paint Them as Victims of Bush Politics

When the Clinton administration in 1993, in a then-unprecedented decision, gave all 93 U.S. Attorneys ten days to leave their offices, including Jay Stephens who was in the midst of investigating House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, ABC's World News Tonight and the CBS Evening News didn't utter a syllable about it. But on Wednesday night, the evening newscasts on both networks led with Republican Senator John Sununu's call for the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as both highlighted different U.S. Attorneys who were amongst the eight replaced late last year by the Bush administration, painting both as victims of nefarious political maneuvering.

“The pressure on the Attorney General of the United States to resign is growing,” ABC anchor Charles Gibson trumpeted, “for the first time, a Republican Senator has said Alberto Gonzales must go.” Focusing on the fired U.S. Attorney for San Diego, Carol Lam, reporter Pierre Thomas suggested she was removed for pursuing a case against a GOP Congressman and relayed how “Democrats pointed out that most of the eight fired U.S. attorneys had excellent performance reviews.” On CBS, Sandra Hughes delivered a “CBS News Exclusive” about how “John McKay was fired in December for reasons he now believes had nothing to do with the way he did his job, but very much to do with Washington politics.” Hughes passed along how “it was what he didn't do that McKay believes got him fired. In the 2004 gubernatorial race in Washington state, the Democratic candidate won by just a couple of hundred votes. McKay didn't call a grand jury to investigate questions of voter fraud.” But as Wall Street Journal editorial on Wednesday noted, McKay ignored very real evidence of voter fraud.

An excerpt from the March 14 Wall Street Journal editorial:
....The supposed scandal this week is that Mr. Bush had been informed last fall that some U.S. Attorneys had been less than vigorous in pursuing voter-fraud cases and that the President had made the point to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Voter fraud strikes at the heart of democratic institutions, and it was entirely appropriate for Mr. Bush--or any President--to insist that his appointees act energetically against it.

Take sacked U.S. Attorney John McKay from Washington state. In 2004, the Governor's race was decided in favor of Democrat Christine Gregoire by 129 votes on a third recount. As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and other media outlets reported, some of the "voters" were deceased, others were registered in storage-rental facilities, and still others were convicted felons. More than 100 ballots were "discovered" in a Seattle warehouse. None of this constitutes proof that the election was stolen. But it should have been enough to prompt Mr. McKay, a Democrat, to investigate, something he declined to do, apparently on grounds that he had better things to do....
Wednesday's NBC Nightly News, anchored by Campbell Brown, didn't lead with the matter and held itself to one story which aired after pieces on the FDA demanding new warnings on sleeping pills, the survival rates for heart attack victims and a short item on the HPV vaccine controversy.

The April 1993 edition of the MRC's MediaWatch newsletter reported:
Attorney General Janet Reno fired all 93 U.S. attorneys, a very unusual practice. Republicans charged the Clintonites made the move to take U.S. Attorney Jay Stephens off the House Post Office investigation of Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski. The network response: ABC and CBS never mentioned it.
For an excerpt from a March of 1993 Washington Post story on Reno's move, as well as a rundown of how the Tuesday night broadcast network newscasts all led with the controversy, check my Tuesday night NewsBusters posting.

Now, to the March14 ABC and CBS evening newscast coverage:

ABC's World News. Anchor Charles Gibson teased:
“Tonight, new calls for the Attorney General to resign over the firing of U.S. prosecutors. President Bush comes to his defense, but says he needs to explain.”
Gibson led:
“Good evening. The pressure on the Attorney General of the United States to resign is growing. For the first time, a Republican Senator has said Alberto Gonzales must go. New Hampshire Senator John Sununu today told ABC News [text on screen] 'the President should fire the Attorney General. That's what's in the President's interest and the country's interest.' President Bush did come to Gonzales' defense earlier in the day, but the President also joined the chorus of criticism.”
Pierre Thomas asserted that at a press conference in Mexico President Bush “admitted he had passed along complaints about some U.S. Attorneys to the Attorney General” and Thomas showed a soundbite of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid claiming the Bush administration had committed an “illegal” act, before relaying the Democratic spin that painted one U.S. Attorney as a victim of improper political consideration:
“Democrats pointed out that most of the eight fired U.S. attorneys had excellent performance reviews. Carol Lam was the U.S. Attorney in San Diego. Her performance review noted some problems with immigration enforcement, but otherwise described her as 'an effective manager and a respected leader in her district.' Democrats say she was fired for prosecuting Republican politicians. They point to a Justice Department e-mail, dated May 11th, 2006. The Attorney General's Chief-of-Staff, D. Kyle Sampson, wrote a senior White House official, 'please call me at your convenience to discuss the real problem we have right now with Carol Lam.' Lam had prosecuted Republican Congressman Duke Cunningham for corruption. On May 11th, the Los Angeles Times published an article suggesting Lam was turning her investigation toward another Republican Congressman. Lam would be fired seven months later. The Justice Department gave no reasons.”

Carol Lam at March 6 hearing: “We were given little or no information about the reason for the requests for our resignations.”

Thomas: “David Schertler, a former federal prosecutor, says Lam's firing appears to fly in the face of Justice Department tradition.”

David Schertler: “In the past, where you've had a U.S. Attorney working on a politically sensitive case, the department has almost taken a hands-off approach so that there'd not be any appearance of impropriety.”

CBS Evening News. Katie Couric opened:
"Hello, everyone. President Bush tonight is defending the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. He says it was the right thing to do. What was wrong, he says, is the way the Justice Department told Congress about it. That would include saying the White House wasn't involved. Turns out it was. Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire today became the first Republican in Congress to call on the President to fire the Attorney General. The President is not doing that, but he is making the Attorney General clean up the mess. Here's Jim Axelrod."
After the first story by Jim Axelrod on how Bush took Gonzales "to the woodshed” and how it "appears some [of the U.S. Attorneys] were fired for political reasons," Couric set up what was introduced in the tease as a “CBS News Exclusive” story:
"As we've told you, the President says the firings were appropriate, but one of the U.S. attorneys who got the axe told CBS News it certainly wasn't in his case. By most accounts, he was a star prosecutor in Washington state, and he talks exclusively tonight to Sandra Hughes."

John McKay, former U.S. attorney: "I'm disappointed in the President. I'm disappointed in the Attorney General."

Sandra Hughes: "That's because former U.S. attorney John McKay was fired in December for reasons he now believes had nothing to do with the way he did his job, but very much to do with Washington politics."

McKay: "I asked for the reasons that I was being asked to resign, and I was given no reasons."

Hughes: "McKay's office won a conviction of the man who was planning to blow up the Los Angeles airport, the millennium bomber, and a conviction of James Ujaama, who was planning to build an al-Qaeda training camp in Oregon. He was also lauded for cracking down on drug smuggling from Canada. So when the Attorney General said he was fired for performance reasons, he was livid."

McKay: "I knew that was false, and I felt obligated to speak up."

Hughes: "CBS News obtained McKay's most recent performance review, written just three months before his firing. In it, he was described as 'effective, well-regarded, and' a 'capable leader.'"

McKay: "I am really proud of the work that was done in my office, and the, you know, the excellent run that I had."

Hughes: "Justice officials say they also had a problem with McKay over the way he shared information with local and federal law enforcement officials. But it was what he didn't do that McKay believes got him fired. In the 2004 gubernatorial race in Washington state, the Democratic candidate won by just a couple of hundred votes. McKay didn't call a grand jury to investigate questions of voter fraud. And he heard about it when he sought a promotion."

McKay: "I did apply to be federal judge last fall, and at that time, questions were directed to me about the 2004 governor's election in Washington state."

Hughes: "Shortly after, McKay's name appeared on an e-mail between the Justice Department and the White House listed as a U.S. Attorney 'being pushed out.'"

McKay: "Any individual prosecutor is replaceable. What's not replaceable is our reputation for fairness, our reputation for independence from political influences."

Hughes: "McKay is no longer prosecuting al-Qaeda suspects or drug smugglers for the U.S. government. He's teaching law students, who now may benefit from a crash course in Bush administration politics. Sandra Hughes, CBS News, Los Angeles."
Following Hughes, Couric turned to CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen who declared it “absolutely extraordinary” to remove U.S. Attorneys in middle of a President's term.
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center