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Media, old and new, tell two different Siegelman stories

February 26, 2008 However it may have come about, the program interruption which caused many North Alabama viewers to miss Sunday night’s “60 Minutes” segment on the Don Siegelman case makes a good entry point into the subject of how the media – old and new – has covered this unfolding story.

WHNT-TV in Huntsville at first blamed the blackout, which began seconds before the story aired at the beginning of the news program and lasted until shortly before it ended, on technical problems in New York. But after Harper’s Magazine legal affairs analyst Scott Horton called CBS in New York and got a denial, the station said it had found the problem was a faulty receiver.

WHNT rebroadcast the segment at the end of its 10 p.m. news show. That was late at night and opposite the Academy Awards, which probably means some viewers didn’t see it.

But if there was any intention of suppressing the story – which the station president, Stan Pylant, has denied – it was quaintly old-fashioned. By late Sunday night you could watch the segment on the CBS site as well as several blogs, and follow the ongoing developments the next day with text-messaged updates.

That in large part is how the entire story has gone down.

The former Democratic governor’s two indictments – the first resulted in a quick dismissal, the second in a seven-year sentence for bribery – were big news when they happened on front pages and television reports across the state.

But since Siegelman’s conviction last June, Alabama’s mainstream media has been less attentive to former Republican operative Jill Simpson’s assertions that Karl Rove was involved in a plot to bring down Siegelman and nagging questions about the conduct of the prosecutors and federal Judge Mark Fuller.

“There have been so many rumors and charges about him (Siegelman) over the years, that I think it made some editors a little less likely to get exercised about those charges,” said Bill Keller, who teaches journalism at the University of Alabama after a career as an editor and publisher in the state.

Convinced Siegelman was guilty and ready to move on, they were bailing out of the story just as the new media was beginning to pay attention. Since Siegelman’s conviction, the story has been kept alive on the internet -- notably on the blog Horton writes for Harper’s and several spirited, Democratic-leaning Alabama blogs -- and in a few of the state’s smaller and alternative newspapers.

At times, the animosity between the two sides of the media divide has equaled that between the two parties in Alabama. Horton has sharply criticized the Birmingham News, the Mobile Press-Register and the Huntsville Times, all former Newhouse papers now owned by Advance Publications, for their coverage.

In a piece published before the segment aired last week, Billy Curran, a former Mobile Press-Register reporter whose investigative pieces on Siegelman formed part of the government’s case against him, called Horton “a bully, liar, phony and pompous ass.” Larisa Alexandrovna, who has written on the case for the online publication Raw Story, responded that Curran’s “entire career now rests on the very notion that he was either used to launder lies or that his own lies are about to be exposed.”

This, in other words, is a media story with teeth.

(One parting note about the “60 Minutes” segment: It wasn’t directly pertinent to the story, but politically it’s interesting to note that Grant Woods, the Republican former Arizona attorney general whose condemnation of the way prosecutors handled Siegelman’s case was one of the strongest parts of the story, is the godfather of one of John McCain’s children and an officer in his national campaign.)



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