COMMENTS: Better Late Than Never

Finally the networks' nightly newscast have discovered the brewing scandal at the Justice Department. When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had eight US Attorneys fired in the middle of their terms, was he in cahoots with political operatives at the White House? Last week, only CBS assigned a correspondent to cover Senate hearings on the axed prosecutors. Now all three networks led with the link between the White House and the Justice Department making it the Story of the Day.

CBS and NBC both led with the White House angle as e-mails between chief counsel Harriet Miers, who has since resigned, and Gonzales' Chief of Staff Kyle Sampson, who has now resigned, revealed a discussion about replacing every single one of the nation's 93 US Attorneys at the start of George Bush's second term. That list was eventually whittled down to eight. CBS' Jim Axelrod quoted one exchange about circulating the list of "weak" prosecutors "to Karl's shop" referring to White House operative Rove. That is significant, NBC's David Gregory explained, because "the White House role was not disclosed to Congress by Justice Department officials."

ABC led with Pierre Thomas (subscription required) from the Justice Department. He quoted Gonzales as testifying that the prosecutors were "fired due to poor performance" despite the fact that most received positive ratings in their final job evaluations. CBS' justice correspondent Bob Orr explained that one of the key duties of the Attorney General is to insulate his prosecutors: "They are supposed to operate beyond the reach of politics." Gonzales conceded fault in the passive voice--"I acknowledge that mistakes were made here"--yet refused to resign. NBC did not assign Pete Williams, its justice correspondent, to a follow-up angle.

NBC and ABC both did follow-up with political analysis. George Stephanopoulos, anchor of ABC's This Week found it "striking how little support the Attorney General has among Republican senators on Capitol Hill." Tim Russert, of NBC's Meet the Pressused the same words, called it "quite striking" that Congressional criticism of Gonzales is bipartisan.

By the way, CBS' Katie Couric offered this behind the scenes snippet: Axelrod's brother Peter is a prosecutor who worked for one of the fired US Attorneys. The brothers "have an agreement never to talk to one another about their work."


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