COMMENTS: Sampson Agonistes

The testimony of Kyle Sampson was the Story of the Day. It was the only development considered newsworthy enough to warrant coverage by a reporter from all three newscasts. Sampson is the onetime Chief of Staff of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. He appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions about the ouster of those eight federal prosecutors. CBS led with Sampson. NBC chose the continuing dispute between Iran and Britain over 15 captured seamen. ABC selected identity theft from customers of retailer TJ Maxx.

Even though the hearings were on Capitol Hill, none of the networks assigned its Congressional correspondent to Sampson's questioning. NBC and ABC used their men on the Justice Department beat. ABC's Pierre Thomas pointed out that when Sampson testified that Gonzales decided to fire those US Attorneys he "flatly contradicted his boss." However, Thomas added, Sampson also contradicted Democratic suspicions that the prosecutors were fired because they "targeted Republicans and were dragging their feet on investigating Democratic politicians." NBC's Pete Williams, too, noted Sampson's repeated insistence that "none of the prosecutors was forced out for improper reasons." At one White House meeting Sampson recommended that Patrick Fitzgerald be fired, the US Attorney who prosecuted Vice President Dick Cheney's top aide Lewis Libby: "They just looked at me. I immediately regretted it. I withdrew it at the time. I regret it now."

CBS had Jim Axelrod at the White House quote an official statement: "The President is confident the Attorney General can overcome these concerns." Mused Axelrod about George Bush: "He certainly seems dug in." CBS' Sunday morning anchor Bob Schieffer of Face the Nation offered political analysis of the fallout. Gonzales is "in a terrible position," Schieffer observed. He has just three options available: he did not know what was going on in his own department; he did not want to know what was going on in his own department; he knew what was going on but chose not to be truthful about it. "Not good."


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