The broadcast network evening newscasts, which didn't care in 1993 about the Clinton administration's decision to ask for the resignations of all 93 U.S. attorneys, went apoplectic Tuesday night in leading with the “controversy,” fed by the media, over the Bush administration for replacing eight U.S. attorneys in late 2006 -- nearly two years after rejecting the idea of following the Clinton policy of replacing all the attorneys. Anchor Charles Gibson promised that ABC would “look at all the angles tonight,” but he skipped the Clinton comparison. Gibson teased: “New controversy at the White House after a string of U.S. attorneys is fired under questionable circumstances. There are calls for the Attorney General to resign.”
CBS's Katie Couric declared that “the uproar is growing tonight over the firing of eight federal prosecutors by the Justice Department” and fill-in NBC anchor Campbell Brown teased: “The Attorney General and the firestorm tonight over the controversial dismissal of several federal prosecutors. Was it political punishment?” Brown soon asserted that “it's a story that has been brewing for weeks and it exploded today” -- an explosion fueled by the news media.
ABC's World News, the CBS Evening News and the NBC Nightly News on March 13 led with and ran multiple stories on the controversy, which were clearly propelled, in part, by attacks by Senate Democrats who demanded the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. But Justice Department clumsiness, which provided hooks for those Democratic attacks, does not absolve the news media of the responsibility for putting the replacement of U.S. attorneys into greater context for viewers so they would understand how Bush's predecessor removed every one (actually all but one as Brit Hume explained) so that Clinton, as is being charged in the current case, could replace them with attorneys more favorable to the administration's agenda.
Unlike ABC, CBS and NBC watchers, cable viewers got a hint of context as Steve Centanni, on FNC's Special Report with Brit Hume, pointed out how “the White House acknowledged there were talks in 2005, just after the President won his second term, about terminating all 93 U.S. attorneys just as President Clinton unceremoniously did 1993 after he won the White House.” The point made it onto CNN's The Situation Room -- barely -- thanks to guest Terry Jeffries who raised it during the 4pm EDT hour of the program.
Last week, on the same day as the Libby verdict, Katie Couric introduced a full March 6 CBS Evening News story by Sharyl Attkisson, who failed to remind viewers of Clinton's wholesale firings:
“Another big story in Washington tonight also involves federal prosecutors, or at least former prosecutors. Eight U.S. attorneys were axed by the Bush administration last year, and some Democrats say the firings were politically motivated. Today some of those ex-prosecutors told Congress about the pressure they felt from top Republicans.”
Back in 1993, the networks weren't so interested in Clinton's maneuver. The April 1993 edition of the MRC's MediaWatch newsletter recounted:
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. CNN's World News and NBC Nightly News provided brief mentions, with only NBC noting the Rosty angle. Only NBC's Garrick Utley kept the old outrage, declaring in a March 27 "Final Thoughts" comment: "Every new President likes to say 'Under me, it's not going to be politics as usual.' At the Justice Department, it looks as if it still is."
“Washington Area to Lose 2 High-Profile Prosecutors; All U.S. Attorneys Told to Tender Resignations,” read a front page story in the March 24, 1993 Washington Post. Two days later, in an article on page A-22, according to Nexis, “Clinton Defends Ousting U.S. Attorneys; GOP Steps Up Criticism of Attorney General's 'March Massacre,'” Dan Balz cited how then-Clinton operative George Stephanopoulos, who appeared on Tuesday's Good Morning America and World News to comment on the current controversy, defended Bill Clinton's decision:
President Clinton yesterday attempted to rebut Republican criticism of the administration's decision to seek resignations from all U.S. attorneys, saying what he was asking was routine and less political than piecemeal replacements.
"All those people are routinely replaced and I have not done anything differently," Clinton told reporters during a photo opportunity in the Oval Office. He called the decision more politically appropriate "than picking people out one by one."
But Republicans in Congress pressed their criticism of the decision, announced Tuesday by Attorney General Janet Reno, with Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) describing the decision as "Reno's March Massacre."
Rep. Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) urged the administration to allow Jay B. Stephens, the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, to stay on the job until he completes his investigation of the House Post Office scandal and the role House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) may have played in it.
Stephens said Tuesday he was about a month away from "a critical decision with regard to resolution" of the probe....
Presidential spokesman George Stephanopoulos said it was not unusual for a president to ask for such resignations, although Republicans said presidents in the past have not asked for mass resignations, replacing them over a period of time as replacements were found.
Stephanopoulos said only those U.S. attorneys who are in the middle of trials will be allowed to continue working and said an interim appointee could capably pick up Stephens's investigation of the House Post Office scandal, with no serious disruption or political interference....
For a flavor of Tuesday night, March 13 coverage on ABC, CBS and NBC, the leads on each:
ABC's World News. Anchor Charles Gibson's tease:
“Tonight: new controversy at the White House after a string of U.S. attorneys is fired under questionable circumstances. There are calls for the Attorney General to resign.”
“The Attorney General of the United States is under fire. Alberto Gonzales is fending off charge that he carried out a purge, firing eight U.S. attorneys for political reasons on orders from the White House. Across the country there are 93 U.S. attorneys. They prosecute cases for the government. They can be hired and fired by the President. The accusation is these eight were fired because they refused to do the Bush administration's political bidding. We look at all the angles tonight, starting with Pierre Thomas at the Justice Department.”
After Thomas, Gibson did a Q and A with Jan Crawford Greenburg and George Stephanopoulos about the situation, but Stephanopoulos, who stuck to assessing the status of Gonzales, did not mention his defense of Clinton's action.
CBS Evening News. Katie Couric led:
“Hello, everyone. The uproar is growing tonight over the firing of eight federal prosecutors by the Justice Department. The department had told Congress the White House was not involved in the firings, but e-mails released today show that the firings had been discussed for two years by officials of the Justice Department and the White House. So we'll begin at the White House tonight with correspondent Jim Axelrod.”
Following Axelrod, CBS went to a second full story from Bob Orr on how a former U.S. attorney charged that Gonzales “has let politics infect the justice system” and then Couric conducted a brief Q and A with Axelrod and Orr over whether Gonzales will be fired. Couric also noted how Axelrod's younger brother worked for one of the fired prosecutors.
NBC Nightly News. The tease from fill-in anchor Campbell Brown:
“The Attorney General and the firestorm tonight over the controversial dismissal of several federal prosecutors. Was it political punishment?”
“Good evening. The Attorney General of the United States is under fire but vowing he will not resign. It's a story that has been brewing for weeks and it exploded today. The key issue, a decision by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to fire eight federal prosecutors and questions about whether that decision was politically motivated and driven by the White House. Attorney General Gonzales' top deputy has already resigned, but the President is standing by his man. We begin tonight with chief White House correspondent David Gregory.”
Following a piece on Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace's remarks about homosexuals, Brown discussed both topics with Tim Russert.
For more on coverage of this subject, check these earlier NewsBusters postings: