Monday, March 10, 2008

Mr. Blackledge’s Black Helicopters

Mr. Blackledge’s Black Helicopters

By Scott Horton

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Back in October, as the House Judiciary Committee was conducting its first hearings into the prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don E. Siegelman, I spoke with Simon Heller, the legal director of a Washington-based advocacy organization called the Alliance for Justice. Heller told me he had gotten a telephone call. “It was strange. The man on the other end of the phone identified himself as a reporter. But he certainly didn’t act like one. We had put out a press release talking about Judge Mark Fuller and the role he played in the Siegelman case, and questioning how, given his many conflicts, he had failed to recuse himself. But this reporter wasn’t interested in our view. Instead he was hysterical, screaming into the phone, asking how we dared to criticize such a great American? I’ve never had a press experience quite like that one.”

The name of the reporter? Brett Blackledge, the award-winning prize star of the Birmingham News. Blackledge has carried the paper’s water in its two major campaigns of the last six years. The first was its effort to take down former Governor Siegelman through a blizzard of innuendo and tendentious reporting straight from the files of a group of partisan prosecutors. And the second, still running, is the effort to reshape the state’s legislature by demonstrating that a large part of it is enmeshed in hopeless graft and corruption by working simultaneously as junior college teachers and administrators. In most states, a reporter like Mr. Blackledge would not venture very far. But in ‘Bama, where they take their Koolaid unalloyed, he’s the real thing.

So it comes as no surprise that when 60 Minutes at length runs its story on Karl Rove and the Siegelman case, Blackledge scoops a print media exclusive: an interview with Karl Rove. In sum, Rove views his paper, the Birmingham News, as the print media equal of Fox News. The interview ran and looked indistinguishable from a Karl Rove press release. No tough questions. Indeed, not even essential information explaining how, when and why the interview was conducted. The article insists there was an interview, even though it provides no evidence of one having occurred.

A loyal News reader recently shared with me her exchange of emails with Blackledge, which explain perfectly his attitude towards the story he’s covering.

First the email query to Blackledge:

You didn’t explain in your story who conducted this telephone interview: “It never happened,” Rove said in a telephone interview. “Seeing where I was working at the time, a reasonable person could ask why I would even take an interest in that case.”

Then seventeen paragraphs later, you finally followed up on Rove’s question as to “why a reasonable person could ask himself why Rove would take an interest in this case”: Rove has a history of work in Alabama, including in some of the state’s most hotly contested and nasty judicial campaigns. From 1994 to 2000, Rove’s consulting helped put a Republican stamp on the Alabama Supreme Court.

I’m just a humble reader, but doesn’t that last paragraph address the “why” in Rove’s statement? Why, indeed, was a slimeball like Rove ever involved in Alabama in any way? Show us how you can dig. Tell us more about Rove’s involvement in Alabama. That’s news that Alabama readers are entitled to. In which campaigns was Rove involved and what was the nature of the involvement?

In fact, Karl Rove’s work as a campaign advisor in Alabama dates back at least to 1992, and continued after he went to the White House, Rove’s disclaimers notwithstanding. I’m reasonably confident that this is why Rove refused an on-camera interview with CBS, or with any other serious media organization. In addition to four Supreme Court races, he has been involved frequently in less formal ways in a half dozen other races, and most significantly he served as campaign advisor to William Pryor. That’s the same William Pryor who actually initiated and drove the case against former Governor Siegelman.

A former executive of the Business Council of Alabama recently described to me in some detail Rove’s proposals for politicizing the organization—turning it into a battle ax for the Alabama G.O.P., with Rove’s good friend William Canary in the foreground and Rove himself hovering in the distance. It was a brilliant plan from the G.O.P.’s perspective. And the fact that no major Alabama paper has ever reported on it tells the reader a great deal about the state’s incurious media.

Now let’s look at how Blackledge handles this gentle inquiry:

You know, I think you’ve connected two dots that are quite unrelated. First, there are many political operatives (media, campaign consultant types) who work campaigns in Alabama. I, for one, have a close college friend, a very prominent Democratic operative based in DC, who also has worked Alabama races. That’s not particularly unusual. You go where jobs are, where campaigns are, sometimes you hit it big and get a high-profile candidate, and land in the White House (i.e. Carville, Atwater, Rove, et al.) But you seem to think that because they work in Alabama, they have an interest in future races for which they are not paid, and do not have a candidate. That’s not at all a safe assumption, nor is it how the business works. But further, you also seem to think that a White House counselor who previously worked races in Alabama (and just about every other Southern state where he could get a candidate to hire him) has an interest in all future races. While he may for reasons for which we now are not aware, this on its face does not logically connect, despite the rather sensational, and quite unbelievable, uncorroborated claims to date that have been made by one person.

We could recount once again the four campaigns on which Rove worked in our newspaper, which we have done numerous times. Frankly, I’m not sure any of that matters. But again, you must remember, I do not, as a matter of routine, believe that black helicopters are flying above.

So there you have it. A serious reporter would have plowed in and asked Rove questions about his actual involvement in electoral politics in Alabama—that is, he or she would have examined the predicates of the Simpson story to see if any of them tally. But not Blackledge. In his mind, Rove is uninvolved, so there is no point in asking any such questions. Moreover, people who believe that he is involved “believe that black helicopters are flying above.”

And certainly, Blackledge speaks conclusively from real life when he tells us that the simple fact that a man was involved in four races long ago does not mean he has any interest in things transpiring today. I’d love to know what kind of real life experience that is. No doubt about one thing: Blackledge is just the kind of reporter Karl Rove loves

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