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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Horton and History in Huntsville

A slice of Alabama history took place in Huntsville last night. Let's hope that slice turns into a huge tasty pie, filled with heaping gobs of justice.

Scott Horton, of Harper's magazine, spoke at a meeting of North Alabama Media Reform on the campus of the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

I hate that I was not able to attend. But that makes me extra grateful to the fine folks at Left in Alabama, who provided outstanding coverage.

You can check out a clip from Horton's lecture here. You can check out comments by former Governor Don Siegelman here. And the evening would not have been complete without an appearance by Mobile Press-Register reporter Eddie Curran. Our guy Eddie was in full rude, bull-headed mode, and you can get an eyeful of his act here.

What made this rather intimate gathering historic? We are on the verge of learning about what might prove to be the worst scandal in American history. If the scandal truly is unearthed, and the whole story told, its origins will be placed in Alabama. And the Paul Revere of this tale--the guy who sounded the alarm on the national stage long before anyone else did--will be Horton.

I'm not aware of any coverage of the event in the Birmingham press. The Huntsville Times did have a reporter on hand, and you can read her story here.

Horton took issue with The Birmingham News and the Mobile Press-Register and their coverage of Siegelman's administration and subsequent prosecution. Horton noted that prosecutors might have committed crimes by feeding confidential information to those papers.

Here's an interesting quote from Press-Register Editor Mike Marshall. He said he was proud of the paper's coverage, "beginning with stories about that administration's considerable achievements but ending with coverage of activity that certainly seemed corrupt."

Certainly seemed corrupt? That statement gives the impression that leaders at the Mobile paper did not grasp the legal component of a story that had huge law-enforcement issues.

Curran's statements at the event give the same impression. Curran rattled on about warehouse deals and motorcycle deals etc., but never provides any context. And neither did his stories. Were these alleged actions by Siegelman actually corrupt and unlawful? Did the Mobile paper make any attempt to understand the relevant statutory and case law? Did the paper ever make an attempt to explain how Siegelman's actions differed from those of previous governors--or those of current governor, Republican Bob Riley? Did the paper make any effort to educate itself--or its readers--about honest-services mail fraud, which made up roughly two-thirds of the charges against Siegelman and five of the seven counts on which he was convicted? Has the paper made any effort to report on U.S. Judge Mark Fuller's unsavory background and his clear conflicts in the case? Has the paper made any effort to determine if the jury instructions Fuller presented coincided with actual law?

The answers are no, no, no, no, no, and no. Those are just a few of the questions that should make any coherent reader roll his eyes when he hears Marshall say, "Our news stories have been objective throughout."

Even prosecutors evidently did not think quite a few of Siegelman's actions amounted to crimes because those events were not included in the indictment. And the jury that heard the case essentially rejected everything except the alleged deal with former HealthSouth CEO Richard Scrushy.

Horton was right on target when he said the Alabama press "fell down in its responsibility" to accurately investigate and report the story behind Siegelman's prosecution. And he provided important historical context, noting that Alabama newspapers in 1878 vilified Chief Justice Thomas Minott Peters for trying to promote racial equality.

But I hope Horton will eventually go a step further. The dismal performance of the Alabama press goes beyond the Siegelman case and federal courts. Alabama state courts are a cesspool, with Republicans dominating at the appellate level and trial-court judges getting away with blatant abuse of many citizens who come before them.

In Shelby County, one of the state's fastest growing counties, I have a front-row seat to a modern Alabama police state. Local GOP authorities are threatening to unlawfully seize and auction my house because they don't like the inconvenient truths I'm reporting on this blog.

Horton praised small-town Alabama papers such as the Anniston Star and the Decatur Daily, and they certainly deserve a seat at the head of the journalism class in our state. But that's not saying much. Have those papers done anything to inform their readers about the police state that exists just south of Birmingham, our largest city? Nope. Have they taken a cold, hard look at the Alabama Supreme Court's ExxonMobil ruling and explained how the court acted unlawfully and intentionally cheated the state out of a $3.6 billion judgment? Nope.

Let's hope that last night's event proves to be a significant stop on what promises to be a long, tough road to justice. Corruption in Alabama is deep seated, and the story only begins with the Don Siegelman case. It certainly does not end there.

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