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Sunday, August 24, 2008

A "Verdict" on Dan Abrams

The news that a show hosted by Rachel Maddow will replace The Verdict with Dan Abrams on MSNBC drew mixed reaction here in SchnauzerWorld.

Maddow is one of the sharpest liberal voices to come along in years, and she richly deserves an hour-long slot on the network that is becoming must-see TV for folks who enjoy a little thinking along with their politics.

I had become disenchanted with The Verdict in recent months. But anyone who cares about justice issues, particularly those of us who live in Alabama, will miss Dan Abrams.

Abrams did more than anyone else in broadcast journalism to bring the Bush Justice Department scandal to public awareness. And his focus on the Don Siegelman prosecution was both enlightening and appropriate, given that the scandal's roots, to a great degree, are in Alabama.

As The Verdict exits stage right, I'm disappointed that the show didn't fulfill its considerable potential. I believe there is a significant appetite out there for justice news and analysis that is presented in an understandable and compelling way. Abrams, at his best, showed he could fill that need.

But for reasons I will never understand, the show in its last weeks moved away from justice stories and meandered into celebrity/gossip territory, with the occasional sashay into the Greta Van Susteren neighborhood. (Dear God, a white female is missing somewhere on the planet!)

Even The Verdict's most recent reports on the Justice Department scandal missed the mark. A few weeks back, Abrams had a segment featuring Don Siegelman and former New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias. Both were excellent choices to be on the program, and you could see that they were itching to make critical points about the evolving scandal. But they must have said about three sentences between them as Abrams focused on Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff, who seemed mainly interested in serving as Karl Rove's water boy. It was a depressing case of Abrams missing a chance to educate the public about a vitally important subject.

Even though Abrams did better than anyone else in broadcast journalism on the Bush DOJ story, he still missed numerous opportunities. Why not look into the Paul Minor case in Mississippi, the Georgia Thompson case in Wisconsin, the Cyril Wecht case in Pennsylvania? Why not look into all of the U.S. attorneys who were fired and what led to their dismissals? Why not look into the issue of corrupt federal judges, focusing on Mark Fuller in Alabama and Henry Wingate in Mississippi? And as Siegelman himself suggested, why not look at figures other than Karl Rove in his story--people like Bill and Leura Canary, Alice Martin, Rob Riley, Eddie Curran, and Brett Blackledge?

At other times, Abrams slipped into that familiar "he said/she said" format, where a Democrat is paired with a Republican to present some appearance of balance. This is the kind of thing that Arianna Huffington has rightly criticized, and Abrams (unfortunately) had become one of its regular practitioners.

For example, why on earth was Pat Buchanan on The Verdict so often? The world doesn't already know what Buchanan thinks about most issues?

At least Buchanan can be interesting at times. But the real debacle on The Verdict was making right-wing mouthpiece Brad Blakeman a regular "contributor." Blakeman is the worst sort of partisan shill, and any segment on which he appeared quickly became a waste of airtime.

I wouldn't be surprised if the decision to make Blakeman a regular was the single biggest factor in The Verdict's demise.

Abrams still will serve as legal analyst for NBC. I hope that he or someone else will eventually fill the need for a program about justice that isn't watered down and educates its audience about a justice system that is badly broken.

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