Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Author in Lion's Den: Book excerpt and related YouTube

Here is the link to the video and below, an excerpt from the book explaining it. The push I received, and which is described below, was not caught on the video.


NOTE: The following is an excerpt from the chapter, "Rappin' on Rove," which is in the final section of the book. Scott Horton, a writer for Harper's, wrote more than a hundred on-line columns about the Siegelman prosecution and is a major character in this last section. Horton, as will be seen in the book, had an influence on the national perception of the Siegelman case that far exceeded his work for Harper's. It was for this reason that a group in Huntsville invited the New York writer to Alabama to speak about the case and the coverage of the former governor in the state's media, primarily in the pages of the Mobile Register and Birmingham News.

Here's the excerpt:

      In early April 2008 I learned that Horton was coming to Huntsville to speak to a group formed for the sole purpose of hosting him and calling itself, “North Alabamians for Media Reform.”
     “Watchdogs or Lap Dogs?:  Politics and the Alabama Press,” was advertised as a one-man screed against the Alabama media, and chiefly, the Newhouse bad boys, the Mobile Register and Birmingham News. I asked to be permitted to give a short rebuttal at the end, remarking that any entity seeking to promote media reform would naturally wish to present both sides. The offer was rejected.
       I decided to once again violate protocol. By this point I knew that Horton was to be a major actor in the book, figured I needed to see him in action, and made the seven-hour drive to the lion’s den in Huntsville. Siegelman’s hard-core support in Alabama is skin deep, but its alligator skin, and the crowd of about 200 represented the outer layer. Some of the true believers came from out of state to see the event.
      Siegelman was there, as was Jill Simpson, and Pam Miles, a Huntsville activist and blindly devoted Siegelman backer who played a substantial role in the grassroots effort to drum up support for her hero. Glynn Wilson, the lone force behind the “Locust Fork” blog, attended. To my disappointment, the Legal Schnauzer was a no show.
      The area media was there in force, including at least one Huntsville television station.
      I sat a few rows from the front. Siegelman, who received a standing ovation upon entering, was in the row behind me. Simpson, befitting her role as star, sat in the front row with Priscilla Duncan, her lawyer and my old friend.
     Horton opened with his professorial survey of the Alabama media’s failings after the Civil War; then during the Civil Rights Movement; and finally -- the state media’s third epochal collapse and the reason we were all gathered – our coverage of the Siegelman case. The crowd tittered in delight when Horton remarked that a recent story by one of the violators “tops anything I ever remember in the Soviet press.”
      Pravda under Stalin, concealing death camps and mass assassinations? Move over guys. Here comes the Mobile Register and the Birmingham News with stories about Don Siegelman!
       After a stretch of this, and some business about the Newhouse organization, I was moved to stand up for Sy and my faraway masters in New York. I told Horton and the crowd that the Newhouse organization most assuredly had not directed me or anyone else at the paper to go after Siegelman.
      Horton, all innocence, asked where I’d read that. He said he’d merely written that the state’s papers were part of a “consolidated” media group. “That doesn’t mean the Newhouse organization ordered its newspapers to go after him. That’s ridiculous,” he said.
       That one left me speechless. Had I a photographic memory, there’s no shortage of examples I could have reeled off. In column after column he’d accused the Register and News of joining forces to bring down Siegelman, and never failed to make the Newhouse connection. 
      After the Huntsville Times wrote disparagingly of Siegelman, Horton ripped the Times as well, not forgetting to link that paper to its two Newhouse cousins.
      In a column printed in the Anniston Star, Horton wrote that if a “miscarriage of justice occurred, then the press in Alabama bears a large part of the blame. By press, I mean one media company, Newhouse Newspapers…”
      It was these claims, not his backing of Jill Simpson, that brought the otherwise unknown Harper’swriter to at the attention of the people at the Register, the News, and, after he started lumping them in with us, the folks at the Huntsville Times as well. The Anniston column prompted a response from Times' columnist John Ehinger.
     In, “Three state papers find themselves the targets of a N.Y. writer,” he wrote that Horton “implies that joint ownership of the three papers somehow affects editorial policy, including editorial policy in the Siegelman case.”

And then:

      I find it “curious” -- to use Horton’s term -- that although he claims to have studied press coverage of the case for two months he offers not a single editorial, news story, headline, paragraph or sentence in evidence. As a lawyer, would he limit his case to a jury to a summary of the evidence without presenting any actual evidence? I doubt it…
     Scott Horton is a skilled writer and, I presume, a competent lawyer. Maybe the next time he'll provide some facts to support his claims and refrain from painting journalists he doesn't know with a brush so broad and, ultimately, so misleading.

      But I had no such retort ready for Horton’s willingness to run away from his own words and innuendo and stammered some lame response. He moved on, informing the audience that the Register published more than 100 stories on no bid contracts. He said reporters for the Mobile and Birmingham papers “knew what grand jury witnesses said” and that we were either “the hottest thing since Clark Kent” or had been fed secret grand jury testimony by the prosecutors.
      Had he taken the time to ask me, Kim Chandler or Phil Rawls – the latter an AP reporter, with no fealty real or imagined to Si Newhouse -- we could have told him that we only knew what grand jury witnesses said when the witnesses told us, which they rarely did. If Horton had read the stories, he would have known that.
     I let that one pass, but moved to correct his generalization about our stories. This did not sit well with the audience. I pointed back toward Siegelman and told Horton that the governor had thanked me for my stories on the G.H. Construction warehouse deal. I said my stories weren’t just about no-bid contracts, but also reported, among other things, that Siegelman received more than $1.3 million in legal fees while governor; that he sold his house to a straw man for twice its value; and that his administration arranged to slash the hazardous waste fees at Emelle so Lanny Young could get paid $500,000 by Waste Management.
       “Where’s your question buddy? You’re on a rant. We don’t give a damn about your rant,” howled a man behind me, and who’d been razzing me.
        I told him I was correcting Horton because he had mischaracterized my stories. Horton said it “may be surprising to your fellow reporters” were they to hear me saying I wrote all the Siegelman pieces. He said I was not the only reporter at the Register. To which I told him, that, well, I did write the stories.
        "I think y’all are afraid to hear an opposing viewpoint,” I said. “You (Horton) never called the Newhouses or my paper because you don’t like opposing viewpoints.”
        It was about then that the guy behind me pushed me -- not hard enough to knock me over, but a good nudge nonetheless. I turned around and told him, rather sternly, not to do that again, not knowing how in the world I would back up such a threat should he do it again.
        One of the event organizers came to the front. She said that as a radical Democrat she, like others in attendance, have “had to sit in rooms and been berated for our positions ... If we’re going to change this country then we have to have civil discourse on both sides…Until we can do that we are no better than those we oppose.”
       The woman, Yolanda McClain, said that “whether or not (I was) swayed or not from powers outside his control or directed” to write what I wrote was for others to decide. She didn’t mean it ugly, but that was the gist of the program -- that I and others with the Register and Birmingham News had willingly served as pawns for Republican politicians and prosecutors.
       Whether I was standing up for myself or once again revealing thin skin is a close call, but I told McLain it was “insulting to me to tell me I’ve been influenced by powers outside my control.”
       The scene – from my first objections, to the shouts for me to sit down to McLain’s talk to the crowd – was posted on YouTube, though without the push. I saw it and, to my surprise, thought I did OK. 
       After the program McLain apologized for the behavior of the man behind me. She seemed a kind, intelligent woman, if misguided on this issue....
        Stories in the Huntsville and Decatur papers and the report by the Huntsville television station reported my objections to Horton’s statements and the crowd’s shouting me down. If nothing else, my presence helped give voice in those reports to a viewpoint other than that of the visiting expert from Harper’s.
      Ehinger, the Huntsville editor, had been there, and penned his second column on Horton. Of my contributions to the evening he wrote:
     Alas, one person who apparently doesn't have a thick skin is Eddie Curran, a reporter for The Press-Register who has written extensively about the Siegelman case and other matters related to the former governor's administration. Curran, who is on leave from the Press-Register and is writing a book about Siegelman, was at UAH for Horton's talk.
… Curran objected to Horton’s statement that he and others must have been fed confidential information by the attorneys prosecuting Siegelman. That might have turned into an interesting discussion but for the fact that when Curran tried to speak, he was repeatedly told by audience members to shut up and do other things. That’s the passion I mentioned earlier -- passion and rudeness.

      After the program, Jill Simpson told a Huntsville TV reporter that Siegelman “got destroyed by those individuals and it is very much a raw deal.” 
      She reached into the now familiar forensics bag of quotes, pointing to the ever-present Republican “fingerprints” on the Siegelman prosecution.
     “They’re smeared all over it,” she said.

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