Saturday, August 12, 2006

The N&O's Rogers: "I'm Not Smart Enough"

For his final 18 months as White House press secretary, Scott McClellan was regularly peppered by the media for comment about allegations that Karl Rove leaked material relating to the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame. McClellan’s regular response: he couldn’t comment while an investigation was proceeding, and the truth would come out at trial. This non-response response persuaded few in the White House press corps, which understood that McClellan’s procedural gambit was nothing more than an excuse to avoid discussing Rove’s conduct.

In this morning’s N&O, columnist Dennis Rogers sides with McClellan, and effectively says that the nation’s top journalists didn’t know what they were doing when they pressed McClellan for an opinion regarding the Plame inquiry. He says that the press and especially the bloggers (he joins Mike Nifong in denouncing the pernicious effects of the blogs) must remain “very, very quiet,” thereby “trusting American justice.” We must wait for the truth, muses Rogers, and express no opinions: "that's why we wisely let juries determine the painful truth in this country." It seems as if Rogers hasn’t read Susan Estrich’s latest column—which accurately points out that a trial will only inflame racial sentiments in the community, while likely leaving disappointed those eager for the “truth.”

Moreover, Rogers seems to misunderstand the purpose of juries, which is to render a verdict—guilty or not guilty. It is not a jury’s job to "determine the painful truth." “Innocent” is not among a jury’s choices. Unlike, say, the 9/11 Commission, a jury doesn’t release a report explaining its decision and attempting to show the public the “truth.” Indeed, there sometimes is no relationship between the “truth” and a jury’s verdict. A not-guilty verdict could be based on a jury's belief that the defendants probably committed the crime, but the prosecution didn't meet its very high standards. A guilty verdict (as the N&O’s pathbreaking coverage of the Alan Gell case revealed) can sometimes result from excessive emotionalism or prosecutorial misconduct. In both cases, the "truth" would have differed from the jury's verdict.

Rogers also seems unaware of a cardinal principle of American constitutional law since Mapp v. Ohio. Juries do not hear evidence obtained through police or prosecutorial misconduct; and prosecutorial misconduct of a sufficient degree (as in, say, when a prosecutor orders a police department to violate its own procedures in obtaining evidence) means that a case doesn't go to a jury. For Rogers, however, remaining “very, very quiet” in the face of such misconduct means “trusting American justice.” If only Alan Gell's prosecutors could have arranged for Rogers to coordinate the N&O's coverage of the case, Gell might still be on death row.

A few people in the contemporary climate have, indeed, claimed that the public and the press should remain silent as prosecutors have carte blanche to do as they please, regardless of the law or procedures. These people have, from time to time, included McClellan’s former superiors, and it seems as if, once again, Rogers prefers to follow the McClellan line. Easier, I suppose, than doing some original thinking.

If we have any institution in this country that has a task of ferreting out "the painful truth in this country," it is the media. In his column, Rogers explains why he’s unable to fulfill this task: “Turns out I am a moron for not seeing what is clearly going on in Durham.” In light of this admission, perhaps the N&O should raise its hiring standards.


Anonymous said...

Have you considered doing an interview with Gary Pruitt, CEO of McClatchy, about the N&O's March 24 and March 25 stories and other examples of slipshod journalism?

Anonymous said...

Excellent article. Using Mr.Roger's comments it might be better for the N & O to not report on any future cases, but wait for the Jury to discover the truth.