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How McClatchy Reporter Cracked 'AttorneyGate' Scandal

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

How McClatchy Reporter Cracked 'AttorneyGate' Scandal

Article excerpt

The current scandal swirling around the firing of eight U.S. attorneys first reached the mainstream media in a major way via a report from McClatchy Newspapers' Washington, D.C., bureau. That scoop had been fed by items that had appeared for weeks on political blogs. How is it that the resource-rich Washington Post and New York Times did not break the "AttorneyGate" story above ground?

One reason was that McClatchy's Marisa Taylor had only worked inside the Beltway for less than a year and had brought with her years of experience covering federal courts in distant parts of the country.

"It helped still being an outsider here," Taylor, 37, told me, with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales facing the possible loss of his own job. "And as a bureau we are underdogs in terms of resources, and that can sometimes help us. It encourages us to maybe look outside the Beltway. We were willing to believe the Justice Department if it provided evidence that this was not political, but also willing to look at other explanations. We were willing to be a watchdog."

This sounded exactly like what Knight Ridder's Washington bureau -- before it combined with McClatchy's office -- did in taking an unusually skeptical view of the administration's claims on Iraqi WMDs in the run-up to the war.

For weeks, reports of suspicious firings of well-qualified U.S. attorneys had been appearing on the blogs, particularly at Talking Points Memo. The Wall Street Journal eventually noted some of the dismissals. Taylor had been following it all, but also hearing a lot of "buzz" about this being a political deal from her contacts in the legal community across the country.

Her first bombshell appeared on Jan. 26, opening with: "Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is transforming the ranks of the nation's top federal prosecutors by firing some and appointing conservative loyalists from the Bush administration's inner circle who critics say are unlikely to buck Washington. ... With Congress now controlled by the Democrats, critics fear that in some cases Gonzales is trying to skirt the need for Senate confirmation by giving new U.S. attorneys interim appointments for indefinite terms."

She moved the story along in a Feb. 12 article headlined, "5 Ousted U.S. Attorneys Received Positive Job Evaluations. …

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