Pressing Issues: WHY THE ‘underdog’ barked on SCANDAL

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By: Greg Mitchell

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 “Eightgate” 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 in mid-March, with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales seemingly on the verge of losing his 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.” Then on Feb. 28 came: “Political Interference Alleged in Sacking of a U.S. Attorney.” After several more scoops, she reported on March 16 that Gonzales, under fire, had called U.S. attorneys around the country to offer an apology.

So who is Marisa Taylor? After growing up mainly in New Jersey, she started her journalism career at an English-language paper in Mexico City. From there she returned across the border to The Monitor in McAllen, Texas, and then to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, where she focused on the federal courts. Later she covered the federal courts for four years at The San Diego Union-Tribune. Last year, she joined Knight Ridder’s Washington bureau as its final hire before the sale to McClatchy. She suggests she may even have been KR’s “last hire anywhere.”

She was particularly attuned to the attorney-sacking story because she recognizes the importance of federal prosecutors staying above politics. Locals are continually suspicious that corruption charges are motivated by political considerations, “and prosecutors have to demonstrate that’s not the case.”

Early this year, as the buzz and the blogs drove her, she talked to Investigative Editor Jim Asher, and they both wondered: Why were these people fired ? was it part of some larger strategy? So Taylor started calling her contacts, and “a lot of longtime pros were saying this was unusual, even though the administration was saying it wasn’t,” she recalls. She received help from her colleagues Margaret Talev and Ron Hutcheson, especially when she finally tied Karl Rove to the process.

At McClatchy, she explains, “we have to pick and choose. We don’t have the resources to cover everything, but enterprise can be our strength. I can’t beat the Post and Times on leaks, but I can look for enterprise that perhaps they are not covering at that very moment. We try to give our papers something different.” She also declares that “anyone who tries to downplay the role of blogs in coverage of Washington is behind the times.”

McClatchy’s D.C. bureau chief, John Walcott, recalls a Justice Department official telling Taylor that she simply “had” to use certain information he had given her for a story. According to Walcott, Taylor replied: “I will decide what goes in my story. You won’t.”

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