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On September 28 and 29, CNN news personalities repeatedly cited and played footage of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's (R-TX) September 28 accusation that Travis County, Texas, District Attorney Ronnie Earle is a "partisan fanatic" and an "unabashed partisan zealot" who is prosecuting DeLay for political reasons, without noting that most of the public officials Earle has prosecuted were Democrats. Similarly, on the September 28 edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country, MSNBC chief Washington correspondent Norah O'Donnell aired DeLay's charges without noting Earle's history of prosecuting Democrats.
As a May 15 Los Angeles Times Magazine article reported, "Over the years his [Earle's] Public Integrity Unit has prosecuted 15 elected officials, including 12 Democrats." Dallas Morning News senior political writer Wayne Slater refuted accusations that Earle's prosecution is politically motivated. In an interview on the September 29 broadcast of NPR's Morning Edition, Slater said that Earle has a record of going "after people in power." Slater added, "When Democrats were in power, he went after Democrats, brought many of them down, including a former Texas House speaker, a member of the Supreme Court." Slater, who has "watched Ronnie Earle for almost 20 years now," described him as "more an idealist than an ideologue" and said Earle is worried about "the future of democracy and the role that big money plays."
Notwithstanding that Earle's record has been widely reported, as well as noted repeatedly by Media Matters for America, CNN's American Morning host Miles O'Brien said in a September 29 interview with DeLay attorney Dick DeGuerin, "This is a liberal Democrat district attorney, and I understand all of the implications of all of that and all of the cases he has attempted in the past aimed at Republicans." Elsewhere in the show, O'Brien reported that "Tom DeLay says his indictment in a campaign-finance scandal is the product of a partisan witch hunt by a Democratic district attorney," while noting only that Earle "says it's not about politics, but criminal intent." After CNN political analyst Ron Brownstein cited DeLay's role in the controversial Texas redistricting effort, O'Brien suggested that "a lot of people would say, 'Hey, this is just sour grapes on the part of Democrats.' "
O'Brien's comments contrast sharply with a report by CNN congressional correspondent Joe Johns on the September 28 edition of CNN's The Situation Room. Johns noted that while Earle is a Democrat, he has prosecuted more "Democrats than Republicans." Johns then showed video of a press conference in which Earle responded to DeLay by noting that he had prosecuted 15 public officials, "12 of whom were Democrats and three of whom were Republicans." Johns delivered a similar report two hours later on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight.
However, in a taped report subsequently aired by CNN on the September 28 editions of Anderson Cooper 360 and NewsNight with Aaron Brown and the September 29 editions of CNN Live at Daybreak and American Morning, Johns cited DeLay's accusation that Earle is a Democratic "zealot" without noting that Earle had mostly prosecuted Democrats in the past. Johns's report also included unchallenged footage of DeLay claiming the indictment was a "premeditated campaign of political retribution ... led by a partisan fanatic."
Similarly, on the September 28 edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country, MSNBC chief Washington correspondent Norah O'Donnell played footage of DeLay accusing Earle of "blatant political partisanship" and reported DeLay's claim that Earle is a "partisan fanatic." While O'Donnell noted that Earle "denied politics was involved" and played footage of him describing the conspiracy charges against DeLay, she did not include his record of prosecuting Democrats.
From the September 29 edition of CNN's American Morning:
O'BRIEN: Tom DeLay says his indictment in a campaign-finance scandal is the product of a partisan witch hunt by a Democratic district attorney. The Texas prosecutor, though, says it's not about politics, but criminal intent. The indictment might not be the last straw for Republicans, but it is part of a fairly big bale of political trouble. CNN political analyst Ron Brownstein, also with the L.A. Times, joining us from Washington. Ron, good to have you back with us. Let's just talk briefly so people fully understand what Tom DeLay has been charged with here.
BROWNSTEIN: He's been charged with conspiracy in attempt alleged by the prosecutor to evade Texas law, which prohibits corporate contributions to legislative candidates. The charge is that Mr. DeLay participated in a conspiracy to funnel money through the Republican National Committee, corporate money, to those candidates in evasion of Texas law. Now, the first question people will ask is, "Well, why does the House majority leader want to elect state legislative candidates in Texas?" He wanted to elect them so they would reopen the redistricting plan, which is usually done once a decade after the census, the drawing of congressional district lines. He wanted the new Republican majority to draw lines more favorable to Republican candidates. That's exactly what they did when after took power in 2002, and Republicans gained five seats out of the Texas delegation to solidify their majority in the House.
O'BRIEN: And it was actually a very successful strategy, and a lot of people would say, "Hey, this is just sour grapes on the part of Democrats."
O'BRIEN: Let's try to, if we could, if it is at all possible, to separate the politics here for a moment. I don't know if that is possible.
DeGUERIN: That's impossible to do.
O'BRIEN: This is a liberal Democrat district attorney, and I understand all of the implications of all of that and all of the cases he has attempted in the past aimed at Republicans. But I'd like to get to the facts of this case, if we could.
From Johns's report, which appeared on the September 28 editions of CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 and NewsNight with Aaron Brown and the September 29 editions of CNN Live at Daybreak and American Morning:
JOHNS: The immediate impact was pure politics. DeLay was forced to temporarily give up his position as House Majority Leader, his title, his suite of offices, his control over the House floor and he lashed out at the man who took it all away.
DeLAY: This act is the product of a coordinated, premeditated campaign of political retribution. The all-too-predictable result of a vengeful investigation led by a partisan fanatic.
JOHNS: Behind the legal fight, a clash of two very different and powerful personalities. DeLay is known as the hammer for his ability to impose discipline on House Republicans and his impressive legislative track record. Earle is a true believer in the cause of getting the big money out of politics. Some say he's a zealot. Earle is a Democrat, he's raised money for the party and he's also a classic Texas populist.
From the September 28 edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country:
O'DONNELL: And his indictment makes DeLay the highest ranking member of Congress ever in history to face criminal indictment. Now, today, DeLay strongly proclaimed his innocence. He insisted that he has done nothing wrong. Here's DeLay.
DeLAY: This morning, in an act of blatant political partisanship, a rogue district attorney in Travis County, Texas, named Ronnie Earle charged me with one count of criminal conspiracy, a reckless charge wholly unsupported by the facts. This is one of the weakest, most baseless indictments in American history. It's a sham and Mr. Earle knows it.
O'DONNELL: DeLay went on to say that it was a political vendetta. He called it a witch-hunt, and he denounced that Democratic prosecutor as a -- quote, unquote -- partisan fanatic. But the prosecutor, Ronnie Earle, responded to that. He denied that politics was involved, and he said his job was to prosecute cases of abuse of power.
EARLE: The indictment describes a scheme whereby corporate money, which cannot be given to candidates in Texas, was sent to the Republican National Committee, where it was exchanged for money raised from individuals.