Way before the story of the fired U.S. attorneys hit the front pages, it was front and center on TPM Muckraker. The blog's reporter Paul Kiel describes how his site has mixed investigative reporting with the power of the reading masses to advance the story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. On Tuesday, in front of the press and the nation, the President explained how he would clear the air clouded by the scandal over the dismissal of eight federal prosecutors.
PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: In the last 24 hours, the Justice Department has provided the Congress more than 3,000 pages of internal Justice Department documents, including those reflecting direct communications with White House staff. BOB GARFIELD: Extraordinary, both as a window into the deliberations of the nation's top law enforcement agency and as a serious document dump. Those pages were released to the media Monday night, causing a mad scramble right up to deadline – that is, if you were a slave to a deadline.
The media outlet that has kept this story on a low boil since the middle of January actually is a blog, called Talking Points Memo Muckraker. Started by Josh Marshall, the site has just three real reporters but also an army of readers who serve as deputized researchers. Now they're poring over the documents around the clock.
TPM Muckraker Paul Kiel has been investigating this story and collecting readers' findings for months. Paul, welcome to the show. PAUL KIEL: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: When did you get on to this story? PAUL KIEL: I believe it was January 13th. A particular U.S. attorney in San Diego, named Carol Lam, had been leading the Duke Cunningham investigation. The investigation had already netted the guilty plea of one member of Congress to Cunningham, but looked set to indict the executive director of the CIA as well as a very high-profile Republican defense contractor.
And so, when she was resigned and it was obvious that she had been pushed out, we put that together with a story of another U.S. attorney who had been pushed out in Arkansas. A former aide of Karl Rove had been suddenly installed as the U.S. attorney there. And over the next couple of days, it became apparent that U.S. attorneys all over the country had resigned, and it only became apparent after a number of days that all of these people had been forced out by the Justice Department. BOB GARFIELD: If I were at a regular news organization, you know, it's a matter of getting on the phone, cultivating sources, finding documents and so forth. But at Talking Points Memo and tpmmuckraker.com you have the advantage of having an audience that is itself quite active.
Tell me about the crowd sourcing behind the coverage of the attorney general scandal. PAUL KIEL: I do a lot of activities which you would characterize as traditional reporting activities, such as talking to people on the Hill, cultivating sources, etc.
But in addition to that, we have thousands of readers who we can draw on, and we used that resource when it wasn't apparent how many prosecutors had been forced out. So people were sending us press accounts from all over the country. And we used it particularly in the last week, when on Monday night the Justice Department turned over 3,000-plus pages of emails, 8:30 at night. If we tried to read all this stuff ourselves, we basically wouldn't post anything for four days.
So it was a perfect opportunity for us to tell our readers, hey, there are images of the documents over here on the House Judiciary Committee's website. We've been covering this for two months, so we have readers who know more about this story than a lot of reporters do, I'd say.
We had sort of a system for people that they could document what they'd found, and after about a couple of days we had more than 700 comments from readers. I'd be very surprised if every reporter covering this story doesn't go to our site regularly. I have to say I have seen stories crop up that did come first from our comments.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, this is not the first time you have recruited your own readers to help with investigations. Can you tell me other examples? PAUL KIEL: A very successful example from last summer - there was a bill moving through the Senate, and the bill created a searchable database of government grants and contracts. You could just go there and see pretty much where your money as a taxpayer is going. And it was being held up, and because of the rules of the Senate, one senator can hold up a bill.
Another conservative blog named Porkbusters had started this effort of getting senators on record as to whether or not they were the one who had placed the hold, the idea being that if you can get 99 no's, then you have the culprit. And we thought it was a pretty good idea, so we got on board.
And, I believe, on Monday there were 30 no's and then by Wednesday or so we'd gotten it down to about 95. And then ultimately Senator Ted Stevens was revealed to have been the person behind the hold, Stevens, of course, being legendary for his pork-barreling abilities. And then we eventually found that there had been a Democratic senator, Robert Byrd, another legendary pork-barreller. It was great to be able to call them out. And, of course, they removed their hold once they were exposed, and the bill went through. BOB GARFIELD: One final thing: This is Thursday that I'm speaking to you, and in this morning's Washington Post there was a piece about yet another U.S. prosecutor who felt pressured to water down her prosecution of big tobacco under the direct orders of Bush political appointees.
I'm curious if you think that we're going to continue to see more and more of these stories surface because of the momentum you and the mainstream media have built on the attorney general story. PAUL KIEL: It's already happening. Yesterday I ran a couple of stories having to do with questions about earlier public corruption investigations. And there was a watchdog organization called Democracy 21 who had serious questions about the handling of the Jack Abramoff investigation. Democrats had serious questions about the Justice Department’s handling of what was called the New Hampshire phone-jamming case, where you had Republicans in the state and national level conspiring to jam the phone lines of Democratic get-out-the vote efforts in 2002.
One of the points that comes out of this scandal is that once you see that the rule of law is not the rule of the Justice Department, that prosecutors are being viewed in a political light, every decision becomes suspect. BOB GARFIELD: Well, Paul, I appreciate your time. PAUL KIEL: Thank you very much. BOB GARFIELD: Paul Kiel is a reporter/blogger for Talking Points Memo and tpmmuckraker.com.