Mike Wallace, the Redeemer

CBS's 60 Minutes takes the case, and judge Charles Pickering gets his reputation back

On March 28, the 16.7 million viewers of CBS's 60 Minutes saw Mike Wallace engage in one of the most valuable acts of journalism. Too often, the multiplex media circulate character assassinations from politicians and other reckless sources without doing their own investigating to get the facts straight. Other journalists can be the last resort for the victims of the calumnies.

In his report, "Judge Charles Pickering," Mike Wallace clearly set the record straight on this maligned judge. He and others on 60 Minutes have done this before—a reason the program has such a large audience. People dig fairness.

For two years, this Mississippi federal district judge, a Republican, nominated by the president to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, has been charged with "glaring racial insensitivity" (a Charles Schumer rant). If Pickering could get an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor, he'd be confirmed, but he's been filibustered by the Democrats.

Leading these attacks are Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee—particularly Schumer, whose insistent contempt for the facts of Pickering's record, on and off the bench, reminds me of the temperament, though not the politics, of Joe McCarthy. Also vilifying Pickering have been national leaders of the NAACP and such summer soldiers of due process in judicial nominations as People for the American Way and the Alliance for Justice.

With very few exceptions, newspapers around the country, and most of broadcast and cable television, have routinely passed along these charges. The most egregious offenders have been the editorial writers of The New York Times.

When George W. Bush put Pickering on the Fifth Circuit with a temporary recess appointment on January 16, the next day, the Times once again wrote of Pickering's "skepticism toward cases involving civil rights" and—as it often has—focused on Pickering's having urged federal prosecutors to demand a lesser prison term, despite hate crime sentencing guidelines, in the "case of a man convicted of burning a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple."

As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution emphasized, Pickering's "judicial reputation hangs almost entirely on [this] one explosive case." And that's because the media have ignored the rest of this judge's judicial record—and why he acted the way he did, in the interests of justice, in the cross-burning case.

Last year, I wrote four columns in the Voice on the ordeal of Judge Pickering (February 18, October 28, November 4, November 11), as well as pieces for Editor & Publisher and the United Media syndicate (my column there reaches about 250 papers around the country).

Included in those articles were direct quotes from New York Times reporters David Firestone and Neil Lewis, who went to Mississippi and found direct evidence refuting the Times editorial writers' pernicious misinformation about the judge. The Times editorials entirely ignored what the paper's own reporters had discovered.

So has the Times' semi-public editor (or ombudsman), Daniel Okrent. I say semi-public editor because if you telephone him, as I did twice on this story, you hear that you are likely to get a quicker response if you e-mail him. Otherwise, "Please limit your comments to 30 seconds."

I expect there may be a few hundred thousand New Yorkers, and more around the country, who do not have access to e-mail, and could find it difficult to compress their complaints into 30 seconds. The ombudsman has not returned my calls. Nor has Gail Collins, who is in charge of the editorial board. More democratic than Okrent, her office does not have a 30-second cutoff.

Mike Wallace, despite the Times editorials and the conventional media wisdom about Pickering, went to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to question Judge Pickering and a number of black Mississippians who have followed—and some who have experienced—the judge's record through the years.

Until Wallace's report appeared on 60 Minutes, I thought my attempt to get the story right was one of my losing causes. As one of my mentors in this business, I.F. (Izzy) Stone, told me, "You're going to lose most of those. But why are you there if you don't try?"

As part of his extensive research, Mike Wallace told me, he had read my Voice columns. Next week: what Mike turned up. But first, this exchange during 60 Minutes between Clarence Magee, who heads the NAACP in Hattiesburg, and Charles Evers, brother of the murdered civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

Evers: "You know that Charles Pickering is a man [who] helped us break the Ku Klux Klan?"

Magee said he didn't know that.

Evers: "I know that. Do you know about the young black man that was accused of robbing the young white woman [at knifepoint, when Pickering was a defense trial lawyer]? So Charles Pickering took the case. [It] came to trial, and [Pickering] won the case, and the young man became free."

Magee didn't know that either.

Evers: "But did you also know that Charles Pickering is the man who helped integrate [the] churches [in his hometown]?"

Again, the answer was no.

Evers: "Well, you don't know a thing about Charles Pickering."

Neither does Ted Kennedy, who said of Pickering's recent appointment, "[It's] an insult to every African American."


Next week: The cross-burning case.

 
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