BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. If you were wondering how the Justice Department thought it could get away with firing eight federal prosecutors on the thinnest of pretexts, now you have an answer. Eight is a lot fewer than ninety-three, and that, we now know, is how many the White House believed should be canned.
Emails documenting that recommendation surfaced this week, resulting in the resignation of a top aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The emails suggest that the so-called "Gonzales aide" may have been fired for going too hard on Republicans in their districts or too soft on the Democrats.
Now, a few years ago, two communications professors, Donald Shields and John Cragan, had a hunch that something odd was afoot in justice, so they set out to catalog federal investigations and indictments of some 375 elected officials. Cragan was struck by what he found. JOHN CRAGAN: What we found is that about seven to 8 out of 10 times they investigated a Democrat over a Republican. And the statistical analysis says that the chances of that happening by random, about one in ten–thousand. There are roughly 50 percent Democrats and 41 percent Republicans and 9 percent Independents nationally, so if they were doing their job, we should have found an investigation rate of that same ratio.
Instead, we found 79 percent Democratic, about 17 percent Republican and the rest of the few percents Independent. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, just to be clear, all the entries in your database are investigations or indictments that were previously recorded in the media, right? JOHN CRAGAN: Yes. What we looked at were posted news stories by journalists. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So it's possible that the number of investigations could be a lot higher, since a lot of the original stories were launched on leaks. JOHN CRAGAN: Exactly. I mean, that's our point, is that it's a sad state of affairs in this country when a couple of unfunded, you know, university professors are happening to gather this data. And we can't even get data of who was convicted, you know, who is currently indicted, and God knows you can't get data on who's investigated, because the powers of a secret grand jury investigation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you actually don't have any idea how close your numbers reflect what the disparity between Republicans and Democrats is. JOHN CRAGAN: We only have data on what has been put on the public record. That is entirely correct. However, when you've got large numbers like we have, if 10 more cases were released, this ratio was not going to change. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why haven't any reporters up until now been able to connect the dots? JOHN CRAGAN: Well, two reasons. One is these stories tend to be local stories, and so the average reporter is reporting a corruption in the investigation in Minneapolis or one in Detroit. And if it's not a senator or a high-profile congressperson, odds are it never gets on the national spotlight. And the reporters that are doing the big-picture stories never see these other stories.
The second reason is that there isn't a national register where any reporter in a click of a mouse could see a running total of how many politicians have been investigated, charged, convicted and what party they're at. This data, I mean, we tried. You can't get it any other way than the way we did. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But are you sure that what you've uncovered is, as you call it, political profiling? I mean, if the investigations of Democrats result in, say, convictions, isn't that proof enough that the investigations have been justified? JOHN CRAGAN: Well, when we change administrations and we now have attorneys appointed by a Democratic president, if we find that eight out of ten of the politicians indicted were Republicans, we'd say, I think the system's broke.
On the other hand, if it turns out we continue to have, you know, eight out of ten indictments being Democrats, well, then maybe we've got a corrupt political party. But the way it stands now, you can't reasonably argue it either way. BROOKE GLADSTONE: If the 8 prosecutors who were fired were fired because of their political independence, does that mean the prosecutors who are still in their jobs were functioning as party hacks? JOHN CRAGAN: Well, you know, you wind up sounding like such a conspiratorial nut, you know, when you try to respond to that. But, you know, you say, gee, if this whole selection has been heavily political loyalty, you know, and ideological purity, maybe we should worry about the Gonzales 85 and not the Gonzales 8. It's scary. It really scares me. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Here's the question that ends almost every interview. How do you think the media should be reporting this story? JOHN CRAGAN: Well, I mean, the average journalist is up against it, because it's always catch-22. When they go ask a U.S. attorney and say, well, we heard a leak that you're looking at this politician, can you confirm or deny – can neither confirm or deny.
Then the burden is thrown on the reporter. The reporter has to make a professional decision. Should I take this leak that's been given to me and put this person's name in print, because just being accused can be such a political liability? Or should I not tell this story? What is my duty to the public? And so what happens when we fear, you know, for the independence of our U.S. attorneys, the journalist fears their ability to do their job. So it screws up the Fourth Estate along with our judicial system, in other words. BROOKE GLADSTONE: John, thank you very much. JOHN CRAGAN: Okay. BROOKE GLADSTONE: John Cragan is a communications professor at the University of St. Thomas. We'll link to his study at our website at onthemedia.org.