The Associated Press confirmed this afternoon that former Alaska senator Ted Stevens has died in a plane crash in his home state.
You can expect to see a gaggle of Washington figures competing over the coming days to outdo one another in praising the eighty-six-year old ex-legislator—and whitewashing his record in the process. And since you can also expect the Beltway press to play right along, it’s worth getting out ahead of this impending train wreck.
First, a little back-story: Stevens, a Republican who had served in the Senate since 1968, was voted out of office in 2008, after being convicted that fall on corruption charges. But last year, the conviction was thrown out, after serious misconduct by federal prosecutors came to light.
That prompted a raging Beltway pity party in Stevens’s honor. The former senator was portrayed as having had his reputation unfairly blackened by baseless charges, only to be exonerated after losing his seat. “How does he get his reputation back?” asked an outraged Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), in one typical response.
News outlets like The Washington Post and Politico ate this stuff up. Meanwhile, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews told viewers the overturning of the conviction meant that “the charges should never have been brought.” George Stephanopoulos of ABC News tweeted that it was “hard not to feel sorry for Ted Stevens.”
This was—to use a technical term—crap. In rushing to lionize a Washington fixture, the media willfully misunderstood what had and hadn’t occurred during the legal process.
Stevens’s conviction was thrown out on appeal, after the Justice Department announced it was dropping the case because of several prosecutorial missteps. The most serious of those was the failure by prosecutors to turn over to Stevens’s lawyers a key piece of evidence suggesting that the main witness for the prosecution, oil-services contractor Bill Allen, had contradicted himself. It’s true that had defense lawyers had access to that information, they could have more easily challenged Allen’s credibility, and maybe—or maybe not—avoided a conviction.
But even though it’s no longer certain that Stevens would have been criminally convicted under a fair process, the trial nonetheless conclusively established that Stevens acted unethically by using his position for major personal gain. There’s no dispute that Stevens improperly accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of home renovations and gifts—including a luxury massage chair—from Allen. Nor is there any debate that, as chair of the Senate’s appropriations committee, Stevens was in a position to significantly affect Allen’s business interests.
Stevens’s reputation took a hit not primarily because of over-zealous government lawyers, but because of his own unethical conduct. As Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington put it, according to The Hill’s paraphrase: “[Attorney General Eric] Holder’s decision [to drop the case] in no way should be viewed as a vindication of Stevens but rather as an indictment of the Justice Department’s inability to do one of its most important jobs.”
To be clear: No one wants to speak ill of the dead, and there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with news outlets treating Stevens respectfully. But that’s different from aiding in the willful distortion of a major coda to the late senator’s career in public life. And yet, when lawmakers on both sides of the aisle line up to beatify their old friend in the coming days, here’s betting that much of the press will play along.Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.