Is Blago guilty until proven innocent?

The ombudsman for NPR, Alicia Shepard, has an excellent piece out today on the media coverage of the Gov. Rod Blagojevich case, and I've been thinking of the same lines. Even a foul-mouthed sleazeball dirty dealing politician -- and Blago is certifiably that -- should be innocent until proven guilty, but it sure feels like it's been the other way around. And Shepard seizes on one of the main culprits -- the swashbuckling prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald:

Blagojevich coverage by NPR and other news outlets is an example of how the media often fail to restrain themselves when a voluble law enforcement official chooses to talk. In this case, there was an easily perceptible tone portraying the prosecutor as the good guy and the defendant as the dark villain -- while the journalists were astonished.

Granted, Blagojevich is not someone who engenders compassion. His foul language, crass approach and arrogance toward the media and political system make him an easy target. Add to that, sensational charges filed by a high-profile, popular prosecutor who convicted former vice presidential aide Scooter Libby of perjury and obstructing the FBI in the Valerie Plame case.

"Blagojevich is hardly a sympathetic character but that doesn't mean we should be intentionally unfair," said Bob Steele, journalism values scholar at the Poynter Institute. "But it is harder to be fair when you have somebody who has behaved as he has. I find it very challenging for journalists to be able to achieve that level of fairness where many cards are faced down and the person accused is taking a hell or high water approach."

Look, journalists pay lip-service to the rule of law but let's be brutally honest, there's one area of law that reporters have no respect for, and that is any law or legal procedure that blocks journalists from getting as much juicy information in print or on the air as quickly as possible, even when those restrictions have merit. When I watched Fitzgerald on TV the morning that Blagojevich, I was stunned by some of the prejudicial things that the lawman was saying, and I think some of the reporters in the room were too. But a journalist is mainly excited by the incredible quotes and soundbites thrown out there by the swaggering prosecutor -- no one is going to stand up and say, "Should really be saying that?," not at the time and then not after the fact, either..

Meanwhile, I don't see now how Blago could get a trial within a 500 mile radius of Chicago. And the governor's-trial-and-conviction-by-press-conference has had some powerful consequences. It was in good measure the power of the verbal charges lobbed by Fitzgerald that caused the remarkably inept Sen. Harry Reid and others to quickly assert they would not seat anyone Blagojevich named to Obama's Senate seat -- when it's increasingly obvious they have neither the power nor right to do so.

To be clear yet again, I think Blago is a sleazy and remarkably unqualified governor, and I'm sitting here in Philadelphia as I write that, which should count for something. I'm not talking about the person but the process, and the process here has gotten increasingly screwed up in a way that traces back to the circumstances of Blago's arrest and the sweeping assertions that Fitzgerald made in public. Every story I've seen recently -- and that is literally a dozen or more each day -- leans strongly on the angle that Blago was selling the Senate seat when he's had no chance yet to make his legal defense,  which is likely to be that he said dumb things but committed no crime, especially since he eventually appointed someone, Roland Burris, who by all accounts was not engaged in buying the Senate seat.

You know, there is an irony here that I have yet to see anyone comment on yet. Many people, myself included, believe that one of the greatest travesties of the Bush-Cheney years was the zealous and ultimately successful effort to throw a state governor, Don Siegelman of Alabama, behind bars in a prosecution that seemed ridiculously tainted by politics. At the core, the cases seem very different; I personally believe that Siegelman was railroaded while Blago is in a heap 'o trouble. But the bottom line is that Siegelman clearly didn't get the justice he deserved. But if the former Alabama governor should have had a fair trial and an above-board prosecution, then Rod Blagojevich should have that as well.