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The Great Tennessee Valley Blackout

Message Scott Horton
The Great Tennessee Valley Blackout
BY Scott Horton
PUBLISHED February 25, 2008

My mailbox has filled up with comments from people focusing on the “technical difficulties” that stopped transmission of the Don Siegelman feature—and just that segment—in last night’s 60 Minutes. In a sense, this was symptomatic of what I’ve discovered in eight months of burrowing into the intersection of law and politics in Alabama. It always reminds me of that powerful opener in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.” We see a bucolic scene in small town America—everything is happy and wonderful. Then the camera burrows into the grass and zooms in and we see that it’s filled with menacing, frightening wicked things. Nothing about the Siegelman case functioned the way it was supposed to function, right from the beginning. But the veneer of normalcy was maintained, and a Koolaid-dispensing local media tenaciously held to the line that everything was just as it should be. Anyone who questioned what happened was coarsely derided as a whacko conspiracy theorist or a Siegelman fanatic.

So should we be surprised that last night’s events are disrupted at the Huntsville CBS affiliate, and the Huntsville Times deals with the question by posting on its website the official explanation of the station, while the New York Times gives the event in-depth coverage, comparing it with Pakistan’s war against YouTube? To be more precise, the Alabama media is now split between the independent small newspapers, whose suspicion about the story has been deeply aroused, and the Advance newspapers in Mobile, Birmingham and Huntsville. In a scene out of another movie, “The Wizard of Oz,” the Advance papers continue to insist that their readers not look at the man standing behind that curtain! But that effort is becoming increasingly futile, and it is slowly destroying the reservoir of trust they have in the communities they should be serving.

In fact, the national media has not paid so much attention to Alabama since George Corley Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door. And there’s every reason to believe that its interest is strongly growing. The politicization of the Justice Department is a front-burner issue on the national stage, and no state offers such a perfect demonstration of all the things that make the issue so troubling as Alabama. Its other attraction is Karl Rove’s undeniable connection to the Siegelman story. (Of course, Rove steadfastly denies the undeniable, which will only serve to strengthen his reputation as the maker of alternate realities.)

Today I received a number of appeals, including one from the CFO of the station’s owner, insisting that WHNT does not practice censorship and noting that the segment was being rebroadcast, yesterday evening at 10:20 p.m., and again this evening at 6:00 p.m. These decisions to rerun the program satisfy me that the station’s management is not bent on depriving North Alabamans of an opportunity to see the program. But the circumstances of the whole event, and the fact that the station first put out a false explanation leave me troubled. Here is WHNT’s account:

You received poor information from your unnamed CBS source who indicated WHNT in Huntsville did not have any CBS related problems in receiving the 60 Minutes feed on Sunday, 2/24/08. In fact one of our CBS receivers was in a documented fault 6:00 PM and the other was not sending out video. The Chief Engineer’s email trailing the events of last evening is below.

We do not censor programming. We did not censor 60 Minutes. We experienced a failure of one of our CBS receivers. I trust you will reference this on your talk show circuit today and make the necessary corrections to your website.

WHNT Report, Failure going into 60 Minutes on 2/24/08 at 6PM CT

At 7:03pm I received a call from Tracy Garrett at the DOC, Tracy said that we lost CBS when we went to 60 Minutes at 6:00pm. Tracy said he had talked to the station and they were trying to find out what was going on. I was about 10 blocks from the station at the time of the call and proceeded to the station as quickly as possible. When I arrived at the station I switched to CBS IRD 4 at the station placing CBS 60 Minutes back on air at 6:12:17. At that point I started investigating the problem. I called CBS control to see if they could determine what happened to cause the failure from our IRD’s at the transmitter site. CBS looked at the CBS rack and said that IRD one looked normal but there was a problem with IRD three, it appeared to be off channel with an alarm. At that point I sent Richard Hunter the assistant Chief engineer to the transmitter to determine what was going with the CBS signal from the receive site at the transmitter.

When Richard arrived he started trouble shooting the problem and determined that what CBS was saying was correct. When Richard looked at the output from IRD 1 there was no video and IRD three had an alarm because it was looking at the wrong channel. When Richard power cycled IRD one at 6:18:12Pm all IRD’s in the rack blinked and video returned from IRD one.

Maybe at some point we’ll learn exactly what happened to the station’s receiver that blocked only one segment of the 60 Minutes broadcast—the one that the citizens of North Alabama most wanted to see. It could of course have been a technical problem with some equipment, or it could have been an act of sabotage. But I think it’s a mistake for readers to focus their rage on WHNT. Anger is appropriate. And it should be focused on the culprits who carried out this gross miscarriage of justice.

Readers should keep in mind that Don Siegelman remains in prison cleaning latrines. He was imprisoned as the result of a corrupt vendetta that involved political hacks, politically motivated Justice Department figures and a politicized judiciary. Siegelman’s condition is a personal tragedy. But the hackery that produced his imprisonment is a cancer eating away at our society, slowly turning our nation into a banana republic. That’s far more important than the gremlins that took 60 Minutes off the air in the Tennessee Valley.  

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Scott Horton is a contributor to Harper's Magazine and writes No Comment for this website, A New York attorney known for his work in emerging markets and international law, especially human rights law and the law of armed conflict, (more...)
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