Lawyer says media fanned the flames

staff writerNovember 24, 2010 

— Joseph B. Cheshire V, the attorney representing former Gov. Mike Easley, was highly critical Tuesday of the media coverage of the case, saying news report after news report stirred the public to a "fever pitch" over two thorough corruption investigations that ended with a "whimper" not a "bang."

Cheshire singled out The News & Observer for numerous reports during the past 22 months about Easley, the vehicle driven by his son Michael, and his wife, Mary, who was hired and then fired by N.C. State University after controversy arose over the way she was hired and given a raise.

"There were articles written about cars driven by Gov. Easley's family," Cheshire complained. "There were articles written about house repairs that were supposed to have been paid because of flight invoices. There were articles written - huge number of articles written ad nauseum - about discounts on coastal lots, about jobs for Mary Easley - and by the way the provost of North Carolina State testified that if he could offer her the job again he would - and myriad other things. Nothing in the Easley family's life seemed to escape articles."

On Tuesday, the state and federal investigations into possible campaign violations and other issues culminated with Easley standing before a Superior Court judge in a Wake County courtroom and entering an Alford plea in which he was found guilty of filing a false campaign report about a $1,600 helicopter flight he took in October 2006.

"I sure hope that the people that wrote articles and talked on television, insinuating corruption, asking people to join fact to fact even though there was no joinder there, and stirred up the passion of the people of this state will fairly write that the investigation of this case ended with no finding of any corruption," Cheshire said after the historic hearing.

John Drescher, executive editor of The News & Observer, stood behind the coverage, saying all the reporting came from documents, sworn testimony and on-the-record interviews.

"Mr. Cheshire did not dispute a single fact in any of our stories - not a single fact," Drescher said. "When we asked Mr. Cheshire Tuesday about specific facts, he declined to discuss them. I am proud of our reporting on the gifts and favors received by Gov. Easley. ... For every story, we gave Gov. Easley a chance to tell his side of the story."

Cheshire responded that he was not challenging the facts of the reports, but rather a tone that, in his thinking, insinuated corruption and criminal activity.

"It was the conclusions the articles were asking the readers to reach," Cheshire said.

Drescher responded: "That Mr. Cheshire is complaining about the placement of our stories tells me that he can't find any facts in our stories to dispute. He might not have thought it was a big deal for Gov. Easley to accept a $137,000 break on a coastal lot, but we knew most of our readers can't get that kind of deal for themselves. So we put a big headline on it."

William Kenerly, the state prosecutor who handled the case, said that "distasteful" behavior is not always illegal and that news reporting was vital in the case. "The media, and particularly the print media, have done a great service to the people of North Carolina by ferreting out these different issues," Kenerly said.

anne.blythe@newsobserver.com or 919-836-4948

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