Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Today at the Lege, and a note to grumpy staffers

For today's criminal justice action at the Lege, see Grits' previews of bills up in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee (Parts One and Two).

And an aside: This morning I had a call from a legislative staffer who is basically quite unhappy that I'm previewing bills before committee hearings because his bill might be changed. I explained that's why I'd called their office, to find out what was happening with it, but the staffer grumpily replied, "That's the problem with blogs, Scott, you can just go out there and say whatever you want."

Funny - I thought the problem with blogs was that we didn't call sources before writing about stuff like "real" journalists! I asked this staffer to tell me the real deal if he was afraid I was going to misrepresent the bill. "That's why I called you," I said. But he wouldn't discuss it and basically just wanted to express his unhappiness that I was writing about it at all before the committee hearing because they were "working on it" and things could change.

Look, there's no doubt that bills change during the process, there's no doubt that a lot of bills have flaws as filed that get worked out later, and there's no doubt that most bills filed will die. I hope nothing I've written gave anyone a different impression. But the truth is I'm tracking criminal justice legislation more closely than the MSM on the blog, and I think that's the real source of this staffer's resentment.

Folks at the capitol are used to the committee process happening more or less beyond scrutiny. Hearings are frequently dog and pony shows where the press and the public is presented with an image pols want to present, but the real heavy lifting on the details of legislation all happens before the hearing, or in cases where a bill is disputed, behind the scenes after the hearing is over.

Lobbyists track bills closely. When committee agendas are posted they go through the bills to see what they care about and begin to prepare for the hearing by lobbying members, lining up speakers, preparing written testimony. The important work they do happens before the members meet, but typically the public isn't even aware of the issue until a hearing occurs.

What I'm trying to do - on the issues I cover - is give blog readers the same access to information that special interests with lobbyists have enjoyed for ages. Thanks to the political version of Heisenberg Principle, more thoroughly examining these murky settings will inevitably change the process, but I don't think that's a bad thing. Part of how bad policy gets made is that nobody pays attention to it until it's too late, and part of making good policy is giving those with an interest enough information to participate in supporting it.

I recognize that it would be easier to negotiate bills if nobody but lobbyists and special interests knew they existed - I get that. I even sympathize with the overworked staffers' plight. But I don't think that's necessarily an argument for not casting greater light on the process. In fact, I'm sure it's not.

So to any other grumpy staffers out there: You know I'm previewing bills every week in four committees - Senate Criminal Justice, House Corrections, House Criminal Jurisprudence, and House Law Enforcement. I'm analyzing them as filed unless I'm aware of a substitute. I want to get it right. But it doesn't help to get stonewalled.

More information and communication, not less, is the best solution for legislators dealing with blogs.

7 comments:

playmisty4me said...

Scott - I appreciate your work. This blog definitely covers important criminal justice legislation far better than the MSM. One need only look at the half-assed coverage provided by papers like the Houston Chronicle to understand why voters have so little understanding of what our legislature is doing.

Roy said...

"That's the problem with blogs, Scott, you can just go out there and say whatever you want."

You're missing his point. His problem is that you, unlike the mainstream news media, can write what you want, instead of writing what you're told.

Why can't you be a good German?

Cheri said...

Kudos to playmisty4me and roy, but especially to you, Scott. I personally want all politicians under a microscope. I want to know the TRUTH about what is happening in Austin, not some watered down version fed to the local newspaper reporter who refuses to ask the tough questions. Scott, keep doing it your way and I will be a loyal reader who recommends this blog to everyone I talk to.

Anonymous said...

Grits -love your work- ignore the grumps. Your work is taking us to a new level in being able to speak out as officers in the trenches.

County said...

Scott,
I agree with the crowd that you provide an incredibly valueable service in continuously tracking criminal justice matters. I would point out that MSM reporters are limited by the old business model of writing for the general public - frankly, most people don't want to know as much as you do about who gets locked up and how they're treated. People just want to be safe. Other than an occaisional Sunday feature, few MSM reporters are allowed to explore technical government issues in depth.
On the other hand, there are still major issues out there about the role blogs will play in the new ballgame that develops as newspapers gradually die off for failure to adapt.
"Grits", for example, is clearly written from an ACLU perspective, which the casual visitor may not realize when reading an individual post. Will there be a "law and order" blog tracking these issues, creating momentum for that point of view? I know TDCAA has their own in-house mechanism to discuss prosecutor concerns primarily among themselves, but what if the crime issue becomes such a big deal (as it did during the late '80s early '90s when overcrowded prisons and jails created the hysteria that led to the big prison build-out) that the bailbondsmen finance the victims groups to run an indepth blog that takes the opposite slant from Grits?
Finally, one other observation. MSM newspaper reporters are taught to adhere to the unobtainable goal of "objectivity." As a former MSM guy, I think reporters are frustrated by this oppressive concept -- they know that there's a lot more going on behind the scenes that no one's telling them about and there's a natural inclination to try to tell that story, but because there's no one to quote or because information can't be verified, they can only imply insights that they know, which leads to articles that may well suggest the "truth." Just as likely the reporter is totally wrong (because he or she can't get the unvarnished truth from all sides). Sometimes, the results are articles that are just plain wrong.

Anyway, keep up the good work. Your are appreciated.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Two things: First, I do not espouse "an ACLU perspective." I espouse only my own views which don't always agree with that or any other group. ACLU is a former employer. That is all. I have had many other employers over the years, incidentally, and it would be equally wrong to attribute this blog's positions to them.

Second, what if bail bondsmen began an indepth blog from their perspective? So what? The blogosphere would be better for the debate.

Thanks to all for the kudos. best,

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