Monday, December 27, 2010

The rest of the story

A commenter on Grits' Christmas Day open thread left this back-handed complement:
I would like to commend Scott for his passion for justice. He has done well, some would suppose, to view one-half of the equation and champion a cause based on that half view. However, some would argue, what about the half that he either denies or fails to see?

Could I say he is right? He is half-right, but is one so ardent in his half perception really all that right? I guess it's something to contemplate as we enter a new year.
I appreciate the commenter's (perhaps reluctant) homage to the Christmas spirit of forgiveness and understanding. It's certainly true that this blog focuses almost exclusively on problems and their solutions within the criminal justice system. I admittedly don't spend much time lauding the good job being done day to day by police, courts, attorneys, judges, prison staff, probation and parole officers - the "half of the equation" to which my generous reader clearly refers. Let me be clear why that is.

There are already a large number of public relations staff employed full-time in Texas who do nothing but promote those positive, system-is-working, move-along-nothing-to-see-here messages. TDCJ and DPS each have multiple public relations staff, and every large police and sheriff's department has full-time media professionals, often former reporters, who do nothing but promote positive stories about their agencies. Police and deputies unions are locally powerful, as are District Attorneys, and their views are respectfully and regularly represented in the MSM. So that's perhaps several dozen full and part-time media folks around the state working for various state and local agencies and special interests promoting the half of the story I'm supposedly missing. Is it really so bad that one person, in his spare time, blogs about the half of the issue that official sources tend to ignore? "Half" is a lot of territory to cover!

As Reason magazine's Radley Balko is fond of pointing out, the MSM doesn't "suffer from liberal bias; they suffer from statism"; they're not pro-liberal, but pro-government (which can sometimes be mistaken, understandably, for Big Government Liberalism). The reason, though, isn't this or that reporter or publisher's personal politics or bias, it's the structure of how professional journalism is taught and practiced, as well as the context in which it is performed. Not all, but a majority of workaday news stories on most subjects arise from the following formula: Government or other official source does something or says something; reporter gets quotes from them (sometimes canned in public statements or press releases) then quickly finds someone to quote for "the other side" by deadline who a) is usually given less space and b) is commenting on a story whose focus has already been fundamentally defined by officialdom.

This formula's limitations are strongly on display with crime coverage, which often has only two possible sources - the government and the defense. Save for exceptional circumstances, the defense will avoid speaking to the media, while the DAs and police are set up to churn out press releases whenever the need arises. Coverage of criminal justice at the legislature adds additional institutional players - state agency PR staff, police chiefs and sheriffs associations, unions, single-issue groups like MADD, the occasional vendor - who mostly share an interest in the status quo. Since few besides paid lobbyists for these institutional, pro-law enforcement interests attend legislative hearings, that's who tends get quoted in the resulting news stories.

This blog was created expressly as an antidote to one-sidedness I perceived in MSM coverage on criminal justice. My view is I don't need to tell "the other side"; a small army of paid media flacks and MSM reporters already do that and I routinely link to their work. That's why many blog posts on Grits are structured by quoting an MSM story then providing additional information or a takeaway, summary sentiment: My goal isn't simply to point readers to others' reporting so much as so supplement their reporting with the part of the story that routinely, for structural reasons, gets diminished or left out.

As this blog moves into its seventh year of commentary, and as we prepare ourselves for what promises to be a rough-and-tumble legislative session, I thank Grits readers for seeking out and hopefully putting to good use the information and perspectives you find here. Unlike most TV news viewers or newspaper readers, you are not passive. Instead, you are people from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives with more than a passing interest in criminal justice who are looking for more information and/or analysis than the MSM is giving you - as Paul Harvey used to say, "the rest of the story." I hope you continue to find it on Grits for Breakfast, and continue to tell me when you don't. Until then, here's wishing everyone a happy Xmas, and hoping in the holiday spirit that we all find wisdom and grace headed into the new year.


Robert Langham said...

Thanks for your good works in talking about the half than never sees the light of day. We could use about 1000 more just like you!

Jefe said...

That's OK. The commentor is only a half wit.

titfortat said...

That was a mouthful.

Perhaps I missed the boat somewhere; I perceived your blog to be more of a melting pot of perspectives including your own which is why I follow it with regularity. I perceive you personally to be an activist with strong convictions but by no stretch a closed minded individual. When I am in disagreement with your opinion (which is often) you allow my post without censorship and in many cases reply with a sorted sarcasm that I have always found to be quite entertaining. I wish I had half your talent for writing.

There are real solutions to the problems surrounding criminal justice and most of them fall into a mixture of ideals from all sides of issues or at least that’s my opinion. Blogs like yours are followed by many that have resources, power and influence to help make a difference and your open forum really is appreciated.

You keep plugging away and I admire that most. Thank you for your input and insight and commitment.

I hope your Christmas was a time of joy and reflection for you and yours and that the New Year brings you renewed hope, prosperity and contentment.

阿牛 said...

Happy New Year and thanks for everything. You've done an amazing job here, I feel lucky to read Grits in the morning!

Red Leatherman said...

Eggs zactly!
The reason I read this blog everyday is to get that other side.
Digging it up can't be a easy job.
I'll confess that understanding the legal jargon is tough for me. Scott presents it with plenty of links to connect the thread and makes the point.

Anonymous said...

And as we prepare to start another entertaining year with Texas justice (a phrase some might consider an oxymoron), please accept my thanks for a "job well done". Your blog is required reading in my classes. :~)

Anonymous said...

Still a daily reader Grits. Keep up the good work.


Anonymous said...

Well, as a law enforcement administrator I find your blog one of my essential reads. I've found you to have great foresight on many issues, especially those related to Texas jails.

Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

My "like a dog that has peed on every tire, lamp post, and fire hydrant" compliment was better.


Anonymous said...

What about the victims of the criminals you are so eager to defend? I'm wondering why you have yet to show any concern for them. Why not one word about them? I guess you want to believe that these criminals really didn't do anything. How else could you justify constantly asking that they be released - to be released to the community.

Cfilleyjohnson said...

The tireless work you do to bring us "the rest of the story" is greatly appreciated. Your insight into criminal justice issues makes your blog daily required reading in my office. Keep up the great work!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:12, it's not that I don't care about victims, it's that I refuse to cynically use them for purposes of demagoguery as the tuff on crime crowd likes to do. Instead this blog promotes policies that would reduce victimization, maximize restitution, etc..

No one believes that everyone in prison is innocent or that incarceration isn't justified in some circumstances. But our nation has 5% of the planet's population and 25% of its prisoners; even for offenders who are guilty, the pendulum has swung too far toward overincarceration.

And to everybody else, thanks so much for your kind words.

DEWEY said...

"No one believes that everyone in prison is innocent..."
Back in the late 80s, I spent almost 5 years in the Texas Department of Corrup er Corrections. To hear them tell it, almost 95% were innocent. !!! I didn't believe them. True, some were, but 95%?? HA !!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

FWIW, Dewey, the range of estimates of the number of people in prison who are actually innocent goes from .75% (from the national DA's association) to 3.3%, see here. Applied to Texas' prison population, that's somewhere between 1,200 and 5,000 innocent people currently locked up in TDCJ.

Anonymous said...

Scott, I just want to say Thank you for having the courage to show the "other side of the coin".

I often wonder what this country would be like (especially Texas)if the justice system would operate using with your views.

Keep up the good work. I look forward to another year of your fights.


Don said...

Keep up the good work, Scott. This is the first place I go when I sit down at the computer to find out what's up. As another commenter said, I wish there were more like it, but most of us are too lazy to take up the task that you tackle each day; giving us "the rest of the story'. Thanks for a job well done!!

Anonymous said...

You go GRITS! Keep up the great work. Don't ever leave!

Obviously the "commenter" doesn't get it. They probably go to a podiatrist expecting heart treatment.

When, for example, parole board members are required to hear from family and/or friends, as they are required to listen to victims, then the system will be fair. Both sides carrying equal weight. Until everyone regardless of race or socio-economic position gets equal representation; until then, you are needed and appreciated.

john said...

Heck yes, thank god for this column brave enough to print the truth. ALL OUR LIVES WE'VE BEEN DELUGED WITH THE LIES OF TV shows FBI/cops/Docs/lawyers, now CSI/NCIS/you-name-it AS IF THEY'RE GOOD AND HONEST AND THE BEST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD. They are not. Those lies are the re-baked falsehoods, told so many times as to appear real.
If only We great unwashed masses read this column.

TexasLeo said...


I feel compelled to comment about “THE REST OF THE STORY”. However, before I get to the meat I must pick a bone.

For you to concur “the MSM doesn't "suffer from liberal bias” is to ignore the elephant in the room. With the exception of a few news outlets, the MSM is so biased toward the left that a gentle breeze would blow them over. You say that your blogging is an “antidote to one-sidedness I perceived in MSM coverage on criminal justice”, but that is not the perception I see in reports about the criminal justice system, at least from those reporters who at least pretend to take an editorial stance.

True, there are many so-called journalists that simply report dry facts fed to them by, as you say, the “large number of public relations staff employed full-time in Texas who do nothing but promote those positive, system-is-working, move-along-nothing-to-see-here messages.” But, I think that is more a product of that particular news outlet needing to fill white space, while at the same time taking what they believe is a public awareness stance.

The majority of those working in the MSM disguise their, or the news outlet’s, editorial diatribe as non-bias coverage, when in fact it is not. Not even FOX News, who promotes “Fair and Balanced Coverage”, is without partisanship.

There … I feel better for ventilating that.

To my point … I am not reluctant to express my view that blogs such as Grits are necessary to bring balance to issues that many do not find necessary to question. I am always willing to look at both sides of an issue. While I generally take a more conservative stance concerning the overall positive actions of the men and women on the front lines of the criminal justice system, I am not so kind to the agencies they work for. I have worked for some of the organizations that you so often negatively critique, and in particular, TDCJ.

I can assure you, having intimate experience with some of the negative issues you bring up about TDCJ and UTMB, that there is more than an apparent lack of interest by the powers that be to correct huge deficiencies in the budget by addressing physical plants. It is, in my opinion, more insidious than simply high level administrators being incompetent. As we often have read, follow the money. In doing so, you will find there is a level of corruption that pervades the TDCJ system that goes so far beyond what the public normally perceives, and to the extent that it might even stagger you.

The reluctance of TDCJ to address the budget deficits by closing prisons has less to do with their inability to produce an elaborate spreadsheet, and more to do with taking care of their own. And, by their own, I don’t mean the officers on the front line. I have seen evidence of TDCJ corruption that pervades the Legislature itself, at least one Appeals Court Judge, and maybe even into the Governor’s office, past and present. With TDCJ being a huge money pit, it is relatively easy for those in the know to siphon off a few million here and a few million there.

Closing a prison unit results in more than saving tax payer money, it also cuts also off access to resources that may seem small at the unit level, but in the scheme of more than a 100 units statewide, amounts to a staggering pot of gold for those trusted with the keys to the kingdom. The gold is not always … in fact more often than not … valued in the coin of the realm. The resources I speak of are in the huge investments of TDCJ in agriculture, prison labor, prison industry, and mineral resources.

There is an old saying that there are never twins cows born in the TDCJ system. The obvious truth is that there is, but one calf is documented, and the other is not. So where does the undocumented calf go? The list of corruption goes on and on, ad- nauseam. From highly inflated construction costs to resources which are fluid and invisible, the list goes on.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Texas LEO says: "With the exception of a few news outlets, the MSM is so biased toward the left that a gentle breeze would blow them over."

But that's not actually true day-to-day on criminal justice issues for the reasons I described, unless you define "left" as more laws, more cops, more prisons, etc.. Remember, it was Ann Richards and Democrats who presided over the tripling of Texas' prison population and Republicans who began to reduce Texas' incarceration rate. My observation is that except for a handful of culture war topics like the death penalty, criminal justice issues just don't cut along traditional left/right lines. Instead there's a bipartisan tuff-on-crime consensus that the MSM more or less gleefully cheers on.

I appreciate the rest of your comments (all of them, really) and you make some excellent points.