Sunday, November 16, 2008

Dallas DA needs to develop thicker skin

While most District Attorneys around the state are green with envy at the positive press Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins has received - from his appearance on 60 Minutes, the Dallas News naming him a finalist for 2007 Texan of the Year, to his recent feature on the cover of Governing magazine - a few negative stories about him (mostly by a single local TV station) have got the DA's dander up.

"If it were someone else sitting in this seat, they wouldn’t have to deal with that. But because I’m the first African-American, there is a microscope on me," Watkins told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in a long feature story today. ("For Dallas DA, a celebrated pursuit of justice also brings anguish and anger," Nov. 16), which focused on:
the other part of the Watkins enigma, his seeming naivete, his political skin that seems paper-thin.

More-seasoned politicians would certainly have anticipated the sharp elbows in response to policies that reversed the old ways. But the new DA says he’s been surprised by the hounding of local reporters, surprised that he and his office have been deluged by open-records requests. He says he feels as if he’s been stalked by television news crews looking to turn up some dirt. ...

"I was very naive when I got here," Watkins conceded. "The things that we’re doing, I thought that would be very difficult for people to criticize because it’s the right thing. But I’ve found that even though this is the right thing, there are certain elements out there that don’t want to see this happen, and they are finding ways to discredit me. It’s disheartening to deal with that."

I don't believe it's Watkins' skin color that's made him a target any more than his height, and it was inevitable that his honeymoon with the media couldn't last forever. He's simply made too many powerful people mad.

Craig Watkins will inevitably be the subject of intense scrutiny because he's taken a courageous stance that simultaneously makes every other prosecutor in the state look bad. They've ignored or denied the conviction of innocent people for years, so Watkins' example generates a lot of unjustified but understandable defensiveness and ire from the establishment law enforcement set (many of whom have extensive contacts in the mainstream media, for whom crime coverage is a staple).

If Watkins is upset with the almost universally positive media coverage he's received so far, he's going to be pulling his hair out by the time the 2010 election rolls around and the Dallas GOP comes after his seat in earnest. Until now, for the most part, he's been treated with kid gloves, receiving glowing coverage for the string of DNA exonerations under his watch and his innovative Conviction Integrity Unit. How will Watkins respond when people come after him with actual ill intent?

Watkins and his first assistant Terri Moore seem particularly irked at a series of open records requests, a complaint which typically garners little sympathy from either the press or the public. Watkins told the Startlegram that "I have to think about when I swipe my card when I come into the garage in the morning ... because they might do an open-records request to see what time I’m getting to work, what time I’m leaving," he said. "I have to account for every place that I go."

Yes, that is correct, because you work for the taxpayer now. Open records requests, from the media or any other person, are the chief means by which we hold our electeds accountable. I've seen exactly that technique - analyses of parking garage data - demonstrate that highly paid pols were spending relatively little time on the job. Why shouldn't the media look at it? Every elected politician must be prepared to account for how they're spending their time when the taxpayers are footing the bill.

Hopefully the Star-Telegram overstated the extent to which Watkins has allowed worries about the media to overwhelm him on a personal level, a reaction that won't serve the DA well in the tough times to come. As former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who is also black, told that Star-Telegram, it simply never pays to pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel. Plus, Watkins is the DA. He has actual power and can perform his duties however he sees fit, while the media can do nothing but talk about it.

When he's been in office a bit longer, one hopes Watkins will develop a thicker skin about criticism so he can build on his early successes without losing sleep at night over what some talking head on the TV had to say.

RELATED: See a flattering profile of Watkins published over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal titled, "The Exonerator." ALSO: Sam Merten at the Dallas Observer commented on Watkins' defensive demeanor with the press back in March.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like he might be suffering from post traumatic paparatzi disorder.

Today's media has an animal called "investigative reporting". It is every bit as intrusive and thorough as professional professional investigators, including D.A. investigators.

To work in a public office today, takes a lot of courage for just any employee, much less someone as heroic is this guy.

It reminds me of the fears that early G-Men and Federal Prosecutors faced when they took on the mob in this country. Doing the right thing literally and figuratively is gonna get you shot at, no matter what color your skin (or for that matter your hair) is.

Hang in there Mr. D.A., what you stand for is bigger than you and your enemies. Fight the good fight!!

Mark Bennett said...

"To work in a public office today, takes a lot of courage for just [about] any employee . . ."

What nonsense.

Anonymous said...

Craig Watkins is my hero.

It must be scary dealing with the ugly faction of law enforcement who sees him as taking their power (which he is - they'd been abusing it for decades).

I can well imagine the ugly racial element/comments that come up on a regular basis. And since Obama's election, there's been an increase in hate incidents - Watkins is probably feeling that heat.

In Galveston County, there are law enforcement people blogging on the Galveston Daily News forums (also firefighters) and the racist things they say are so horrible. Sometimes I lose all faith in humanity.

Watkins is Texas's knight in shining armor. Maybe redemption is around the corner.

Anonymous said...

"If it were someone else sitting in this seat, they wouldn’t have to deal with that. But because I’m the first African-American, there is a microscope on me," Watkins told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in a long feature story today.."

No, If anyone else was sitting there doing what he is doing, they would catch the heat from this forest fire as well. Sorry he has to go through all of this, however he is running an office that was filled with problems and as the head of that office he will have to face down many that want to tear him down. yeah, a lot of folks don't want the good old boy network torn down, and there are others that now see the criminal mentality that once roamed the halls of justice. So he will take the heat on both sides for that. However when have we ever seen a person that was trying to right wrongs that did not take heat for it?

@Mark... Nice!!!