Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Dispatch from the front lines of bipartisanship: Comments on the Koch Institute's big crimjust conference

The Charles Koch Institute's Advancing Justice summit was a remarkable event by any measure, and I'd wager the hosts and most of the participants considered it a success. Its goals were simultaneously grand and well-defined: To re-brand criminal justice reform as a conservative issue, or at least as an issue where conservatives and liberals can agree, and to build relationships in the movement across the ideological divide. (See the agenda.)

Given the breadth and scope of opinion leaders there - honestly it was like old home week, I hanged out with people I haven't seen in a decade, from all branches of the criminal-justice reform movement - they clearly succeeded in their goals. The invitation-only event - originally planned for 200 people - ballooned to include 550 souls from 300 different groups nationwide, including a who's who of reformers likely recognizable to many Grits readers. Of the ones I knew and met, these were all serious folks; not many dilettantes or hangers on in that crowd. (I particularly enjoyed sitting next to Doug Berman from the Sentencing Law and Policy blog at dinner one night; we've been reading each others' stuff for more than a decade and never met face to face.)

While the Koch brothers remain best known for financing right-wing candidates, their interest in criminal justice appears to be genuine.The event in New Orleans was a truly a bipartisan (or perhaps more accurately, a transpartisan) affair. I saw a couple of instances where people found themselves chatting up folks so ideologically different from themselves they'd seem puzzled and confused, even more so when, on the issues we were there to discuss, they were met with enthusiastic agreement based on ideological reasoning diametrically opposed to their own. (Such scenes recalled for Grits Dan Kahan's discussions about ambiguity of meaning as an antidote to differences in cultural cognition.)

Conservatives seemed giddy when liberals lapped up their small-government rhetoric on criminal justice that never works on the environment. And liberals listened, moon-eyed, while some extremely religious people spoke of atonement, redemption, and the biblical mandate to minister to prisoners. There were also skeptics in both directions, but the amount of open ideological feuding at the event was remarkably minimal. As somebody who's sort of walked in both worlds for some time, much of the content wasn't new to me, though some of it was certainly useful. But more useful were the networking and cross-pollination opportunities for left-right advocates, many of whom would not have ever otherwise met. That's the sort of thing that can have an impact well beyond presentations and plenaries.

Speaking of which, your correspondent was invited to participate in a panel Thursday evening at dinner on Criminal Justice and the Press along with Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic and Reihan Salam of National Review, both of whom seemed like fine gentlemen, from the little we got to visit. Friedersdorf is more of a reporter's reporter; Salam more of a pundit. Both were smart as a whip. We followed Asa Hutchison, the former DEA chief, now governor of Arkansas, who has signed on to the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Right on Crime principles. (So they had Grits punching above his weight, in other words.)

As luck would have it, Vikrant Reddy, our dapper moderator, threw me a softball on the first question, asking about a subject I'd written about on Grits related to journalistic form and its impact on policy content as it pertains to the anecdotal lead, or what the NY Times managing editor for standards dubbed, "the stranger in the story." Since I was harking to journalistic practices dating to when Salam and Friedersdorf were probably in grade school, it was perhaps a bit unfair to ask them to respond, but both did, gamely, with Salam generously agreeing with my pet theory.

We also had a funny conversation about one's conception of audience. Salam and Friedersdorf both gave fairly predictable descriptions of their readership and its expectations, but as they spoke I realized none of that really applies to Grits. For the most part, I write this for my own peculiar purposes, whether as a substitute for a paper clip file, a 21st century version of an open-sourced constituent letter, or just a place to write up notes from a meeting or event I attended. I don't mind if other people read it, and I find there's added value from open-sourcing the information rather than keeping it to myself. But in a utilitarian sense, it's not for the audience in the same way a commercial publication is for its audience. It's for me.

A friend later said he found my comments jarring, but they seemed pretty self-evident to me: It's not like my readers, or anybody, are paying me for this. Regardless, I've got strong opinions about journalism, regular readers know, so I could have talked all night on these subjects.

I hesitate to label any conference "important." But on this rare occasion, this one might have been - not for the content, but for helping change the terms of debate among conservatives about the criminal-justice reform movement and vice versa. A number of advocates I spoke to left the event viewing criminal justice politics through a different frame than when they arrived, thinking more seriously than before about the prospects of working across the aisle. And after this, it will be harder for the press to reflexively conflate "conservative" and "tough on crime" positions.

Congrats to the Koch Institute on a successful and really interesting event. And thanks for inviting me.

MORE: Video of most of the conference events are linked here; scroll down a screen or two to the schedule on the left-hand side of the page for the list. They're almost all up as of Tuesday afternoon. AND MORE: Here's a link to the panel on which I participated. Rewatching parts of it, Mr. Salam was especially good, I thought, while your correspondent, this once again proves, was blessed with a face made for radio and a voice made for print. Be sure to check out the swanky set behind us, it was really something.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

GFB, thanks for the update. Keep up this great work. You may be writing for yourself, yet the light you bring helps many who are in the dark.