Sunday, May 4, 2008

Houston's Newspaper

As much as I like to blast the Houston Chronicle, the irony of the situation is that my grandfather had been a reporter for a newspaper in his younger years.

Although he only did it for a few years, it was an experience that he always spoke very fondly of. He went on to a more lucrative career, but I think he was always very wistful of his time reporting the news. I was raised by him telling me that a journalist was a noble profession and one that was there to seek the truth and keep people honest.

I suppose that the duty to seek the truth is something that newspapermen and prosecutors have in common, theoretically.

But it seems that on a daily basis that Jeff Cohen's Houston Chronicle has more and more turned it's back on it's duty to report the news.

Now, I'm not getting overly sensitive -- yet.

The editorial that ran in today's edition probably didn't sway a single person on their opinion on the death penalty. For that matter, I don't know that the Chronicle has yet to write any column or article on that topic that swayed an opinion. We are Houston, Texas, after all.

What ticks me off is that the results of studies are being misrepresented and they are over-emphasizing some portions while wilfully overlooking others. As someone who has been involved in a capital murder trial when the State sought death, the idea of putting a statistical number on its outcome is as absurd as it is obscene.

It mathematically accounts for things that can't be mathematically accounted for -- the people pulled at random to be in the multiple jury pools that the jurors will be pulled from. The jurors' responses on their questionnaires and their Q&A with the attorneys. The attorneys' "gut instinct" on who to strike and who to keep. The witnesses that will testify and the way the jury will react to those witnesses. The closing arguments and their ability to sway. The evidence presented in the punishment phase.

And most importantly, when twelve people sit in that back room, can they answer the question to decide the defendant's fate?

How in the hell do you put a number on that?

But that doesn't slow the Chronicle down. Editor Jeff Cohen knows that he will catch hell at home from his anti-death penalty zealot wife, Katherine Kase, if he doesn't maintain the offensive against the Death Penalty.

And there's nothing wrong with that. At least, there's nothing wrong with it until the news and the facts start getting twisted or ignored.

Last week, a conference was held in Galveston for Judges, Prosecutors, and Defense Attorneys who practice criminal law. It was a good conference with a lot of information coming from it. Noted defense attorney and Innocence Project founder Barry Scheck spoke. In addition, attorney Bob Wicoff spoke regarding his continued work with Chris Downey and Judge Mary Bacon on reviewing flawed serology from the HPD Crime Lab.

Wicoff pointed out to the room of prosecutors, judges, and defense attorneys that on several occasions he had complimented the prosecutors he had been working with and he had made those compliments to the Chronicle. Specifically, Wicoff told the room that he complimented the job done by Alicia Devoy O'Neill for her active assistance in the project. He told the room, almost apologetically, that he had informed the media of this several times, but nobody really seemed all that interested in printing the fact that the D.A.'s Office was being righteous.

Did you ever wonder why the Chronicle could possibly endorse a former-judge who had been retired from the bench for 14 years (and had a controversial career when she was there) over one of the most effective prosecutors in the Nation? Why did they bury all those Lykos stories?

It's simple: Kelly Siegler was an effective prosecutor who got the death penalty on Defendants. Stopping her early was a primary objective.

I'm well aware that this article will prompt folks, like Grits, to say that Old AHCL is back to pissing and moaning about the election again. That's not really my point (and the 12-step program is really helping me recover from it). And Ron will smirk at my conspiracy theory.

My point is that the Chronicle is a disingenuous, poorly-written, propaganda piece for the Death Penalty Opponents. And I think it continues to exist in that realm because Jeff Cohen is just pushing his wife's agenda.

I've said it before and I will say it again that I understand why people oppose the death penalty, and I agree with them on some of their points. But I don't think that the readers of the Chronicle deserve to have the news filtered to adjust to Cohen & Kase's viewpoints. It's bad management, and I would hope that, at some point, somebody (with a lot more influence than me) would take note of it.

Weren't newspapers founded on the idea of fostering more intellectual honesty? That certainly seemed to be why my grandfather respected the business so much.

I've never seen a newspaper that fought so hard to curb it.


Anonymous said...

"I've never seen a newspaper that fought so hard to curb it."

Allow me to introduce you to the New York Times, the mother of all news media that is liberal and whiney.


Anonymous said...

The Chron would have to strive to achieve pathetic status. At least the New York Times will break an original story. The Chronicle simply regurgitates what other newspapers have already written. Most of its stories are from the AP wire. Even stories that take place in its back yard.

The only time the Chron will attempt to put together an original thought is when it seeks to bash the DA's Office, or promote its anti-death penalty and "hug a thug" agenda. And so others don't take this post as "sour grapes," I am a big fan of the Houston Press and its willingness to break new stories, even though it can never be called the voice box for the DA's office. Simply put, the Chron is the worst newspaper that serves a major metropolitan area.

Muck said...

Best part of the Chronicle is its Business and Sports section. If you're looking for news, go elsewhere. If you ever read a hard copy of the paper you realize that their city and state section (cleverly combined to mask the fact that they have very little local reporting) is usually about 2.5 pages... just as many as their obit section.

On a separate note: news papers were originally designed to be agenda driven, and I don't mean Hearst and his yellow-journalism era. Prior to that, most presidents had a party paper (Andrew Jackson lost his first election attempt- and was told his lack of a paper is one of the key factors that hurt him- a mistake he remedied).

The modern 'impartial' paper was born as an attempt to increase readership by appealing to a broader audience. Having said that, it has become the axiom of journalists that they try remain unbiased. We all are, but the goal is to do your best to be fair and leave your personal feelings out of your story.

Sometimes I wonder if we'd all be better off if we were just more honest about the biases and allowed the readers to make up their own minds.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The piece you miss in this analyis is that it would be irresponsible for the major daily in Houston NOT to cover the death penalty extensively or examine the statistical implications of the DA's capital punishment decisions and policies.

Last year Texas accounted for more than 60% of executions nationally. Harris County, which has 1/4 of Texas' population, accounts for about half of Texas executions.

Thus Harris County's execution policies are almost singlehandedly responsible for driving the stratospheric numbers that place the frequency of US death sentences in the sole company of communist and totalitarian dictatorships. That fact has implications far beyond Houston, even including how the nation (and the city) is viewed across the world.

Given that, not to mention the crime lab problems that make it entirely possible an innocent or two may number among the executed, are the reason the Chron covers the story, not animosity for Kelly Siegler, for heavens sake (get over it already, she's history!). Other than simply issue fawning praise for the DA's office or editorializing that KS is inarguably the greatest lawyer on the planet (and possibly in the history of barristers), I have a hard time understanding what you'd have them do differently.

A Harris County Lawyer said...

I'm not saying that they shouldn't do an article on the death penalty and point out any findings that they have about wrong-doing in the process. What I object to is the things that they leave out, or intentionally mislead about.

You and I can blog our hearts out about our positions on the death penalty, but when I pick up my newspaper, I'd like to read news. All of the news.

In regards to your statement that you think someone in Texas has been executed who was factually innocent, are you referring to the case under scrutiny from San Antonio, or just basing it on the law of averages?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Actually, Cameron Willingham is the one I think is most likely to have been innocent, though there's no remaining evidence (after the sole witness recanted) on Ruben Cantu, the case you mentioned, either. Willingham's was an arson case where he was convicted based on bad, old forensic science and the CCA and Perry wouldn't accept changed forensic standards as "new evidence," see this Chicago Tribune story.

For my part, I don't consider there to be a great difference in what reporters do and bloggers, except they've learned techniques to feign "objectivity" that you and I don't bother with. IMO we'd all be better off if the press just admitted its biases instead of going out of its way to conceal them or pretend they know or even try to report "all the news." best,

Gritsforbreakfast said...

BTW, speaking of death penalty statistics, I crunched a few of my own in this post. See also a comparison of that estimate to "innocence" estimates in non-capital felonies by a prosecutor, here.

Perhaps I'm just defending statistical analysis of the justice system because I so frequently indulge in it! best,

Kevin Whited said...

** The piece you miss in this analyis is that it would be irresponsible for the major daily in Houston NOT to cover the death penalty extensively or examine the statistical implications of the DA's capital punishment decisions and policies. **

Fine, but that's far different than the regular installments of the Chron Eye for the Death Row Killer Guy.

Not every death row killer is a saint who was unjustly convicted by The Man -- not that you would always know it from reading the Chronicle under Mr. Kathryn Kase's leadership.