The Austin American Statesman published an editorial this morning, spanking a prosecutor for alleged misconduct.
I wonder when the last time was that the American Statesman, Houston Chronicle, or Dallas Morning News ran a positive editorial praising a particular prosecutor, law enforcement, or prosecution in general.
It seems that the pendulum has swung so far to the left (with the Tulia controversy, DNA Lab scandals, and the incessant whining and complaining about the death penalty) that there is no longer any crime heinous enough to warrant the media in portraying the defendant as the real bad guy, rather than the State.
Maybe I'm just naive in persisting in my belief that there are still some really bad people among us who do really bad things to innocent victims; and who really need to be severely punished for their deeds. God help us.
In the gestalt scheme of American society, prosecutors (and, on a broader scale, law enforcement professionals in general) are repetitively scrutininzed through the lens of a love-hate standard. While the sort of soft-minded, path-of-least-resistence drivel exemplified by the American-Statesman editorial is recycled too often for our taste, shows like "Law and Order" and "CSI" consistently dominate the TV ratings. As has been discussed exhaustively in this forum, prosecutors are "easy" targets for intellectually lackadaisical hacks looking to point the sinister finger of blame for society's ills because prosecutors are high-profile public figures, but sound trial preparation strategy and the Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct often inhibit a "robust" response to media attacks, at least on a case-by-case basis. Another factor comes into play, as well. Prosecutors are held to a higher standard because of the very nature of the work we do. That may not seem fair in the trenches, but it's how it is. It's made all the more frustrating when gaffes by our colleagues on the other side of the bar are blamed predominantly on the "faulty" system, rather than deficiencies in individual performances. It does make one want to drop it all and walk away at times. But most of us don't. That's what marks us as the good guys.
In an earlier life, I was invited to speak to a graduate class taught by Paul Burka (Tx. Monthly) at UT's LBJ School. The topic was the death penalty and the media. My talk was colloquially entitled "Why executing the guilty is not 'news.'"
And it's not. Think about it. Barring something "sexy" like Timothy McVey's case, news coverage of the average execution is on page A14 of your local paper (if covered at all), squeezed below a car ad and an article about low-carb diets. Few people show up to protest or to view them anymore. It has become routine, and the routine is not newsworthy in today's world (you may take varying meanings from this phenomenon, but it doesn't make the fact untrue).
This same principle applies to what prosecutors do day-in and day-out. Convicting the guilty is not "news" -- by which I mean, there is no conflict, there is no room for someone's "angle" or "spin" to make things appear in a different or more controversial light. "Dog bites man" does not get covered, and those stories take up about 90% of a prosecutor's work. It's only the unusual, the out-of-the-ordinary, the "sexy" cases that get covered, and then when they do, they get beat like a dead horse -- or at least until people stop reading or watching the dead horse, at which point the 24/7 news media must switch to the next dead horse before loosing its audience.
In a way, then, I think prosecutors and our court system are victims of their own success. Look at other countries' systems, where bribery, corruption, and injustice are common -- these things are no longer news because there is nothing attention-grabbing about them. It's only when some judge or politico gets caught on videotape or does something unusually corrupt or injust that it hits the newsstands. Meanwhile, back at home, every poll of voters which asks them to rank issues in their order of importance results in "crime" being somewhere around #7, which is the political equivalent of flat-lining.
This is not to say things are perfect [insert standard disclaimer here], or that they can't be improved -- we all know they can, if done the right way. But anyone who relies on the "Media-Industrial Complex" of 21st-century America to gauge the true state of our system is fooling themselves, and anyone trying to fight those who buy ink by the barrel are facing an uphill battle. For more on this debate, see "Fighting Back" thread.
Shannon has it right. Good government is boring.
Nail on the head, Shannon. The need for a new "spin" combined with 24/7 news which is more sexy and entertaining than the "real" news is the culprit in this situation. That's why prosecutors, who tend to say boring things like "I am ethically bound not to discuss the facts of this case until the defendant has received his fair trial", don't get to be talking heads on the talk shows disguised as news shows (for examples, see O'Reilly, Hannity and Colmes, Cross Fire, and all the others). Unfortunately, the only prosecutor I have seen on these shows happens to be a female DA from the New York area (I forget her name) who seems almost as defense oriented as the defenders. Guess she's looking for a spot on Court TV. Don't get me started on this ...
One way to help see your office gets "good" press is to issue press releases. Bill Jennings, District Attorney for Gregg County, and his staff do an excellent job of sending press releases to the local paper after winning jury trials or having convictions affirmed on appeal.
Jennings (or the assistant who tried the case) will generally type up a short story on the case, along with a quote or two from the prosecutor and the victim. (In the spirit of fairness, he also includes the Judge's name and the defense attorney's name.) Then Jennings faxes his press release to one of two specific reporters at the newspaper.
This situation is a win-win: Journalists who have to submit a certain number of stories or column inches every day (and have it done by a 10:00 p.m. deadline) receive a premade story that hopefully requires little editing. The DA's office maintains some control on how the case gets "spinned" in the press. The press releases also helped foster a spirit of cooperation between the press and the DA's office.
...Just a suggestion.
For more information on this topic, check out the March/April 2004 issue of TDCAA's Texas Prosecutor, which includes an article by David Newell (ADA, Ft. Bend Co.) entitled "'So, what's your point?' A prosecutor's guide to writing effective press releases." It even includes a sample press release as an example.
With all due respect to the learned commentators on this subject, I believe that you couldn't be more wrong.
Good government is NOT boring.
Wait, let me amend and revise that.
Good government SHOULDN'T be boring (at least with respect to our role in government).
We help people, d@mn it. Or, at least we try to.
And that's NOT boring.
And it is important.
And, if we would work at it a little harder, I think it would make the news.
We all have an important job to do: all of us have taken an oath to uphold the laws of Texas and the United States. WE are the guardians of justice in this system. A defense attorney's focus, quite rightly, is protecting the rights of his client (although their methods can often leave a lot to be desired). A judge's focus, quite rightly, is ensuring that the rules of evidence, procedure, and privileges are followed (or at least, that's what is in the Code).
But it is OUR responsibility, OUR duty, "not to convict, but to see that justice is done." Our clients are the citizens of this state. It is our responsibility, to the best that we are able, to represent their interests, to make sure their rights (particularly their right to live free of crime) are protected. And it is our responsibility to speak for the victims in this state, even when they cannot speak for themselves.
We are, in my opinion, the most important part of the criminal justice system.
And the unfortunate reality of the modern media is that the media outlets aren't going to come knocking on our doors asking us for a list of our successes.
I think we all need to be trumpeting our sucesses much more loudly. We do good work, and people deserve to know about it.
Some scumbag gets 30,40,50,60 years for raping a child, ISSUE A PRESS RELEASE. Let the editors decide whether to print it or not, but at least we need to be shoving it the good stuff down their throats.
Look at D.O.J. Their track record hasn't been exactly stellar this year, but there they are week-after-week, month-after-month, putting their sucessess out to the public. Hell, NPR (or National Propaganda Radio, as I believe it's referred to here in DFW) routinely in the local news announces some medicaid fraud conviction, embezzlement, or other routine white collar conviction. If the most liberal media outlet this side of Austin is willing to put the good news out there, who knows what they might be willing to do with some honest-to-god justice?
I see by the red light that my time on the soapbox has expired. Sorry for the rant.
Lee: I agree with you that from our perspective it's not boring, it's just seems that the front page if the paper is reserved for controversy. Good government/happen ending things are below the fold, or further back if something that looks stinky appears.
And prosecutors can do a better job of letting folks know what they do, but it may not be in our nature to do it....it takes training. By nature we are in a reactive occupation, and can swollowed by that, it seems. Bill Jennings idea of getting a system established so that the public knows what is going on is a great idea. Hopefully it will spread....
Hey, guys! While you're talking about getting media attention for those dramatic felonies that you're trying and winning, pity the lowly misdemeanor prosecutor waging an anonymous war for truth, justice, and the American way among DWI's, weed smokers, and spousal abusers...not to mention the stunning drama of hot check enforcement. We wear a white hat, too. Unfortunately, from a media viewpoint, our clientele are not yet ready for prime time, i.e., joining the illustrious criminal elite that you guys deal with. Even some among our juries, exposed to all those cold cases that get solved on TV every night, are somewhat put out by the seeming lack of "importance" in the criminal offense at issue and resent being called to serve. But maybe staying out of the limelight assures some degree of longevity; i.e., no controversy, no foot-in-the-mouth on camera, no "investigative reporter" trying to earn a network berth by finding the "big case" at your expense, even when the controversy is bogus. Come to think of it, maybe there's something to being an anonymous prosecutor in the first place.
Don't forget the other added benefits of being a misdemeanor prosecutor:
1. Taking stacks of intake to the bar (or home) really attracts members of the opposite sex.
2. The stellar salary allows you to afford that pre-owned '91 Pontiac Grand Am you've had your eyes on for some time.
3. Arraignment docket: Your chance to get out of the office and talk to the "real people."
4. Getting calls from hot checkers asking for two more weeks to get their money to you, on account that they have been "a loyal customer for years." (True story)
5. Trying to teach the hearsay rule, and its 27 exceptions, to your non-lawyer County Judge.
More good news from the Crawford case: not so many dang hearsay exceptions to memorize.
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