Patterico's Pontifications

5/14/2006

REPORTERS ON STEROIDS

Filed under: General — Evan Maxwell @ 1:05 pm

Posted by Evan Maxwell, guest blogger and journalist emeritus

There’s been lots of talk recently about whether Barry Bonds’ hitting records ought to be marked with an asterisk, given his apparent reliance of injectables and ungents containing banned or questionable performance enhancing chemicals.

I am beginning to wonder whether the same question ought to be asked of a couple of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners, given their apparent reliance on uncredited legwork from the men and women who have extraordinary investigative resources every bit as powerful as Human Growth Hormone or the other performance boosters of the athletic world.

I’m speaking, of course, of the legwork provided by disgruntled operatives and analysts of the professional intelligence community, a bureaucracy that is extraordinarily clever in protecting itself and slashing its enemies.

I’m not the first to raise the question, I’m sure, but the weekend run of blogs and web analyses pointed me toward a chilling little compilation of facts that ought to alarm anybody interested in our government and our media. Stephen F. Hayes, writing in the Weekly Standard, laid out substantial evidence for the proposition that some factions within the Central Intelligence Agency have been out to discredit, if not destroy, the Bush Administration for years. Two of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes, the beat reporting award to Dana Priest of the Washington Post and the national reporting co-winner to James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, appear to be the direct result of that effort to discredit.

One of the oldest newsroom adages covers this situation very well: A reporter is only as good as his or her sources. The saying is only partly true, since a great deal of valuable journalism is accomplished by investigation rather than reportage, if by reportage you mean taking what some source tells you and typing it up into the format of a news story. But the dirty little secret of modern journalism is that lots and lots of prize winning stories begin with the source’s decision to talk to a reporter, not with a reporter asking the right question or mousetrapping a public official into an admission of some sort.

And in the case of these two Pulitzers, the strength of the story lies not with the reporter but with the source. The leakers, whoever they were, had the volatile information, and they were smart enough to leak it where it would have maximum impact. They didn’t talk to reporters for second-tier papers or magazines. They didn’t seek out analytical writers with publications more friendly to the administration, like the Wall Street Journal. They went straight to reporters for the two most powerful anti-Bush agenda-setting publications in the country, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

The reporters who collected the Pulitzer hardware were like Barry Bonds used to be, good, solid journeymen and women, thoughtful professionals with solid career numbers. But they acquired journalistic Human Growth Hormone in the form of the most closely guarded secrets of an agency whose members are sworn to secrecy. With that kind of rocket assist, even Ted Baxter, the news reader of the old Mary Tyler Moore show, could have nabbed a Pulitzer or an Emmy or something.

I don’t want to completely denigrate what Priest and Risen and Lichtblau accomplished. They were shrewd to cultivate the right sources, to make themselves available for the critical leaks that were the genesis of the story. I will not even play the small trump of questioning their patriotism, because they can do what they did with the kind of clear conscience that a soldier might have in executing enemy wounded on the battlefield.

And they did the sometimes hard work of integrating their human-growth-hormone caliber information into stories that could shape the national debate.

But those reporters’ prizes will deserve a mental asterisk because they were being used by powerful, well-positioned bureaucrats to wage their own private political war against a duly-elected government. You don’t have to choose sides between the bureaucrats and the politicians to wonder about the propriety of the battle. Nor do you have to hate reporters to question the role they regularly play in the political process: Journalists are tools, as often as not, and acknowledging that fact is one of the hardest things a reporter ever has to do.

Evan Maxwell, guest blogger.

Leniency Has a Cost

Filed under: Crime,Dog Trainer,General — Patterico @ 10:04 am

Credit where credit is due. The L.A. Times today runs this article about Lee Baca’s program of providing early release from jail for many criminal offenders. The article makes a simple point that taxpayers should, but may not, already know: Releasing Inmates Early Has a Costly Human Toll.

The article begins with the story of an innocent person killed by someone who should have been in jail, but was out of custody due to Lee Baca’s early release program:

Mario Moreno should still have been behind bars the night he climbed into the passenger seat of a stolen car with two fellow gang members.

He was carrying a rifle, some cartridges and, in his jacket pocket, a bag of marijuana. “Let’s go do this,” the car’s driver recalled Moreno saying as they headed into the turf of a rival black gang.

They drove by a liquor store at 89th Street and Central Avenue in South Los Angeles. Two older black men were standing outside.

Moreno, 18, aimed his weapon out the driver’s-side window and fired. One bullet killed Darrell Dennard, 53, a grandfather who slept in an alley behind a nearby fish market and got by doing odd jobs. He had just bought a lottery ticket. It was about 9 p.m. on Oct. 11, 2004.

If not for a chronic shortage of jail beds in Los Angeles County, Dennard’s killer would have been in jail four more months. Moreno had been convicted of possessing a sawed-off shotgun — a felony. A probation officer called him a “danger to the community,” and a judge sentenced him to a year in jail, the county maximum. Six days later he was released into a work program. Since his arrest, he had served a total of 53 days.

This is not an isolated incident. The article lays out other examples of the costs of the early release program.

It’s easy to blame Baca for the program, but he has to work with what he has been given by the Board of Supervisors. He also must work within restrictions placed upon the system by federal judges:

A generation ago, no one in Los Angeles got out of jail early.

When beds were full, inmates were housed in hallways, common rooms, the pews of the jail’s chapel and anywhere floor space was available. In the summer of 1983, with the building filled to twice its capacity, hundreds of inmates were given four blankets each and slept under the stars on the roof of Men’s Central Jail.

By then a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates by the American Civil Liberties Union was making its way through the court system. A federal court found the overcrowding to be cruel and unusual punishment and ordered the county to stop overloading its jails. At the time, more than 22,000 inmates were being housed in space meant for half as many. County officials, under a federal consent decree, agreed to open new facilities.

In 1988, the judge allowed the county to institute what was to be a temporary solution to the overcrowding: early release.

Of course, early release is now anything but temporary. The jail system is still subject to restrictions placed on it by federal judges like Dean Pregerson, who “oversees the still-open civil rights case on jail conditions.” As I discussed on Friday, Pregerson evidently thinks that it’s more important to keep the jails from being too crowded — and even to make sure inmates have enough television time! — than it is to keep people in jail for their full sentence.

Keeping jails nice and uncrowded is a wonderful goal, but when is prioritized over safety, safety suffers — which means innocent people like Darrell Dennard sometimes die as a result.

The finger of blame rotates around, but the answer is always the same: we don’t have enough money. Some blame Baca for releasing people too early, but he has to make do with the money he has. Baca blames courts and prosecutors for being too lenient and not sending everyone to prison — but the prisons are overcrowded just like the jails, and the D.A.’s office can’t seek the maximum sentence against every defendant on the money we get from the Board of Supervisors. The Supervisors say they are doing the best they can with the money they have. That’s a farce, of course. They could and should allocate much more to law enforcement. But they don’t expect to pay a political price for failing to do so. Because they won’t.

It all comes back to you, the voters and taxpayers. You keep voting down tax increases for law enforcement, on the (reasonable) theory that government ought to be able to provide for the public safety with the money it is already taking in. But you keep voting these same Supervisors into office, time and time again.

Blame yourselves.

Meanwhile, kudos to the L.A. Times for pointing out that weaker crime enforcement has a very real human cost. It’s a perspective that was completely lacking in the paper’s coverage of Proposition 66, the recent measure to gut the Three Strikes law. As a new measure to weaken the law approaches, it will be interesting to see whether The Times‘s new perspective on the human cost of leniency will be reflected in stories about Three Strikes. I’m not going to hold my breath or anything like that, but I’m willing to be hopeful.


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