Leonard Pitts and journalistic integrity

Hey, long time no type. So there has been a lot happening and I just haven’t had time to put all my shower-ranting into blog form. But for right now, I just had an email exchange that I wanted to share.
First, background. Governor Rick Perry was indicted a few weeks for abuse of power. Let me pause for just a moment and clear this up right quick: The governor was not indicted for issuing a veto, he was indicted for using his veto power to do corrupt things. There is a difference. Anyway lots of people didn’t get that difference and spouted off, jumping to erroneous conclusions based on that faulty premise. One of them is Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald. He posted a huffy column about the criminalization of politics and used the Perry indictment as the most recent example.
Except it’s total poppycock. He did eventually publish what his staff calls a “clarification,” pointing out that in fact there wasn’t any Democratic official involved in the indictment process. The ones who would have normally been involved rightly recused themselves for perceived conflicts of interest. It’s a long story (that’s not even half of it).
I’ve been trying to get Mr. Pitts to step up his game but his staff is clueless. He posted a clarification, they say wondering what the problem might be. When I explained (again!) they said well, maybe if the story continues he’ll write about it again. And maybe he’s not the type of journalist I thought he was. Well, here’s my response to that.
I see. I certainly don’t blame y’all for my paper not running the “clarification” but I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s probably true that there are quite a few people like me across the country who would have had to search out Mr. Pitts’ “clarification.” I did so because I knew he wrote more often than just the one time a week he’s published in the American Statesman and I wanted to make sure I knew all the facts before I accused him of anything. This is the same kind of thing I expect from columnists, reporters, any kind of journalist really. Actually, that’s the kind of behavior I prefer from people generally. When people jump to conclusions based on erroneous statements (as Mr. Pitts) did, they end up looking foolish at best. At worst, they perpetuate lies. Now, there are people all over the country–even the ones who did see the “clarification”–thinking that Governor Perry is a victim of some kind of witchhunt, because that’s the last thing Mr. Pitts said on this topic. “If the story continues”? Why isn’t Mr. Pitts interested in continuing the story himself, since he’s one of those responsible for disseminating the false story in the first place? See, the type of journalist I used to believe he was is one of those with some integrity. Perhaps he isn’t that type of journalist. Perhaps he’s the same type of “journalist” they have over at Fox News. You know the kind. Mr. Pitts knows the kind. The kind that dismiss or ignore or misreport facts that are uncomfortable for them. Or, as in this case, not bother to ask incisive questions and then jump to unfounded and erroneous conclusions. Mr. Pitts really dropped the ball on this. And so, every time from now on that he makes disparaging comments about “Faux News” which I saw him do recently, the only thing I think is “What a hypocrite.”

I’m willing to believe that it’s not because Mr. Pitts is some kind of tea party wingnut, but the effect is the same. So while I agree with the thesis of his original article (Courts no place to overturn defeat at the polls), the Perry case is no example of this. The “clarification” did nothing to counter this statement by Mr. Pitts: “One is not usually disposed to think of Texas’ swaggering governor as a victim, but darn if this indictment hasn’t turned the trick.” Rick Perry may be a lot of things, but a victim he is most certainly not. Now, I do think it’s reasonable for people to disagree on whether this case involves a “recognizable crime,” but is it really so unreasonable for Mr. Pitts to go on record that maybe the people of Texas have a right to hold their Governor accountable for actions that look suspiciously like he jumped on an opportunity to hobble public corruption investigation in the state of Texas, a state where he has appointed every appointable office at least once? Is it so unreasonable that Mr. Pitts at least apologize for sticking his nose into a question he knew less than nothing about (less than nothing in this case means the things he thought he knew were wrong)? Is it really so unreasonable to report the actual facts of the case beyond the one “clarification” that there weren’t any Democrats involved? I don’t think so. Mr. Perry’s corruption may not be so blatant or recognizable as that of Rod Blagojevich. I think it’s even more insidious, in the same way that AIDS is insidious in attacking the very system that is supposed to protect us.

Another statement by Mr. Pitts that was not addressed in the “clarification:” “His crime? He issued a veto.” No, that statement is completely false. It is what Mr. Perry is hoping people across the country will believe because it does make him look like a victim, but the fact of the matter is that he was indicted for trying to force out a duly elected official–to be replaced by the Governor himself–an official in charge of an on-going investigation of certain other Perry appointees over millions of dollars of misappropriated funds. Read the links. Mr. Perry has a reputation for trading favors with his appointees. Those of us who have been watching the governor for the past decade and a half have no problem believing that he was hoping to be able to put someone in that office who was beholden to the governor and not the people of Travis County so that he could protect his cronies. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s tried to disrupt an investigation with an appointment (the Cameron Todd Willingham case). Now, I will admit, I’m not sure that what happened was technically illegal (it certainly ought to be), but I’m absolutely in favor of letting the Texas Justice system figure that question out. I would appreciate it if outsiders who know nothing of the situation stay quiet, and if they just can’t do that, could they at least apply a little bit of Journalistic professionalism and learn something about the topic first? And if they can’t do that in the first place, could they apply those journalistic ethics in the second place and correct the record? I don’t think that’s too much to ask. But then, perhaps Mr. Pitts isn’t the type of journalist I thought he was. That, actually is the saddest part of this whole mess.

I have plenty more to say on this whole situation, but I’ll stop here for now.


The Sheep and the Goats

Certain of my family have been passing this meme around and I found it quite timely and appropriate. I made some nitpicky modifications, but the original idea is signed by a Jason Leith. It’s a paraphrase of Jesus in Matthew 25:41-46

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you reduced funding for food stamps, I was thirsty and you prevented the EPA from guaranteeing me clean water, 43 I was a stranger and you vilified me and demanded that I be deported, I needed clothes and you substituted a sales tax for an income tax and slashed welfare payments, I was sick and you took away my only hope for health care, I was in prison and you tortured me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and endeavored to harm you further?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did to one of the least of these, you did to me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

And might I add, “I was homeless and you denied me affordable housing.”

Bringing it all together

It occurred to me that I’ve been preaching to my Congressman, presenting problems without presenting any solutions. Or at least not presenting any solutions to HIS problem as he (probably) sees it. So I realized that some of my other preaching on the relationship of the GOP to their base might be germane to our current budget/debt ceiling woes. So here’s the result:

I understand you’re in a tough spot right now. Having taken the position you have on Obamacare and the budget, you’re looking for a way to save face because, if you are seen as caving in on this position, you become vulnerable to getting “primaried” by someone even more conservative than you next spring. But the President isn’t budging on this and I don’t see any reason why he would. And I really don’t want to see you and your colleagues forced to give up because we’re already defaulting on debts and watching our economy crumble. That’s bad for everyone.

So, “caving” sooner rather than later is good for the United States of America as a whole but is bad for [you personally]. And I think the answer is to get comfortable with this idea: The Republican Base is too small and relying solely on playing to “the base” to get through the primary and then having to energize “the base” to make it through the general election is not a winning strategy in the long-term. Playing to and energizing “the base” only serves to push moderates away making the base even smaller. I know this is true, because that’s me. I’ve always considered myself a moderate Republican, but I can’t, in good conscience, support this party anymore. For many reasons, but not least of which is they don’t seem to want me around anyway. “Fine,” I say to myself, “I’ll take my vote where it’s appreciated.” Giving in on this budget fight is going to piss off “the base,” no doubt, but there are literally millions of people who don’t vote at all in the primaries that would easily dwarf the mere 2 million who voted in both primaries in May 2012. In [your district], even if every person who voted for you in 2012 voted against you (all 43,317), there are still 606,285 [that didn’t vote in any primary, Democrat or Republican] in the voting age population to pull from. Now that’s a base! If you could get just one out of 6 of those to vote for you in the primary you’d blow a putative “attack from the right” out of the water. And are those people going to vote for the Democrat in the general? Please! Me personally, I think the GOP needs to repudiate the Tea Party, but for you, in the face of a very real possibility of having to cave in no matter what you might want to believe, I think this provides a way to still come out a winner. Think about it.

Actually, the 43,317 was my Congressman’s vote plus his only primary competitor. I don’t recall anymore if his competitor was tea-party-er than thou but in this district that’s the way to bet. I doubt that very many of those who opposed my Congressman did so because they thought him too conservative and so might respond favorably to a more moderate position.

But the real point is that I don’t think there’s any scenario in which he doesn’t have to give in on Obamacare and just go ahead and fund the government and raise the debt limit. And when he does cave in, it’s really going to hurt him in the next primary. And even if (somehow) it doesn’t, growing the base is going to be the way to remain competitive in the future (I mean 10-20 years out). And Daily Kos thinks this is one of the districts that is turning bluer these days. Moderating is probably good for my district in the nearer future (say, 5-12 years out).

A dumb party

“We need to stop being a dumb party, and that means more than stop making dumb comments” Gov. Jindal on the future of the GOP

I can’t promise that the Governor of Louisiana and I agree on why, but we do agree that the GOP needs to quit being dumb. Here’s what I mean when I say things like this.

1. Writing off urban areas is dumb. Take a look at a map of the electoral vote and it looks like the Republicans control a huge portion of the country, and if we elected people by acreage, that would be right. But actually, we elect people by numbers of people. The states the Republicans can count on are big, but empty. The only one with more than 20 electoral votes is Texas. Reaching out to urban America is smart.

2. “Energizing the base” is dumb. The base is too small. Imagine a pyramid. If you build the walls too steep, it wont’ stand, it’ll fall on you. So the height of your pyramid is limited by the size of the base. Unfortunately, “energizing the base” means alienating people (women, hispanics, blacks, poor people, all of the growing demographic groups) so that you can’t grow the base. Worse, “energizing the base” has also meant “shrinking the base.” As evidence, I point you to the last Republican primary cycle in Texas. On all sides, Republicans were calling each other “moderate” the way Gingrich-era Republicans used to throw around “liberal” and McCarthy-era Republicans would throw around “commie.” I think we’ve already reached the point where the base is too small to reach all the way to the White House. Growing the base is smart.

3. Shutting the government down is dumb. Much to the dismay of the GOP, we actually need the government to do things. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) doesn’t seem to understand this. Was he visiting his great white north homeland the last time the GOP shut the government down? Has he not been paying attention to the results of the Sequester? Government does important things and pitching a fit over Obamacare by threatening to shut it all down is equivalent to a child threatening to hold his breath until he turns blue. It’s called a tantrum and any good Republican will tell you the correct response is discipline. Accepting the things you can not change is smart.

4. Threatening the credit of the USA is dumb. All these fiscal hawks are plenty happy, ecstatic even, to point out the massive size of our Federal debt. The Federal government pays just shy of $200 billion in interest every year for an effective rate of about 1.5% (there’s some rounding error there). Now, ask any one with a credit card what happens when you miss too many payments. Yes, that’s right, besides the late fees, you jack up your interest rate. So what’s 20% of $16 trillion? Okay, there’s no reason to think that the Feds would ever have to worry about that kind of interest rate, and so far, we’ve been able to maintain good interest rates even after losing our AAA rating, but when you are talking about debt that size, any increase in the cost of borrowing is significant. Each additional percentage point on the effective interest rate would be an extra $160 billion in interest every year, or enough money to pay all the military’s personnel costs. Defaulting on the national debt is irresponsible. Paying your debts on time with interest–i.e. meeting your obligations, a classic Conservative value–is smart.

“I was born here!”

President Obama’s recent change to immigration enforcement policy and the ruling by the Supreme Court on Arizona’s Immigration Law have immigration issues much in the public eye right now. So I wanted to relate a story that I think illustrates how some of these issues affect real people.

A middle-aged man walks into the Department of Public Safety (in Texas, Drivers’ Licenses are handled by the same department that runs the highway patrol) to renew his driver’s license. He approaches the reception desk, announces his intention and presents his current license. He’s been a licensed driver in the state for about 16 years and in another state for a decade prior to that. He’s renewed his license several times since moving to Texas and updated his address once in between renewals with no problems, so he anticipates the same will be true this time. Alas, it is not to be.

“Where’s your green card?” asks the nice, South-Asian-descended man behind the desk. His nametag reads “Sunil.”

The man–let’s call him “Hug0”–is confused. “Green card? What are you talking about?”

“Your Green Card, or whatever documents you used to get this license. You should have brought that with you.”

“I’m a citizen,” says Hugo, “I was born here!”

“Not according to this,” insists Sunil, gesturing toward the screen. “This says you are not a citizen.”

“That’s crazy!” Hugo is starting to get upset. “I want to see my record.”

“Your record is clear, no accidents or citations.”

“No, you idiot,” (okay, I may be paraphrasing with what Hugo would have liked to say), “I’ve been a driver in Texas for decades and have never had to prove my citizenship before. You’ve screwed up my citizenship status and I want to look at my record and see what other crazy lies you have in my record so that I can correct them all at once.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” Sunil mechanically apologizes, “That’s not allowed.”

Hugo suspects that pointing out that Federal Law requires that people be allowed access to their own records to make corrections is not going to get him anywhere. “Okay, does my reocrd say that I’m not a citizen or that you don’t know my citizenship status?”

“It says you are not a citizen.”

“That’s crazy,” Hugo repeats, but he is able to get Sunil off his back with his passport, which has never been necessary before, through all the renewals and the change of address, and for that matter, to get his license in the first place.

It takes awhile for Hugo’s number to be called, but finally he finds his window, staffed by a pretty, young woman perhaps of Hispanic descent. Hugo presents his license: “I need to renew this.”

“Are you a Permanent Resident?” the young woman asks innocently.

Hugo refrains from using profanity, but his is visibly and audibly upset that once again he has to prove his  citizenship.

The woman in the next cubicle tries to explain: “Last year we got a new database system and the citizenship field didn’t transfer over, so it just says ‘unknown’.”

Hugo retorts, “That doesn’t even make sense! First of all, in the current climate, wouldn’t the DPS want to make sure any existing citizenship data they have carry over? It defies belief that they would accept that field not being carried over. Second, two people in a row now have assumed, if I’m to believe this story, that ‘unknown’ means ‘not a citizen’ which is also ridiculous. And finally, when I asked that specific question to the guy at the front desk, he specifically told me that it did NOT say ‘unknown’ it said I was not a citizen. So I don’t believe you. Unless one of you wants to turn the screen around and show me directly what my record says, I’m going to assume that Sunil and this young lady are not both idiots, and that you, ma’am, are lying.”

Actually, some of the foregoing went unsaid, but what did happen is that the young lady tried, meekly, to apologize for her part in the whole thing, and Hugo, since he did have his passport, managed to get his license renewed without any further incident. Nobody got tased.

But let’s play a little game of “what if.” What would have happened if Hugo had been stopped for some kind of traffic violation that required that the police check his license. It could have come back saying that Hugo was not a citizen. Since Hugo doesn’t typically carry his birth certificate on his person or his passport while he’s in the U.S., would he have been detained for not being able to prove his “immigration status?” What if this had been in Arizona?

Texas is in the middle of a big fight over Voter ID laws and the supposed voter fraud it would supposedly protect against. What if Texas decided to purge its voter roles of suspected illegal immigrants–as Florida is doing–and sent their Drivers’ License Records to county registrars across the state? Would anyone inform Hugo that his voter registration was about to be cancelled? Would Hugo arrive at his appointed polling place on Election Day only to find that he has been disenfranchised? Over a stupid error?

Let me tell you a few more things about Hugo. Hugo does not have a Spanish surname. He is not dark complected. He does not speak with any accent other than a mix of upper-Midwest cadence and Central Texas vowel substitutions. Not only was he born here, but so were his parents and grandparents. And most of his great-great-great-grandparents. Several branches of his family tree came to this country before it was a country. He’s a Mayflower descendant, for crying out loud. You don’t get much more White/Anglo than that.

And I know his story is real, because Hugo is me. This is not some kind of political satire (though you couldn’t write a better one with an Indian telling a white guy he has to provide documentation), it’s an honest-to-God true story with just a smattering of dramatic license. If there is a silver lining, I guess it could be that at least it’s race-neutral disenfranchisement.

I worry about this country sometimes.


Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing

In this time of Fed Bashing, I just wanted to point out a federal program that works. It is called the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program or HPRP (I didn’t make up the abbreviation). A part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, it provided financial assistance, case management, and housing location services (and more) to people who were already homeless or at risk of homelessness but just needed a little help to get back into stable housing. Now 2/3 of the way through the program, it has helped over 1 million people achieve housing stability. If you follow the link there is even a success story from the City of Austin.

Here in Austin, homelessness is a very visible problem, there isn’t wide agreement on the solution. A lot of what gets aired in public leans toward the “run them out of town on a rail”-type solutions, which, of course, are not solutions at all. And while HPRP is an excellent program, it isn’t the be-all-end-all either. It is another tool that has proven to work for a certain segment of the population, most specifically, families on the verge of homelessness or shuffling from friend to family, hoping for a permanent place to stay.

HPRP, is not for every person experiencing homelessness. Of all those newly homeless people out in Bastrop, a lot of them have insurance or other resources to get through to a new home. Of the people who are “couch surfing” (crashing with whichever friend or relative can put them up for the night), HPRP might be the answer. For the guy panhandling on the street everyday, perhaps Permanent Supportive Housing is a better option. And for the worst off, perhaps some kind of mental health intervention is better. Each case is different and what works for one may not work for another.

But I’m glad I live in a country where we’re still willing to help our neighbors in times of trouble, whether that is through individual generosity, or through collective action through our government at all levels. I don’t think that’s what most people mean when they talk about us being a Christian Nation, but perhaps it ought to be.

Pardon my sarcasm

State Sen. Dan Patrick: “It is disappointing that a group from out of state that does not value life can successfully intervene with Texas Public Policy.” Yes, those dang Americans and their “Freedom of Speech” and “Civil Liberties” and “Constitution” getting in the way of the government of Texas getting between a doctor and patient in their medical decisions. It’s as if they believe that certain rights are inalienable or something. They should just give us our disaster funding and medicaid and leave us alone to infringe on people’s freedom as necessary to make sure they don’t make a decision we don’t like. Oh, and highway funds. We shouldn’t have to be held to any standards to get those highway funds we are ENTITLED to.