Monthly Archives: March 2009

Bad recession reporting redux

I recently began taking the New York Times. I haven’t dropped my hometowner yet, but it’s getting easier and easier to make the inevitable decision to embrace the Gray Lady and dump the spayed one.

It’s a sad departure from a decade ago, when I’d parse the cadences and rhythms of L.A. Times’ stories, trying to pick up something I could use to tighten a lede, or crack the nut graf – much like a bush leaguer studying Ted Williams’ swing.

Now, when I engage in the same practice, I’m more likely to be nauseated than invigorated. The great journalism once published on the Times’ front page has been all but buried in a shallow grave – or more concisely, a grave of shallowness.

What truer instance of that was today’s front-pager: ‘Down and out,’ but not enough to get aid,” Molly Hennessy-Fiske’s study of Caroline Sabey, a 42-year-old single mother who failed to qualify for public assistance.

The headline and premise sound gut-wrenching, but are entirely misleading. The article glosses over a salient fact: Sabey receives nearly $2,000 a month in unemployment benefits. That’s the take-home equivalent of about $34,000 a year. Sabey grumbles that her unemployment benefits “barely covers her basic rent and bills.” Isn’t that exactly what it’s supposed to do?

Fiske’s article does not contain any quotes from someone making that obvious point. Nor does it contain interviews with anyone else in a similar predicament, or discuss the fact that recently enacted federal aid extended the benefits Sabey receives. The online version of the Times story also contained that ridiculous illustration of a middle-class family on a breadline the paper had published a while back. I had criticized its use both in this blog and in the L.A. Business Journal back in December as overkill.

Recycled trash -- the illustration the L.A. Times used back in December to suggest a return to the Great Depression.

Recycling bin -- the illustration the L.A. Times used back in December to suggest a return to the Great Depression.

While it was recycling this artwork, the Times got badly scooped on the same issue on the same day by its New York counterpart, which ran a front-page story about homeless encampments sprouting up in and around Fresno. The last time I checked, that was, er…not too far away. Given the Spayed Lady had claimed a refocus on California news, it should have had it first – a long time ago.

Along with an in-depth story about people who wish they were netting half of what Sabey does, it included a great photo essay, an observation that the encampments were fall smaller than their equivalents during the Great Depression and a nut quote that put the story in its proper perspective: “These are able-bodied folks that did day labor, at minimum wage or better, who were previously able to house themselves based on their income,” said Michael Stoops, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group based in Washington.

While the economy may recover, the L.A Times simply will not. Its editorial staff is half of what it was a decade ago, and positions are being cut virtually very week. In the most recent round just a couple of days ago, casualties included Tim Lynch, Jennifer Oldham and Aaron Curtiss, people with great knowledge of Los Angeles and a valuable institutional memory. Aside from writing some great pieces about San Fernando Valley culture back in the early 1990s, Curtiss should have been retained simply for having the courage to wear Mr. Peanut apparel in public.

By contrast, the Gray Lady is facing its crisis by temporarily cutting the salaries of its news staff rather than permanently elminating their jobs, gambling that preserving a strong editorial presence will guarantee not only future prosperity, but the perpetuation of a quality product.

In other words, the NYT’s management knows a little something about spaying Sam Zell does not: once you put particular components under the knife, they’re gone. Forever.

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Dallas Judge Convicted of Being Uppity

Texas’ political and legal institutions have pulled themselves by the bootstraps into the early days of the Truman Administration (a vast improvement from a decade ago, when they were still happily entrenched in the Van Buren Administration). However, it does not mean the Lone Star State has stopped stomping people of color, regardless of their social status.

Judge C. Victor Lander, who oversees Dallas’ municipal courts, is currently nursing a large bootprint on the top of his head for a column he wrote earlier this week in the city’s African-American newspaper. It wasn’t a pack of lies; instead, it was just too inconveniently close to the truth for the Saltine packs who mostly run the Big D.

Was Judge Lander outing closeted child molesters? No, he had merely praised Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins for his efforts at reforming the office. Watkins is Texas’ very first – and still sole – African American district attorney. That’s not a particularly stirring achievement for the nation’s third most populous state, given Watkins wasn’t even elected until 2006. Incidentally, Texas has nearly 300 counties, meaning they elect D.A.s by the truckload (by comparison, California has only 58 counties).

What got Lander in hot water was observing that “black folks have been cleaning up white folks’ messes for hundreds of years, so why should we expect any different now?” He also criticized the Dallas County District Attorney’s office for being an institution where “it was more important to convict than it was to ensure justice was done.”

Within a few days Lander apologized to Dallas’ mostly white legal and political establishment – a group that almost certainly hadn’t read a line in an African-American newspaper until one of their colleagues waved a copy under their noses in an episode of bloated outrage.

Bloated outrage is certainly what comes to mind regarding Dallas City Councilman Mitchell Rasansky, who called for Lander to resign. Rasansky said he was “extremely offended and hurt by these unwarranted comments.” Either Rasansky is one of those white guys who takes offense at anything a black man does or says that’s considered “uppity,” or he’s telegraphing to Lander his power. The City Council in Dallas appoints municipal judges, one of the hundreds of sad examples in Texas where the bench is overtly politicized. Rasansky is leaving office later this year, but no doubt he’d love to bag Lander before he exits.

Dallas City Councilman Mitchell Rasansky no doubt had his "uppity" meter tripped.

Dallas City Councilman Mitchell Rasansky no doubt had his "uppity" meter tripped.

The Dallas Morning News also clucked that Lander had violated judicial codes of conduct. “If you’re a white lawyer or defendant today in one of the 10 municipal courts Lander supervises, how confident would you be that you’ll get a fair shake?” the paper wondered on its editorial page.

My conclusion: a helluva lot more confident than in the past. Dallas County’s legal system has been the equivalent of an EPA Superfund Site for decades. That’s the legacy of the notorious Henry Wade, who operated the D.A.’s office for nearly 40 years on the philosophy of never letting a good fact get in the way of a bad conviction. Wade instructed his deputies to systematically exclude minorities from death penalty cases, and suppress inconveniently exculpatory evidence. That was among the reasons Watkins established a unit to examine DNA evidence to determine if anyone had been wrongly convicted. The municipal courts Lander oversees don’t handle the felony cases Watkins prosecutes, but certainly he’s kept that legacy in mind during the 12 years he’s been on the bench.

Indeed, 19 people convicted in Dallas County during Wade’s tenure have been exonerated of their crimes since the start of this decade alone. Most had been convicted of rape and/or murders, and had been serving long prison terms. Some had been wrongfully imprisoned for 20 years or more. As the Morning News skewered judge Lander for his misconduct, it conveniently forgot that it posts an ongoing list of exonerated defendants on its own website.

Longtime Dallas County D.A. Henry Wade never let a good fact get in the way of a bad conviction.

Longtime Dallas County D.A. Henry Wade never let a good fact get in the way of a bad conviction.

That horrific roster doesn’t even include Randall Adams, who was put on death row for the 1976 murder of a Dallas police officer because the real killer was a juvenile and couldn’t be executed. Prosecutor Doug Mulder all but boasted that he had gotten an innocent man convicted. It took Errol Morris and his landmark documentary “The Thin Blue Line” to free Adams. He had spent 12 years in prison, and at one point had come within a few days of being strapped into the electric chair.

No doubt Rasansky hasn’t seen “The Thin Blue Line.” Which is a shame, given that he lives in a 6,600 square-foot home valued at nearly $3 million. No doubt he’s got a nifty home theater that would nearly replicate the experience of watching this extremely sobering film in a movie house.

Meanwhile, Texas has executed some 60 inmates since Watkins took office, more than all the other 49 states combined. Almost certainly every single one was guilty of the crimes they committed. But even if one was innocent, that’s a mess a whole lot of people – black or white – can never clean up.

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Death Penalty for Madoff?

Although Bernard Madoff said he was deeply ashamed of his actions after pleading guilty yesterday to 11 counts of fraud, perjury, money laundering and fraud, his conduct between his arrest for running a giant Ponzi scheme and his sentencing suggested not even a millisecond of remorse.

Madoff took to strolling the streets of his posh Upper East Side neighborhood after being released on bail last December. He’s managed to get $62 million into his family’s clutches since then. I’m not sure what Madoff’s days in a federal minimum security prison will be like, but I’m betting they’ll be far closer to “Goodfellas” than “Midnight Express.”

However, there is probably a better movie for Madoff’s prison experience to emulate: “Dead Man Walking.”

Bill Maher suggested a few weeks ago, tongue somewhat in cheek, that a couple of the wizards of Wall Street who got us into this current economic mess need to be left dangling over the rafters of the New York Stock Exchange as a message. My response is a little more tempered: Madoff should merely face the prospect of capital punishment.

No doubt readers are shaking their heads at my immodest proposal. Madoff hasn’t killed anyone. Why should we consider executing him? Since he’s 70 years old, the chances he would die in prison are excellent. But is that good enough?

There’s no mathematical algorithim for comparing the hurt of families of murder victims and those who are victims of other crimes, but given the scale of Madoff’s malfeasance, I’m certain they’re closer than they appear. The thousands of people Madoff ripped off are suffering immensely. Ninety-year-old Ian Thiermann had to find a job to make ends meet. Elie Wiesel’s foundation was left bereft. Thiermann’s plight is sad enough, but there may not be a person on the planet more entitled to die in peace than Wiesel. Madoff shamelessly took that away.

Which comes back to my sounding like a bloodthirsty lunatic. I don’t believe someone like Madoff should be strapped onto a gurney and a needle full of poison jabbed into his arm for revenge. This act would actually serve a far more constructive purpose than does our current system of capital punishment.

I’m not passionate about the death penalty, but I believe it serves a purpose: the exercising of vengeance against the worst of the worst. However, I’ve always been troubled by the mostly fallacious argument used to make capital punishment more palatable: its deterrent effect. Criminals who commit the types of murders that result in their execution are almost all sociopaths. They lack impulse control and an ability to plan ahead. So when a criminal is executed, it is always for purposes of punishment and societal revenge. Barack Obama took this concept quite far, stunning some quarters during his Presidential campaign when he supported execution for child rapists. I’m mostly unwilling to go so far as to kill someone who hasn’t killed. Or am I?

If there’s a candidate for a non-murderer to be executed for deterrent effect, Madoff is it. He is not the thug who robs a liquor store and avenges his powerlessness by shooting the clerk, or the creep who takes advantage of his girlfriend’s kids when she’s at work. He spent 30 years running a fairly legitimate investment business and served as Nasdaq’s first chairman before he decided to turn to fraud in the early 1990s. He worked hard enough and long enough to gain the trust of thousands of people that he then felt entitled to spurn. There are a lot of people out there who aspire to be the next Madoff, and are willing to plot and work their asses off to do so. The chance they might be executed if they go too far might actually give them some pause.

And if Madoff were actually facing the death penalty, his sentence would almost certainly never be carried out. Even the most impoverished defendants receive legal representation; if not, their cases are delayed. Unless you’re facing capital punishment in Texas (which has already executed a dozen convicts so far in 2009), it takes 20 years or more for a defendant to move from conviction to execution. But in this instance it would be a symbolic action that actually represents more than just symbolism.

Madoff might not survive such a process, but the debate about his fate certainly would. And if it stuck in the mind of the next Master of the Universe who placed his sense of entitlement above the duty owed his clients and business, everyone would benefit.

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