I am not a fervent believer in the death penalty. I am also not a fervent supporter of George W. Bush. But the media's use of the death penalty issue to drive down Bush's poll ratings is another exercise in naked journalistic partisanship.
Network news watchers woke up early this week to a new media campaign to question Bush's record in Texas. NBC's Lisa Myers declared Texas is "under special scrutiny these days" as a Chicago Tribune review of the "131 inmates executed by Governor George W. Bush" found "dozens of cases in which inmates were executed despite serious questions about the competence of their defense and the reliability of key testimony." The Tribune, which helped lobby Gov. George Ryan into a death penalty moratorium in Illinois by studying all 22 years of capital punishment in their home state, did not study the system under Bush's Democrat predecessor, Ann Richards. They just singled out Bush. "This issue may dog Bush the entire campaign," Myers suggested.
"Special scrutiny," indeed.
In a vigorous exercise in agenda-setting the week before, Newsweek's cover announced we should all be "Rethinking the Death Penalty." In subtle language, one of the magazine's captions reported "the nation's death-penalty debate seems to be taking on new urgency." Did that "urgency" erupt spontaneously or are Newsweek and other outlets helping to create a sense of "urgency" with this kind of saturation coverage?
A few weeks back, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter lobbied Bush to review the case of Ricky McGinn, convicted of raping and murdering his 12-year-old stepdaughter. When Bush responded by granting a 30-day stay for DNA testing, Newsweek took the obnoxious step of taking a poll - always, always a poll - showing that 59 percent thought Bush's delay was based on political reasons, not because of evidence. Consider just how stupid this poll question was: There is no new evidence of McGinn's innocence, just a new technique for detecting DNA in a pubic hair, which may identify or clear McGinn as a rapist.
Besides, were every one of Newsweek's poll respondents given the weekend to read a sheaf of legal papers on this case? Was a single one qualified to give an expert opinion on it? Are you? I know I'm not. This is the kind of media manipulation that drives down public confidence in media outlets: agitate until a public official makes the decision you want, and then bash him for caving to your bald-faced lobbying as an insincere political ploy.
Newsweek is not alone in its partisan pressure on Bush. NBC, The New York Times, and PBS's "Frontline" documentary series have also devoted their resources to casting doubt on Bush's criminal justice record. Like Newsweek, Time and U.S. News reported on Bush's McGinn decision, and both played word games with Bush's motto "compassionate conservatism." (He's going to hate himself for having used that if he gets elected; watch the media repeat it sarcastically for his entire tenure on everything.) That's opposed to "compassionate liberalism," which shows its love for the citizenry by letting murderers out on weekend furloughs.
Reporters, anchors, and editors didn't use these rules when the Governor in the presidential race was Bill Clinton of Arkansas, or Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. Surely, Republican operatives tried to make an issue out of those candidates' records, but did Newsweek ever publish an 11-page cover story package on Massachusetts furloughs? Did Jonathan Alter crusade to get Gov. Clinton to save the life of Ricky Ray Rector, the self-lobotomized cop killer who was executed during the 1992 primaries? You won't even find Rector's name in the magazine until this month.
Newsweek has also not tried this treatment on Al Gore. Why not explore the Clinton-Gore record on the death penalty, a record scorned by liberals and civil libertarians for whittling away at habeas corpus protections? Time magazine explained: "The issue of fairness in the death penalty in Texas - and under Bush - is particularly relevant because of the sheer number of people who have been executed on his watch. (Vice President Al Gore also favors the death penalty, but he has the advantage at the moment of not having to manage a death row.)" Gore hasn't attacked Bush's record on the death penalty. He can rely on his media surrogates.
The press has a very strange calculus of accountability. Reporters hold Governor Bush accountable for every policeman, every judge, and every jury in the Texas judicial system. But President Clinton is in no way responsible when we blow up the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, or he orders the destruction of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan to distract attention from his Monica Lewinsky grand jury testimony.
For Bush to become President, he doesn't have to just run against Gore. He has to start addressing a hostile media, too.