Frame Game

Bush’s Willing Executioners

“Bush Defends Streamlined Texas Death Penalty System,” shouts the front page of Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times. According to the article, “Serious debate about how the death penalty is administered in America has begun to percolate for the first time in years—a newly nuanced discussion that is spilling over into Campaign 2000 and will likely dog Bush’s campaign from now until election day.” Dog? Spill? Percolate? These are the telltale verbs of a self-concealing journalist. Once again, the media are driving a story to embarrass George W. Bush—and using the pretense of objectivity to cover it up.

Last year’s media-driven controversy was whether Bush had used cocaine. Reporters kept saying the cocaine question was “dogging” Bush, as though the question had a life of its own. At the time, “Frame Game” pointed out that questions don’t dog politicians, reporters do. That maxim bears repeating amid the current frenzy over Bush’s use of capital punishment. Debates don’t dog politicians, much less percolate or spill onto them. Journalists help decide when to brew those debates and where to pour them.

The press is well out of step with public opinion on the death penalty. Reporters claim that “America” is “rethinking” the issue. But while elite journalists overwhelmingly oppose the death penalty, polls show that two-thirds of Americans still support it. And while the public’s concerns are largely confined to whether some people on death row might be innocent, most journalists oppose capital punishment anyway, either in principle or because they believe its application is racially discriminatory. They think it’s outrageous that Texas, under Bush, has executed more than 130 convicted murderers. They want to embarrass Bush and halt capital punishment by exposing flaws in the Texas system.

For months, out-of-state reporters have scoured Texas for evidence of dubious murder convictions. Newspapers and newsmagazines have churned out article after article to keep the story going. In the past month, the New York Times has published a dozen major stories on the death penalty and the Texas system. The Chicago Tribune issued a press release promoting its front-page investigation (headline: “Flawed Trials Lead to Death Chamber; Bush Confident in System Rife With Problems”). The Los Angeles Times sent a reporter to New Orleans to cover a federal appeals court hearing on a screwy Texas case.

When appellate courts find errors committed by trial courts, the press cries scandal. When appellate courts don’t find errors committed by trial courts, the press cries scandal again. Look at the June 12 Tribune. While the article on Page 7 (“Study: Most Death Cases Have Significant Flaws”) protests that two-thirds of the nation’s death penalty cases “were thrown out by higher courts or sent back for reconsideration,” the article on the front page (“Justices Prove Reluctant to Nullify Cases”) protests that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals often fails to “acknowledge holes in the prosecution’s case.”

To obscure their zeal, journalists invoke the passive voice. “New questions are being raised about capital punishment,” says a CNN report. “Texas Lawyer’s Death Row Record a Concern,” adds the New York Times. Whose questions? Whose concerns? Not the reporter’s. Now that Bush is the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee, the case of death row prisoner Ricky McGinn “has begun to take on political significance,” says the New York Times. Not that any editor assigned the case such significance, mind you. The case simply “took it on.” The Times of London agrees that McGinn “brought the death penalty issue into the presidential campaign.” How McGinn performed this delivery from his prison cell remains a mystery.

Every newspaper assault on Bush includes the obligatory “scrutiny” paragraph. The lines hardly vary. “Texas’ death penalty system has come under increased scrutiny since Bush announced his presidential candidacy,” says the Tribune. “Texas’s vigorous death penalty system is under close scrutiny because of Bush’s presidential campaign,” says the Washington Post. “With Mr. Bush as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, capital punishment in Texas is under heightened scrutiny,” says the New York Times. Who’s heightening all this scrutiny? The cases themselves are doing it. The upcoming execution of inmate Gary Graham “is the latest high-profile death penalty case to focus attention on Gov. George W. Bush and how the death penalty is administered in his state,” says the Times.

The issue doesn’t just hound Bush (He’s “been dogged by his remarks about Karla Faye Tucker, a Texas inmate executed early last year,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer). It creeps up on him (he gave McGinn a reprieve “against a backdrop of creeping unease over capital punishment,” says Time) and occasionally attacks him (” ‘81 Death Penalty Case Confronts Bush,” says the Post). It has even arrested him. “The Death Penalty on Trial,” announces Newsweek’s June 12 cover story. “The death penalty is in the dock,” and “capital punishment in Texas is in the cross hairs this political season.” Whose cross hairs? Whose courtroom? Newsweek doesn’t say.

Evidently, Bush brought all this on himself. First he ran for president. “Bush Candidacy Puts Focus on Executions,” reported the New York Times. Then he hinted at a reprieve for McGinn. “Talk of Reprieve … Brings Death Penalty Issue to Campaign Fore,” responded the Los Angeles Times. Then he went through with the reprieve, prompting CBS anchor Bob Schieffer to conclude that Bush had “rekindled the debate on the death penalty” and had “put the focus on this whole idea of DNA testing and whether people on death row have been correctly defended.” Bush, not the fourth estate, kept the fire going and the issue in focus.

Yes, the Texas criminal justice system is riddled with flaws. Yes, there’s an uncomfortably high probability that it has executed an innocent person. But there’s an even greater probability that it has failed to bring hundreds of real killers to justice. The same is true of other states. The difference is, journalists aren’t writing those stories. We’re writing this one. That’s our decision. It’s a moral decision. And we ought to admit it.