CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson is set to receive a journalism award at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference from Accuracy in Media, a right-wing group with a long history of promoting anti-gay views and conspiracy theories. Attkisson -- the first reporter from a mainstream news outlet to receive AIM's annual award -- has produced some notably bad journalism over the past year, particularly on the topics of clean energy and vaccines.
I'm going to do something that might be considered a waste of time: suggest a question for Fox News to ask at tonight's Republican debate.
Yes, it's Fox News and they likely have little desire to take suggestions from Media Matters. But the roiling horror of the Troy Davis execution remains fresh in the American consciousness and perhaps that can help us to transcend differences to act in the interest of the common good.
The controversy over Davis' execution makes it almost certain that there will be some discussion of capital punishment tonight, and it's my worry that the wrong questions will be asked that animates this long-shot request. So here goes:
Since 1996, as DNA testing has improved, there have been nearly 80 death row exonerations. Just two months ago, Cory Maye of Mississippi walked out of jail a free man years after an error-riddled travesty of a trial left him condemned to death. Bret Baier or Megyn Kelly or Chris Wallace should ask each candidate whether they support the death penalty, yea or nay. For each person who answers yea (and I imagine that will be quite a few), they should be asked to reconcile their faith in capital punishment with this spate of exonerations: how can they maintain confidence in a system that, as we're learning, is frequently and intractably wrong?
That cuts to the heart of the capital punishment debate. Can we support the state-sponsored execution of prisoners knowing that the judicial system operates with a margin of error?
It's a question that should be asked of all our elected leaders and explored by the press in ways that go beyond the superficiality of political wrangling. At the last debate in which capital punishment arose as an issue, much of the coverage that followed focused on the theatrics and political effectiveness of the candidates' answers.
By presenting a death penalty question in a way that makes clear the fallibility of the system that enforces a policy in which no room for error exists, perhaps Fox News can help foster a broader media discussion and forces us all to reexamine our moral calculus on the issue. Indeed, there's already momentum to build on: theWashington Post's humor blog, of all places, offered yesterday a nuanced take on death penalty morality in light of the Davis controversy.
Like I said, it's a long shot, and I don't expect Fox News to take me up on my suggestion. But as the furor over Troy Davis and the stream of innocent men walking out of death row make clear, it's a discussion that's long overdue.
It's a strange quirk of politics that, with the death penalty coming to the fore as an issue in the 2012 presidential race, the incumbent president is from Illinois while the frontrunner for the Republican nomination is a Texan.
Texas, as we've all come to know of late, is America's capital punishment capital, with a record 234 inmates executed during the Rick Perry administration. Illinois, on the other hand, just recently abolished the death penalty. A spate of 13 overturned death sentences at the beginning of last decade succeeded in bending the conscience of then-governor George Ryan, also a Republican, who suspended all executions and commuted the sentences of the remaining 167 death row prisoners to life. The state passed a series of reforms, and Gov. Pat Quinn (D) signed the ban into law in March.
For the media reporting on last night's U.S. Supreme Court-mandated stay of execution for Texas inmate Duane Buck, Illinois' struggles with capital punishment should be instructive.
The court is reviewing Buck's original sentencing hearing, during which an expert witness for the state, Walter Quijano, testified that Buck was more likely to be dangerous in the future because he is black. Texas has already retried six other death penalty cases in which Quijano testified. Despite a growing chorus of calls to reconsider Buck's case (including a plea from one of the prosecutors) the state of Texas repeatedly rejected Buck's attorneys' requests for a new sentencing hearing.
If Buck's death sentence is overturned, his case will be just the latest indication that the Texas system for doling out death is plagued by prejudice and ineptitude. The Perry administration has already seen the exoneration of at least five death row inmates. The 13 overturned death sentences in Illinois sparked sweeping reforms to the state's death penalty system that led, ultimately, to its abolition. In Texas, how many more will it take?
The prisoners freed from death row in these states had allies and advocates working doggedly on their behalf -- and they also had remarkable good fortune. It's inconceivable, with so many exonerations over the past decade, that there aren't more wrongly condemned prisoners whom the system has failed awaiting executions they don't deserve because they lack representation.
Duane Buck's ultimate fate is still up in the air, but last night's Supreme Court action, the example of Illinois, and the slow stream of innocent men walking out of death row make clear that the system of capital punishment in Texas is a tragically corrupted enterprise in desperate need of reform. And it's time the media start taking note of that.
Last night's Republican presidential debate generated no shortage of headlines and much coverage of the record number of prisoner executions during the administration of Texas governor Rick Perry.
Asked by NBC's Brian Williams if he struggles with the idea that any one of those executed prisoners might have been innocent, Perry answered: "No, sir. I've never struggled with that at all. ... In the state of Texas, if you come into our state and you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer, you're involved with another crime and you kill one of our citizens, you will face the ultimate justice in the state of Texas, and that is, you will be executed."
Much of the coverage thus far has focused on the theatrics of Perry's staunch defense of Texas' system for capital punishment, rather than the substance. The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza wrote this morning that Perry was one of the "losers" last night, but "salvaged the second half of the debate with a very strong answer on the death penalty." For those wondering what was so "strong" about it, tough luck: Cillizza didn't explain. In today's Politico "Playbook," Mike Allen counseled Perry to "give the same answer on executions in every debate."
A few media outlets have noted Texas' controversial record on capital punishment, and some even spotlighted the case of Cameron Todd Willingham as a counterpoint to Perry's faith in the Texas criminal justice system. Willingham, convicted of murdering his three daughters by arson, was put to death in Texas in 2004. Perry denied a stay of execution to allow the state to review evidence that the fire science used to convict Willingham was spurious. In 2009 he abruptly replaced several members the state forensic science commission just before it was scheduled to hold hearings on the matter.
Willingham's case is an important one, but we should also be talking about the many wrongly convicted prisoners freed from death row in Texas in the last ten years. They, more than the unresolved Willingham case, demonstrate conclusively not just that the Texas criminal justice system is capable of making catastrophic errors when meting out capital punishment, but also that such errors happen with appalling frequency.
The years-long media frenzy over the trial of Casey Anthony is reaching its denouement. On Tuesday, the 25-year old Florida woman, arrested in 2008 and charged with killing her two-year-old daughter, was acquitted of murder charges and found guilty of lying to police. This morning she received her sentence and headed back to jail. Ever since the verdict was read, cable news has been saturated with overheated speculation as to whether the system of justice had failed by letting Casey Anthony, who was facing the death penalty, live.
It is an important discussion to have, given that it deals with the authority our courts and juries have to impose the ultimate punishment of death. But it is being led by journalists who expected Anthony to be convicted and executed. Fox News' Geraldo Rivera marveled just after Anthony was acquitted that she was "a woman that we felt, just hours ago, just an hour ago, could have been walking down the green mile, down the last walk to the death chamber ... that she would be there, sitting some years from now with needles in her veins, forfeiting her life for that poor child."
It's impossible to say with complete certainty whether the justice system failed with respect to Casey Anthony. What is known, however, is that the same justice system has absolutely failed catastrophically by sending people to death row for crimes they did not commit. We know this because several of those people have, by dint of good fortune and hard work by lawyers and journalists, been exonerated and set free. But those failures get just a fraction of the media attention paid to trials like that of Casey Anthony.
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In their coverage of Saddam Hussein's November 5 guilty verdict, several print news outlets reported U.S. officials' assertions that the announcement had not been timed to coincide with the midterm elections but ignored reporting that conflicts with these denials -- in particular, the fact that the full verdict in Saddam's trial is not set to be released until November 9.
Bill O'Reilly falsely claimed that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) supports "things most Christians do not, i.e., partial birth abortion." In fact, Clinton has consistently said she would support a ban on late-term abortions so long as there were exceptions to protect the health and life of the pregnant woman.
Predicting riots if Stanley "Tookie" Williams were not granted clemency, radio host Neal Boortz said, "There are a lot of aspiring rappers and NBA superstars who could really use a nice flat-screen television right now."