Texas Journalists Urge National Press To Take Perry Case More Seriously

While many national outlets are dismissing the indictment of Texas Gov. Rick Perry as political payback, Texas journalists warn that such claims are misguided, incomplete, and the product of a “rush to judgment.” 

On August 15, news broke that Perry was being indicted for “abuse of official capacity and coercion of a public servant,” both of which are felonies.

The charges relate to Perry's threatened and completed veto of $7.5 million in state funding for the Travis County Public Integrity Unit.

The case claims that the threat and veto were retaliation against Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg, a Democrat and the head of that unit, who ignored Perry's call for her to resign after she was convicted of drunk driving. At the time Lehmberg's unit was investigating corruption in a program Perry had heavily touted; if she had resigned, Perry would have appointed her replacement.

Following the announcement, a split has emerged among press covering the story. Much of the Lone Star State media has covered it as a valid legal proceeding and part of a greater picture of misconduct, while national media are treating Perry's indictment as mere politics. 

The New York Times editorial board speculated that it “appears to be the product of an overzealous prosecution.” Liberal New York magazine reporter Jonathan Chait labeled the indictment “unbelievably ridiculous.” A USA Today editorial dubbed it a “flimsy indictment,” while The Wall Street Journal called it “prosecutorial abuse for partisan purposes.”

But Texas journalists say many on the national level don't know the facts and context and are too quick to judge from afar.

“The national pundits -- and some of them are very thoughtful people -- tend to focus first and most easily on the politics,” said Wayne Slater, a columnist at the Dallas Morning News. “How does this particular event help or hurt that candidate in the potential horse race? Many reporters in Texas know Perry and are much more familiar with the details in this case, the fact that these are Republicans investigating this and that Perry has a history of hardball politics in forcing people out. This is a much more nuanced story than some in the Beltway understand.”

Slater adds, “Rick Perry is getting good press because he has been masterful in the way he has framed this as a matter of partisan politics. Instinctively political journalists and reporters and outlets at some distance understand that Perry is winning the politics at the moment and that his narrative of events really comports with their general sense of how things work, that politicians threaten people and coerce people.”

Forrest Wilder, who is covering the story for the Texas Observer, noted in a recent piece that the criminal complaint against Perry filed in June 2013 by Texans for Public Justice was assigned to a Republican judge who then appointed a former prosecutor in the George H.W. Bush administration as special prosecutor. In comments to Media Matters, Wilder said the charges were something “we should take seriously.”

“There is nothing about this indictment process that suggests partisan bias,” said Wilder. “You had a Republican judge who appointed a special prosecutor who has largely a Republican pedigree who presented testimony from 40 individuals. There were hundreds of documents reviewed and the grand jury decided to indict.”

He also called much of the national coverage “mystifying.” “These are folks who have not been following this and conclude there was nothing to this; that is a rush to judgment,” he said. “Every major news outlet in the state at this point has done a piece along the lines of 'hey guys, here are some things to consider, here are some things you are getting wrong.'”

The Morning News and the Houston Chronicle, the state's two largest daily papers, have both editorialized on the validity of the investigation.

The Chronicle wrote that the indictments “suggest that the longest-serving governor in Texas history has grown too accustomed to getting his way when it comes to making sure that virtually every key position in state government is occupied by a Perry loyalist.” The Morning News editorial board stated: “It's in every Texan's best interests for the charges against Perry, whatever your view of them, to traverse the entire judicial system as impartially as possible.”

Jeff Cohen, Chronicle executive editor for opinions & editorials, said the local press cannot just brush off the legal proceeding as political, adding, “we've been following him for a number of years ... we respect what the grand jury has done here, we respect the process, and we believe it ought to run its course.”

Keven Ann Willey, Morning News editorial page editor, said journalists may not know all of the evidence, but “we do know that a grand jury who viewed evidence thinks that there's enough there to have a trial and that is not nothing.” She later said of the Beltway pundits: “From afar sometimes it's hard to appreciate the background in detail.”

Mike Norman, editorial director of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, said local media “want to see the case laid out.”

“The indictment is not the case and the national analysis is attacking the indictment and they don't seem to see how this can be anything other than politics,” Norman said. “He's been our governor for more than 13 years now, we watch him more closely. We want to see the case laid out, there's going to be all sorts of opportunities for his attorneys to go after this.”

He also defended the local legal process: "If you're saying that that process which our legal system set up produced only a political result, then you are saying the whole justice system is corrupt and I don't believe that is the case.

Bob Ray Sanders, Star-Telegram associate editor and senior columnist, echoed that view.

“I think the national press took off very early on the idea that this was a vague law or that the governor has a right to do almost anything he wants to do,” he said, later adding, “Sadly, the national press has to react so quickly with so little information sometimes and some of them on the liberal side feel some guilt because they have criticized him so much ... they want to give him the benefit of the doubt, and by doing that they left their journalism on the side.”