Susan Hawk Coverage a Sexist Pile-On? Free-For-All Perhaps a Better Word?

First, please don’t expect us in the news business not to act like we’re in the news business. Second, speaking of the news business, Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk is off to a real bad start.

Hawk, who disappeared from public view three months ago apparently struggling with mental health issues, reappeared at the end of last week with a 40-second statement after which she declined to take questions. Hawk promised she would have more to say about where she’s been “next week.” Apparently, she said it to reporter Jamie Thompson at D Magazine, which this weekend published an inside, blow-by-blow story about Hawk's breakdown. You should read it.

But the question remains. The story the D piece doesn't try to address is still on the table. Is Hawk now sufficiently recovered from her struggles to dispatch the duties of the county’s chief law enforcement officer. One good way she could have shown she’s up to it now would have been to stand last week for a tough healthy give-and-take with reporters, the way a public official is supposed to be able to do. Peek-a-boo, “Hi, I’m back, bye now” was not reassuring.

The whole business of how to talk about Hawk and her travails is supposed to be very fraught now with considerations of sexism. My first take was that it was bogus to cover her with that cloak, but my wife told me not to be so fast. Generally speaking, I take the word of the targets of bigotry on things like this, so I guess I should fold my hand. But one thing gives me pause. Hawk's political adviser, Mari Woodlief.

The D piece is gripping. It gives really interesting insight into the deeply personal relationship between Hawk and Woodlief.  For one thing, the piece made me wonder if Woodlief may be a sort of partner in some of Hawk's paranoia — her sense that her woes are all the work of fellow lawyers gunning for her job.

As far as I can tell, Woodlief is down to two lines on Hawk — the political careerist paranoia, reinforced by a strong suggestion that all references to Hawk's mental instability are sexist.  The backstabbing and the sexism are the sum of Woodlief's talking points, as they have been for months.

In a new piece in Texas Monthly, Skip Hollandsworth says Woodlief, “warned me to be wary of comments being made by other lawyers about Hawk’s behavior, claiming that some of those lawyers were hoping Hawk would be forced to resign so that one of them could be appointed district attorney.

“‘These guys were backing Susan in her campaign because they knew she was the only one who could beat Craig Watkins,’ Woodlief said. ‘And now they are trying to get rid of her by making her look crazy.’”

It’s the same line Woodlief pitched to The Dallas Morning News a month ago for a Hawk profile: “Woodlief said Hawk, now in a position of power, has had to learn tough lessons about whom she can truly trust. ‘Everybody has their motives here,’ Woodlief said. ‘Every person piling on wants that job or wants something from her.’”

The most enthusiastic utterance of the sexism theme was written by Amy McCarthy, who sometimes writes for us, in a recent piece for The Texas Observer under the headline, “Sexism, Stigma and Susan Hawk: Let’s Find a New Way to Talk About the Dallas DA.” In that piece, McCarthy said Woodlief had told her: “It’s easy to use those words, ‘unstable’ and ‘erratic,’ because she is a woman. If she were a man, those words might not be used.”

Woodlief has been busy.

In her piece in The Texas Observer, McCarthy offered up yours truly as an example of how not to talk about Hawk: “Still, even if she is able to return to her job in perfect health, there are many who will still doubt her ability. Just last week, the Dallas Observer’s Jim Schutze compared Hawk to a ‘scary-bad imitation’ of Carrie Mathison, the Homeland character who suffers from severe bipolar disorder. ‘Apparently, when Hawk comes over to talk to you, you have to turn off your phone and computer so they will not be able to listen in,’ he wrote, mocking her. ‘When she comes back to work, will they be coming with her?’

Hmm. Thought about it. Yes, mocked. Guilty there. But McCarthy could have mentioned that the thing about people listening to her through other people’s computer terminals was actually reported by employees. I didn’t make that up for mocking’s sake. It was just sitting there. Waiting to be mocked.

And let’s clear the air on something right now. We in the news business are not actually in the mental health recovery business. Maybe we should be. I think that business is doing better. But we are in the business of selling newspapers, getting ratings and clicks. That’s pretty much how the basic business model works here. I like to think we want to tell the truth anyway because we’re not liars, but the need to tell the truth also happens to be a fact of life in our business model. It really doesn’t work to tell people you’re selling them the truth, the scoop, the skinny and then sell them a pack of lies. Doesn’t work for long, anyway. Kind of like saying you’re selling them a real fast car, but it’s actually a real slow car. They catch on when they push down on the accelerator.

Here’s the truth. A district attorney who has to leave the campaign trail to go to drug rehab and then lies about it, a district attorney who says bat-shit crazy stuff to her subordinates, a district attorney who fires longtime dedicated competent employees with families to support because she's whacked out, who  disappears from office and then says she’s dealing with depression: all of that is what we call in our business “a story.”

A real good story.

Sorry if you happen to be a district attorney, but we’re going to do this story about you — all of us are going to do this story about you (see above) — if it’s true. Why? Because it’s a good story. We are in the good story business.

Maybe we should also think about an important factor here that doesn't have a thing to do with journalism or sexism. According to The Innocence Project of Texas, 49 innocent people have been exonerated and released from Texas prisons based on DNA evidence. Of those, 80 percent of the convictions were based on eyewitness testimony.

Of those 49, 24 were convicted by prosecutors in Dallas County. Houston in Harris County had the next highest number with eight. The fact is that Hawk's predecessor, Craig Watkins, made a powerful moral point when he said Dallas County has a long road and a steep hill to climb in restoring the honor of local justice. The Dallas County DA's Office needs to direct itself wholly to rebuilding justice in Dallas County, not to rehabbing the DA.    

What if this current DA were male? What if a male DA went to rehab and then later disappeared from his duties? Would we in the media have cut him some kind of slack on the story because he was a man? No. Absolutely not. In addition to trying to tell readers the truth about things, we feel a certain duty to stick tight on stories that have important ramifications for the community. 

If you don’t mind, I’d like to slip another admittedly more speculative point  in here, but just between us, so in other words there would be no need to call my wife’s attention to it. I think I could make a decent case that Hawk has received a more kid-glove treatment from the press because she’s a woman than a man might have.

The Hollandsworth piece is the first full accounting I have seen of Hawk’s marital career. He reports that in 1997 Hawk had a marriage of “a few months.” In 1999 she married again for “a few years.” In 2012 she married again. In 2014 at a time when she was asking staff to run the license plates on cars she said were following her, she divorced a third time. If anything, the D Magazine piece only adds lurid detail.

The last high law enforcement official around here with a history of serial marriages was former Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle. Kunkle got no kid gloves. We in the media did everything with that story but turn it into a three-act heavy metal rock opera. He somehow managed to keep a good-sport smile on his face when his marriages were dragged into his unsuccessful 2012 campaign for mayor of Dallas.

He always said no one regretted his marital history more than he did. By the way, he’s been married to former TV reporter and City Hall lobbyist Sarah Dodd for eight years now, and it goes without saying that we in the media are all rooting for the happy couple, but … if something sad were to happen, I believe you’d hear about it from us. Big time.

What if we had covered Hawk’s marital career more vigorously, at least as vigorously as we did Kunkle? Might her serial divorces have been a harbinger of other instability in her life and public career? While we’re on the subject, what exactly would we in the media have accomplished by not telling our audiences about the rehab, the AWOL and the stuff about computers with ears? Would none of that have happened if we had kept it all a secret?

And even if your answer is yes, I go back to an earlier point. We’re not in the secrets business. You would really need to talk to someone else for that.

The most powerful detail in the D piece is an anecdote in which Hawk came to Woodlief's house at night and pleaded that she wanted to resign. Woodlief talked her out of it. Since then, Woodlief has been the chief author and purveyor of public lies about her whereabouts. In  reading that, it occurred to me that I had been blaming Hawk for lying about her whereabouts when in fact Hawk didn't tell those lies. Woodlief did. And as far as I know, Woodlief doesn't have an addiction or a mental condition to offer as an excuse.  

Was Woodlief doing Hawk a solid when she talked her out of quitting? Time will tell. The D piece suggests she also talked Hawk out of suicide. If that's true then that obviously was a good thing.

Should we give Hawk a chance? Yes. And I'm not sure we have a choice. But if there are more wacko incidents, then we really need to bite the bullet on this. No more tales of paranoia or claims of sexism. At that point we just need a DA. 
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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