He Said, She Said and Nobody Said a Damned Thing

The News gave you no news about Rose Renfroe and Ken Mayfield today. But the paper's story about their campaigns did answer the question: "You're so awesome, how come you're so awesome?"

Kevin Krause of The Dallas Morning News normally does a very good job covering Dallas County politics, and both he and his predecessor on the beat, Jim O'Neill, deserve to be nominated for a Pulitzer for the series of stories they've done on inmates who inexplicably wound up languishing for months in the Dallas County Jail. You can't really overstate how important their coverage has been. They have undoubtedly saved lives by forcing the sheriff's department to at least do its job at the bare minimum level by keeping tabs on the inmates in its custody.

But today, Krause and his editors came up empty in the story about the Dallas County Commissioner's District Four race between two-time challenger Rose Renfroe and incumbent Ken Mayfield. Reporting on an election in which the winner will more or less represent one-fourth of the county, The News covered the contest as if it were an election for student body president, choosing to reprint each of the candidate's boastful claims without so much as putting them in context, much less reporting on their veracity. The paper should have simply reprinted both candidates' campaign mailers and been done with it.

We'll start with how The News covered the three-term incumbent, Republican Ken Mayfield. Although he has a lengthy track record to at least touch upon, the paper choose to let him speak without challenging what he had to say, including his very questionable claim that he is responsible for improving health at the jail by bringing in Parkland Health & Hospital System to oversee it. Actually, there's no real evidence yet that Parkland has improved the sorry state of health care at the jail. That's something Krause himself highlighted in an excellent story he reported in June about the agonizing plight of Jeffrey Ellard, the inmate who had to be released from jail because of a badly infected leg. But more important, in 2005 Mayfield voted against the budget increase for the chronically underfunded Dallas County Sheriff's Department, which runs the jail. That increase allowed the sheriff's office to hire up to 70 jailors. Krause should have asked Mayfield to explain his vote in light of how state inspectors have given the facility failing grades three years in a row, largely for not having enough guards to watch over the inmates.

Mayfield also voted to have the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston administer health care at the jail shortly after the school bid on the contract in 2001. That decision backfired badly. In 2005, the county later paid an outside consultant to study the jail, and the consultant concluded that UTMB's monitoring of chronically ill inmates as "poor to non-existent," resulting in excessive hospitalizations. In the course of just one week, the consultant discovered one inmate who might have died because of the inept pattern of health care at the jail, and as a result the United States Department of Justice launched an investigation of the jail. UTMB has since blamed the commissioner's court for underfunding the jail, but regardless of who is directly to blame--and we should throw Sheriff Lupe Valdez's name in there as well--Mayfield has to be held accountable for both voting against budget increases and for UTMB. At the very least, the paper should have had him explain his votes. That's kind of what we journalists are supposed to do

One more thing about Mayfield. He also has supported funneling millions of dollars in homeland security funds on the county's famously inept computer database--the same one that is responsible for all those inmates who wound up staying in jail months after their sentence expired. The state later concluded that was a bad idea in a critical audit last July on the county's emergency preparedness. The audit vindicated Mayfield's erstwhile Republican rival, County Judge Margaret Keliher, who had been saying exactly the same thing, while clearly casting Mayfield on the wrong side of the issue. But the paper didn't have Mayfield defend his votes, which could have enormous consequences if we ever have to deal with a disaster of our own or the effects of another city's disaster.

We're not here to slam Mayfield. He's an intelligent, affable lawmaker who is more than capable of explaining his decisions. But The News didn't even bother to make him sweat.

The story's treatment of Renfroe was just as anemic, most noticeably by failing to report on the Democratic candidate's severe legal problems. As recently as this past September, Renfroe was the target of an arrest warrant after failing to comply with discovery in a contentious civil dispute with an Arkansas woman. Don't believe us? Here's what a Tarrant County judge told Renfroe on September 15, 2006:

"I have an arrest warrant out for you."

Pretty cut and dried, right?

The judge later told Renfroe that he was considering jailing her on the spot and informed her that he had the power to lock her up for six months.

We have no intention on boring you with the details of Renfroe's civil case, but we can boil it down to this: Renfroe hasn't paid a $55,000 judgment from 1995, she hasn't complied with the plaintiff's attempt's to identify her assets, and she skipped a court appearance, prompting a judge to issue a warrant for her arrest. Finally, there is evidence that came up in court that the candidate lives in Arlington, which, in and of itself, is a bad thing, but in this circumstance would be even more problematic since she is not running for office in Tarrant County. Yet The News didn't think that any of this was relevant in their coverage of Renfroe.

As it did with Mayfield, the paper merely regurgitated Renfroe's platitudes without examining them in any real way. For example, the paper reported that black and Hispanic leaders are not supporting Renfroe because of her antibusing stance during her quick stint on the Dallas city council in the 1970s. Renfroe's response seemed reasonable, claiming that her position was a "mother's issue, wanting to keep kids in the neighborhood." In truth, Renfroe used her platform as a city council member to argue for a constitutional amendment banning court-ordered busing.

"Saying she wasn't on the side of civil rights doesn't address the kind of vocal opponent she was," is what civil rights leader Peter Johnson told the Observer two weeks ago.

We understand the conventions of political reporting at a daily newspaper. You can't offer commentary or begin to take one side over another. But major dailies can and should cover an important election without merely parroting each candidate's self-serving statements, in part by at least looking at the candidate's track records. That Renfroe and Mayfield have so many things to explain and defend make The News' feather-light-handed treatment of them all the more inexplicable and inexcusable. --Matt Pulle