This week, SMU hosted a Media and Human Rights Symposium that featured among its guests Watkins, a few profs and even a noted Oscar-winning filmmaker. Watkins delivered his presentation on Wednesday, and during his speech he spoke at great length about his volatile relationship with the media -- which he takes to task for, among other things, selling "sensationalism" and having "dropped the ball" when it comes to covering the criminal justice system. It also sounds, at one point, as though he blames the media for the wrongful prosecutions his office has spent the better part of three years uncovering.
Which isn't to say Watkins doesn't acknowledge all the positive press he's gotten for his DNA exonerations. Matter of fact, he says, all those glowing stories give him more credibility when he steps in front of a jury and asks for the death penalty: "They're more apt to follow what we ask them to do because they've seen the path that we've gone down," he says, "and at the end of the day they feel like no matter what happens we're going to do the right thing."
In all, a fascinating, unedited look at how Watkins really feels about the Fourth Estate. A Friend of Unfair Park provided us with nine minutes' worth of his talk. It follows, along with a transcript for those who don't want to sit through the whole thing.
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Craig Watkins at SMU on April 7, 2010
When I first came to office, someone told me you don't want to pick a fight with the media because they own the ink in the paper and I still haven't learned that lesson yet, not to fight with the media.
Initially when I came into office I was very disappointed in the media. I thought that they would come to the table as a blank slate and they would be there to just to gather knowledge about a certain issue and print the facts.
What I unfortunately realized is that those folks that were writing those stories were human beings just like me, and so they brought their own experiences to the table, and their own point of views to the table, and sometimes you would get a story that would just be about the facts and not about their own personal views, but that's seldom.
And so, something that I had to realize, after some time, was that I am dealing with human beings. And as such, as a human being you do bring to that issue how you may feel about it, when your responsibility as a reporter is just to relay the facts.
I think a good example of that happens to be two cable news stations. You can look at Fox and you can look at MSNBC. And both of those cable networks would give you the impression that they are reporting the news, the facts. But obviously it's not. It's slanted one way or the other.
And what we have today are basically liberal or conservative news outlets when all we should have is a news outlet that's concerned with reporting the facts as opposed to giving their opinion. Yeah, there should be an editorial page. But largely the newspaper or media outlet such as MSNBC or Fox, their responsibility should be there to report the facts so you all can made can make an informed decision on what direction you should go or what your opinion should be.
Now, it's been good to me, to a certain extent, the media, and I think maybe for the wrong reasons. I, fortunately, for me, got to be the D.A. and the first African-American, and so I got a lot of attention as a result of that, and even more attention when we started to look at cases where individuals were wrongfully convicted from a district attorney's perspective. That was odd and the media grabbed hold of that and they thought 'Wow we can sell a lot of newspapers with this story.' And you have to realize that also. It's a business. They're in the business of selling newspapers, and so whatever is sensational, sensationalism to them, they want to print that, and so we brought all that to the table. An African-American D.A. and he's exonerating people in Texas of all places. So, I always joke with reporters when they call me, when are they going to give me some stock in their paper, because I'm really helping them sell newspapers.
I get a call from the media at least twice a day about something. And there's one reporter, and I don't see him here...I always mess with him because every time he calls me, he says, "Well I'm calling to take you to task Craig on this issue or that issue." He's never called to say you were right on this one, Craig, and I was wrong on that one.
And after that I realize again, that they have these egos, and when they're proven wrong they'll never admit it. And they're always quick to call into question something I may have done that was wrong. But I easily admit that, but at some point I hope during the process of my time in public office that we will develop a relationship where we can go back and forth equally and they will be in a position to admit that they made a mistake.
As relates to the death penalty and the media, it's important on how the media deals with that very issue.
I think, you know, over time that they may have dropped the ball, not just as it relates to the death penalty, but the criminal justice system as a whole. You know, in Dallas, for example, we have had a reputation, a dubious reputation, of dispensing justice that some would say was somewhat unfair, and caused a lot of individuals, and it's been proven, we've had more exonerations here than in any other place -- some states. We have more exonerations within Dallas than in some states. And it's true.
The fact that the media allowed this to happen, they are in the courthouse everyday. They see how these things work. They know that there are issues, but sometimes those issues never make it to the public. And you would think with how savvy the media is that it would have gotten to the public before this new African-American D.A. in 2006, of all things. In 2006, we were just getting to the point where we can legitimately address these issues of an effective criminal justice system.
And, you know, to the media's credit they've tried, but I think they should have tried a little bit harder in making sure that they called, like they do me, those D.As to task on some of the policies and procedures that they had implemented, over the years.
And, you would see the media it sometimes became a popularity contest, especially during elections, on who they would endorse and that carries a lot of weight. When the newspaper says yea, you should vote for this certain person, people actually take that into the election booth and make a decision based upon that. But what they're not telling you is that the person that you're voting for may have failed you, overall, and those D.A.s that have been elected in Dallas County obviously had failed the citizens of Dallas County because the whole issue of our criminal justice system has been called into question.
Credibility. Uh, and I see this first hand when I'm dealing with juries. And one in particular, a death penalty case, and it's a very complex process picking death penalty juries. We put an individual on there that really couldn't say whether or not he was for capital punishment, and everyone thought, the defense attorneys were laughing: 'I can't believe you guys let that guy get on the jury,' 'He's going to hang it up,' and 'You're not going to get the desired verdict.' And, they were wrong. And I tend to believe that the reason they were wrong is because over time what we've done in looking at these cases where individuals were wrongfully convicted and legitimately looking at them and doing the right thing, we've built credibility with those individuals who come and sit on juries.
And even though they may not, you know, can say definitely that they believe in capital punishment, they're more apt to follow what we ask them to do because they've seen the path that we've gone down and at the end of the day they feel like no matter what happens we're going to do the right thing. And in our estimation that, that's what it's all about.
And especially dealing with the media, they've done a very good job of getting the story out as relates to exonerations and the problems and how they resulted. They could do a better job in making sure that the conversation continues. Now, just like on death penalty cases, when an execution happens it's kind of a footnote in the newspaper when it should be a front page story. The same thing we're starting to see with exonerations. It's somewhat of a footnote now. It's commonplace, as opposed to being on the front page. And this process, this evolution of the criminal justice system won't happen unless the media pays attention to it and they take it very seriously and use all of their resources to make sure that they hold those individuals who hold positions like me and call them to task when they're failing the system.
So that's my little input on how the media affects what we do on a daily basis. And I'd love to answer any questions when we get to that point.