Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Media's Willie Horton Problem

The Seattle Post Intelligencer recognizes the importance of the pardon power in presidential contests - as we did in a recent post - but draws some interesting, and sometimes odd, conclusions given that point. For example, it is suggested that if executive decision making falls short of utter and complete perfection, for all time, then there may very well be dire electoral consequences. Not so much because voters will hold former executives to such a lofty standard, but because "opposition research" and the traction it will gain in the media will make such a standard seem plausible and relevant.

The article refers to the "Willie Horton problem" (the image of "a violent or deranged felon run amok on their watch") and suggests "the issue of pardons and furloughs is one that could play an unexpected and damaging role for some campaigns" in 2012. We have never had any reason to doubt it!

Tim Pawlenty is singled out first in the article and well illustrates the real nature of the problem. His so-called "pardon problem" involves a man who was convicted of "statutory rape" although he later married the victim. After serving his sentence, and waiting a period of time prescribed by State law, the man applied for a pardon. The victim supported her husband's pardon application and he had not had any other brushes with the law in 14 years. So, after a unanimous vote of a State Board (of which Pawlenty is a member), a pardon was granted. No one argues that the decision of the Board, guided by State law, was out of bounds or, based on the information available, incorrect.

What is supposed to be a problem, for Pawlenty alone, is that, later, the same man was "accused of sexually assaulting another underage girl more than 250 times." Pawlenty's pardon of the specific past offense, was, evidently, supposed to be a guarantee of a life-time free of offenses for a person who was already out of prison!

Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, never issued a single pardon or commutation. And yet, the Intelligencer notes "that doesn't mean he's in the clear." Dominic Cinelli, was released by the State's six person parole board, and went on to kill a patrolman. Romney did not pardon Cinelli, but he didn't release him either, or even recommend that he be released. The Intelligencer notes Romney merely appointed two of the Board's six members!

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels "has also used his pardon pen sparingly," but, says the Intelligencer, he has pardoned some drug offenders and it is known that Daniels was busted for pot when he was in college. He also pardoned "union official Steve Quick, an ally of former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith." Insert your own punchline here.

Michel Dukakis sums up the problem best, however, "Hey, if you want to scare people, you can scare them, and this kind of thing scares them." He might have also added, "and the scariest stories will get the most media attention." Which is to say, the so-called "Willie Horton problem" is just as much - if not more - of a media problem as it is an opposition research problem. It is much easier to sell papers by reporting "Mike Huckabee pardoned a cop killer" than it is to report "Mike Huckabee commuted a sentence, allowing a five-member State parole board to then decide whether or not to release a person who, nine years later, went on to kill a cop." The truth is, sometimes, cumbersome, boring. It requires more care and effort. If the misleading / less accurate headline will sell more papers / get more attention, we might generally expect the media not to err on the side of caution! See story here.

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