“California Watch,” the new, foundation-funded project of the Center for Investigative Reporting Journalism, bills itself as “an independent investigative reporting team, [that] exposes injustice, waste, mismanagement, wrongdoing, questionable practices, and corruption so that those responsible can be held to account and so the public can be armed with the information needed to debate solutions and spark change.”
Calbuzz is all for that. And some of the early work produced by California Watch has been pretty good. But the latest offering by money and politics reporter Chase Davis isn’t new journalism at all, but old-fashioned, yellow journalism wrapped in a shiny new online package. It’s an abuse of a technique called “crowd-sourcing,” threatening the very fine reputation that CIRJ enjoys, and all but guaranteeing its ill-conceived language will be used in a negative TV ad.
Let’s unwind this gnarly tale from the beginning.
On Monday, Calbuzz got an email from one of our sources asking us what we thought of the California Watch posts titled, “Jerry Brown pardoned more than 400 during two terms as governor” from Dec. 29 and another titled “Exclusive: Search more than 400 criminals pardoned by Jerry Brown” from Jan. 11.
When we checked them out – along with the comments from Davis in response to a reader – we were shocked.
“We want you to help us figure out what happened to them,” Davis wrote of the 403 people Brown pardoned.
Here at California Watch, we’ve created a one-of-a-kind database of every pardoned criminal listed in Brown’s annual clemency reports to the state Legislature, which we obtained from the State Archives. You can search the database by the pardonee’s name, crime or county.”
“During his two terms in the governor’s office from 1975 to 1983, Jerry Brown granted clemency (sic) to more than 400 criminals who had been convicted of offenses ranging from petty theft to murder. Now that he is (presumably) running for governor again, we were curious: What happened to the people he set free (sic).
And on Jan. 11 he wrote:
Clemency can be a political minefield for former governors who aspire to higher office – or in Brown’s case, an encore. Just ask Mike Huckabee or Michael Dukakis. Pardons for minor offenses are also excellent ways to help out friends and political allies. Arthur Alarcon, executive clemency secretary under Jerry Brown’s father, former Gov. Pat Brown, and one of Jerry Brown’s judicial appointees, said in a 1988 oral-history interview that he was aware of several extradition cases made by Brown the Younger for political reasons, but did not elaborate.
It looked as if Davis had a theory about how Jerry Brown had operated in office and was asking for people to help him prove it. In addition, it appeared he had conflated pardons and clemency – which are not necessarily the same thing.
The initial evidence of confusion came from the Dec. 29 Davis post on pardons, which conflated clemency and pardons. In California, a pardon is an act of executive clemency. But clemency (as it’s commonly understood) can also include commutation of a current prison sentence or compassionate release from prison – cases where someone is literally “set free.”
All pardons are acts of clemency. But not all acts of clemency are pardons. In California, a pardon requires an ex-convict to be a law-abiding citizen for at least 10 years after being released from prison.
We were particularly disturbed by a comment Davis made in response to a reader who wondered if Davis was trying to, effectively if not willfully, lay the groundwork for another Willie Horton ad.
To which Davis replied, in part:
What I’m personally more interested in are pardons for minor offenses that were granted for political reasons. Cases like that shed light on Jerry Brown the politician, and how he made decisions the last time he was in the governor’s office.
Whoa! That’s some apriori bias, we thought.
Brown senior adviser Steve Glazer minced no words in talking to Calbuzz:
“This turns traditional journalism on its head.,” he said. “If you have a suspicion, you look into it. You don’t put out an unprovable smear and say, ‘Can anybody out there verify any of this stuff?’”
Before we lept to a conclusion, unlike others (we name no names), however, we thought we’d ask Davis to help us understand what he was trying to do. We wrote:
I’m kind of an old-school reporter who believes you usually don’t suggest someone might have done something wrong unless you have actual facts to demonstrate that he did something wrong. But before Calbuzz comments on your Jerry Brown Pardon Database, I wonder if you could explain what your mission is with this project.
You said in one comment: “What I’m personally more interested in are pardons for minor offenses that were granted for political reasons. Cases like that shed light on Jerry Brown the politician, and how he made decisions the last time he was in the governor’s office.”
You also said: “Pardons for minor offenses are also excellent ways to help out friends and political allies.”
Do you have any evidence to suggest any of this happened? (The oral history you noted referred specifically to extraditions, not clemencies or pardons.) We’d like to publish it, if it’s there. At the moment, however, it looks like by creating the data base and phishing for scandal you suggest there may have been wrongdoing. But do you have any facts to support this suspicion?
PS: I just saw in another place you wrote: “Now that he is (presumably) running for governor again, we were curious: What happened to the people he set free?” I don’t understand what that’s supposed to mean? People who have been pardoned have been out of prison for at least 10 years. How do they get set free with a pardon? If what you wanted to do was create a text line for a TV ad, you did it: “Center for Investigative Reporting Asks What Happened to the Convicts Jerry Brown Set Free?”
To which Davis replied:
Thanks for the note. First, to answer your question, no — we don’t have hard evidence that Jerry Brown did anything wrong, nor did I intend to suggest that we did. However, I think the nature and history of gubernatorial clemency suggests that the potential for abuse certainly exists. Edwin Edwards and Rod Blagojevich are two governors that immediately come to mind who have purportedly used clemency to help supporters, and I’m sure there are more. Ultimately, we tried to balance those facts in our decision about whether and how to run this project.
Long before we built this application, we discussed these issues at length. Some of our reporters took the same position you did and others took a view closer to mine, which was this: Done right, crowdsourcing can be a valuable journalistic tool. Opening up our these records to the public, and offering some guidance on what to look for, could help us flag interesting cases by allowing us to draw on the experience and institutional memory of the state’s politically engaged. We were conscious of the risks, which is why, for example, we aren’t displaying reader comments on the actual pardonees publicly.
Part of our mission here, as my boss Mark Katches likes to remind us, is to try new ways of doing investigative journalism. In this case, it’s opening up our process a lot sooner than we normally would. Sometimes we’ll succeed, sometimes we’ll bomb. For as controversial as it’s been, this experiment has actually gone pretty well in my view. We’ve gotten some great feedback about both the pardonees and the process from you and others. It’ll help us report a better story and improve projects like this down the line.
I hope that gives you some sense of what our intentions were. If the issue is the wording of my post, I can see your point of view. The idea was to suggest situations that readers might want to look for — not to imply that we had ironclad evidence Jerry Brown was helping his buddies.
But I can understand how someone could read it that way and will be conscious of that in the future. And you’re right about the statement implying that Brown set these people free. I’ve amended it in the application with a hat tip to you.
And he did change one sentence in his post to read: “What happened to the people he pardoned?” (Although it still followed a headline and lead graf conflating pardons and clemency.)
We told Davis that we would “respond in full in another venue, but just one note: If you’re going to write about this subject, get it right whether you’re talking about clemency or pardons. Your confusion suggests you have no clue what you’re doing.”
I’m looking forward to seeing your response. The reports we drew from — entitled “Acts of Executive Clemency of California” — contain examples of pardons, commutations of sentence and reprieve. If I mixed those up in the post, that’s my fault. But the reports do contain examples of each, all bundled under the collective umbrella of ‘clemency.’
We didn’t even mention our concern that Davis had given no context to Brown’s pardons: How did they compare to other governors? What’s the process for a pardon? Has anyone ever suggested evidence of wrongdoing?
On Tuesday, after getting smacked around by some readers, Davis backtracked a bit, writing, “Brown pardoned mostly small-time crooks,” that also noted (STILL conflating clemency and pardons):
“Since 1967, only Ronald Reagan granted clemency to more convicts than Brown, pardoning 575, according to a 2009 report published by the American Bar Association. Brown pardoned 403 and also commuted one sentence. His successor, George Deukmejian, granted 328 pardons. Pete Wilson granted 13. Gray Davis issued none, and as far as we can tell, Arnold granted only three.
“Deukmejian was the last governor elected before Lee Atwater and Willy Horton (sic) famously made the “soft on crime” label more toxic than lead paint, and that culture shift might help explain the stark drop-off in pardons that began with Wilson.”
In their few months of operation, California Watch has produced some nice stuff – the Will Evans piece on the checkered history of some corporations receiving federal stimulus money, for example.
But this effort by Davis, a University of Missouri journalism grad who previously worked at The Des Moines Register and the Houston Chronicle, fercrineoutloud, shows a lack of background in recent California history, not to mention a respectful appreciation for the crucial responsibility of investigative reporting in a political campaign. With best wishes to CIRJ, we hope they clean this up fast.