Judges-Elected or Appointed?
Reporter: Doug Fox
News Director: John Miller
Aired: October 1998
Story length: 2:15
||The Story: This is a political story, reported during election
season. In Texas, judges are elected, not appointed. Citizens seem to like it
that way. At least, that's what they told WFAA-TV when the station conducted a
pre-election issues poll. But when veteran political reporter Doug Fox took to
the streets, asking people to name a judge-any judge-running in the upcoming
election, no one could.|
About the Story: In
1998, there were 53 judges running unopposed in Dallas County. A scan of the
ballot showed that every one of them was a Republican. According to Doug Fox,
the idea of appointing rather than electing judges had been floated, especially
by Democrats. The Republicans were understandably eager to preserve the status
quo. In the story, we hear from a judge (not running for re-election) who says
he's uncomfortable with party affiliations, and believes many colleagues agree.
He says party affiliation has no relationship to what judges do, adding,
"There's no Democratic law, no Republican law."
Behind the Story:
This story was one of eight pre-election issue stories WFAA developed out of its
"Listening to Texas" project and poll. "We wanted to wrest control of the
political agenda from the politicians," says John Miller, WFAA's news director
at the time. (Miller is now corporate news director for WFAA's parent company,
Belo.) The station set out to learn what issues mattered to citizens. Based on
what the station heard in community meetings and one-and-one sessions, the
newsroom catalogued the public's concerns. Some issues people raised, like the
method of selecting judges, weren't on the ballot and weren't being discussed by
candidates. WFAA took the citizens' issues and commissioned a "Listening to
Texas" poll. Other poll topics included social promotion in public schools, the
budget, the economy, a patients' bill of rights, free college tuition for high
school grads with "B" or better averages, and term limits for state offices.
Then the station developed eight stories from the poll results. They ran on the
station's 10 p.m. newscasts on days leading up to the election.
Beyond the Story:
- The station
builds on tradition. "A lot of stations have given up on
(covering politics). We haven't," says John Miller, "We put
it on the air because we think it is important, and that takes
some courage." Miller acknowledges that viewer surveys may not
rank politics as a topic of high interest. But he believes many
citizens, and especially opinion leaders in his community, turn
to WFAA for political news and election coverage. David Duitch,
who succeeded John Miller as news director, plans to keep the
tradition going. "I'm very pleased this station is committed
to having extensive, if not exhaustive, political coverage,"
he says. · The station commits resources. In the fall of 1999,
WFAA had already laid the groundwork for covering the 2000 presidential
race. The station plan calls for sending crews to the Iowa caucuses,
New Hampshire, South Carolina and California, and to both major
conventions. The station will again invest in polling. Ironically,
while WFAA will incur significant expense, it's unlikely to
reap revenue from presidential campaign ads if Texas Governor
George W. Bush advances in the race. Already popular at home,
Bush is likely to allocate advertising dollars to other states.
That economic reality--high expense, low revenue-- underscores
the depth of WFAA's commitment to political coverage.
- A knowledgeable
journalist leads the coverage. Doug Fox has covered politics
for WFAA since the day he started in 1974. "He's well-sourced
and well-grounded," according to John Miller. Fox says good
political reporters "have to understand what's going on, to
get beyond the surface, to put things in context." At a time
when politicians can use television to campaign on imagery instead
of issues, Fox believes good reporters point out the difference
between the two. "Call a photo-op a photo-op," he says. Fox
is so knowledgeable about politics and campaigns that the station
asked him to draw up WFAA's budget for the 2000 presidential
- The station
provides back-up. WFAA
staffs a bureau in the state capital of Austin. Parent company,
Belo, has a Washington bureau, which feeds stories to WFAA.
A WFAA newscast producer also specializes in election coverage,
and stays abreast of issues. Numerous WFAA reporters have tenure
in the newsroom and bring perspective when assigned to cover
politics. "Our staff is so long in the tooth," says Fox. "We've
got tons of experience, so we can pull in a lot of resources"
when election time rolls around. John Miller says Fox mentors
young reporters. He shares a love of writing along with his
passion for politics, and he does so for a reason. He wants
WFAA's commitment to political coverage to continue. Fox is
looking ahead to retirement in three or four years and says,
simply, "I want others coming up to step in my shoes."