Readers gauging the Trib’s top stories of 2017 will notice some are continuations of news events that broke a year or two earlier. They’ll also notice at least two of the top stories, while set in Waco, exploded on the national scene in gripping fashion, even as subsequent, exceedingly relevant developments over the past year ensued with declining acknowledgement and interest from the outside world.
Why? Dynamics in current events are out of whack. Norms in politics, society and the news media are askew. Washington, rather than becoming less relevant in our lives, ravenously consumes the attention of the national news media and a transfixed public, with much of it (though not all) commanded by a reality-TV show president obsessed with his poll ratings and crowd sizes — and jealous of others hogging the spotlight.
The recent organized-crime caper of Dallas Bandidos chieftain Jake Carrizal is a perfect example. It was the first of what some expect (or expected) to be a long line of trials stemming from the May 17, 2015, Twin Peaks shootout involving rival biker gangs and Waco police officers — a local calamity that left nine dead, 20 wounded and 177 in jail on questionable cookie-cutter charges and dubious million-dollar bonds. Talk about a significant story — local, state and national.
Given all the initial coverage accompanying this chaotic, high-noon melee; the assumptions that District Attorney Abel Reyna would have his prosecutorial act together (he and Assistant DA Michael Jarrett longed to try Carrizal first); and some law enforcement’s classifying the Bandidos and Cossacks as organized-crime outfits, County Sheriff Parnell McNamara understandably wanted to be ready. He spent more than half a million dollars securing the county courthouse for the potentially explosive trial.
Result? Not only did nary a biker beyond those testifying or lending moral support to strapping, surprisingly amiable Jake Carrizal show up to protest (let alone lay siege to the courthouse), national media and major newspapers statewide largely ignored a trial that promised answers to long-debated questions such as how many bikers fell to police bullets — a question subject to wild speculation for two and a half years.
Constitutional questions also hovered over these proceedings involving the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth amendments. Questions arose before and during the trial about delivery of discovery evidence to the defense as required by the U.S. Supreme Court’s pivotal 1963 Brady decision and the 2013 Michael Morton Act signed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Yet the few days I spent at the courthouse to better understand state and defense arguments and to learn whom police killed or wounded left me amazed at all the empty courtroom seats. If DA Reyna truly hoped shanghaiing a Waco police investigation and refashioning it into an organized-crime case would catapult him to political glory, as critics allege, he miscalculated. The fact this long, drawn-out trial ended in a mistrial didn’t help matters.
With little media coverage, veteran Trib courthouse reporter Tommy Witherspoon had the big trial mostly to himself. Much of his coverage was disseminated through richly informative tweets. One impressed biker dubbed him “Tommy Two Fingers” for his intent dispatching of 110 tweets or so a day (with followers at one point fuming after his iPad lost power). Beyond that, I saw only two renegade bloggers writing in depth about the action, one a Bandido apologist blogging as The Aging Rebel who branded the spectacle a “Soviet-style show trial,” claimed “Waco owns this mass murder” and along the way vilified Reyna, Jarrett, State District Judge Matt Johnson, cops, assorted Cossacks and me.
And beleaguered Baylor University? Its devastating scandal over sexual assaults handled indifferently or cavalierly by administrators and athletic officials sparked outrage and some corrective laws from the Texas Legislature last spring after a year and a half of scathing national media coverage such as that by a particularly aggressive ESPN. Amid a plague of campus sex assaults nationwide, Baylor stood out because of its spiritual pretenses and stunningly failed oversight. The nation marveled that an institution justifiably proud of its Christian mission, charitable works and biblical scholarship could nonetheless overlook and bungle broader, here-and-now Christian tenets such as showing compassion and understanding to young, frightened, confused rape victims. By autumn, however, the saga of sexual predation had at last moved on, infecting everything from Hollywood to politics, including the White House. Sexual victims everywhere edged out even President Trump as Time magazine’s Person(s) of the Year.
Baylor’s new president — a woman, a BU first — has confidently settled into her post, vowing strict enforcement of reforms and conducting listening sessions with a long-divided Baylor constituency. Much of the BU scandal of late has settled into tedious back-and-forth legal filings over redactions and red-flagged words involving records and correspondence. Typical of what’s been largely lost in the explosion of scandals elsewhere: legal attempts to pry loose from Baylor tens of thousands of records of some 6,200 former and current students dating back to 2003 to prove a long-running problem in how sexual problems were handled at the Baptist institution. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education under leadership appointed by Trump is rolling back controversial Title IX guidance on campus sexual assaults that contributed to the 2016 downfall of Baylor’s last president, athletic director and very popular football coach.
Few will be surprised to learn our coverage of Waco-based reality-TV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines’ growing empire (including a booming marketplace mecca downtown reportedly drawing more visitors than the Alamo this year) and hit show “Fixer Upper” (which they’re leaving after its fifth season concludes in 2018) has been complemented if not surpassed by show-biz media. Perhaps that’s to be expected. We now live in a society with a short attention span that embraces neatly planned, picture-perfect “realities” rather than what actually churns all about us — complicated, even messy matters ignored at our eventual peril.
Some reality-based news media still fulfill the Byronic motto that an old-time West Texas newspaper editor affixed daily across his product: “Without or with offence to friends or foes, we sketch your world exactly as it goes.” But as we brave 2018, an American circus unlike any in our history dominates our lives, making it all the easier to avert our eyes from other political and societal questions requiring our deepest thought and prompt attention.