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What the Devil won't tell you

Trent Franks deserved a fair shot at due process

Media shouldn't be left to dole out justice in sexual harassment cases

The mountain from which men in high places preside continues to rumble and blow, and this time it's taken out U.S. Rep. Trent Franks, who announced Thursday that he'll resign rather than face an ethics probe into how he chose to (oh, Lord) ask staffers to carry a baby for him and his wife.

Speaker Paul Ryan decided this was beyond the pale, convened an investigation and told Franks he should resign.

After saying he'd stick around until the end of January, Franks resigned suddenly Friday, saying his wife had been hospitalized. The move followed news reports that he had offered one of his aides $5 million to be a surrogate mother.

Last week, we learned Congress paid out $48,000 to make a staffer go away who apparently said U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva's drinking created a hostile work environment.

I ticked some people off when I argued that the line is fuzzy about what offends whom, and needed to be clarified beyond what might make someone uncomfortable. Franks' case illustrates the need for a process because right now the media is acting the role of cop, judge, jury and executioner. It's not good at any of that.

Of course, some people will think I'm standing up for the accused in opposition to the movement.

Lest my point be too subtle, let me be clear: It's about time that the “I-prefer-you-in-stillettos” pack got busted. And it's way past time that the "stand-there-while-I-masturbate" fraternity gets exiled to a cultural leper colony. The day is long in coming that more pedestrian sexual harassment gets called out.

I'm not talking about setting the #MeToo movement back, but moving it forward and normalizing it. It needs to move past where it is today, when justice is dispensed by the instincts of the media pack. Thrusting a mic in a politician's face and demanding to know when they or a colleague is going to resign is not the answer.

The story deserves coverage because journalism is necessary to a free republic. Pack journalism on the other hand, is just a bizarre mix of self-righteous absolutism and the fear of an editor asking why a reporter doesn't have the latest juicy detail that the competition has.

Also, someday, the media will lose interest and move on and then there's no justice. The manager at accounts receivable won't grab media attention. Those cases need to be dealt with too.

I get the desire for swift and decisive justice. It makes us feel better. However, truly justice is rarely swift.

Franks resignation letter explains his take on the circumstances:

I have recently learned that the Ethics Committee is reviewing an inquiry regarding my discussion of surrogacy with two previous female subordinates, making each feel uncomfortable ... I deeply regret that my discussion of this option and process in the workplace caused distress.

So he wanted to rent a staffer's uterus, when those staffers depended on him for their livelihood. OK. Wow. Highly inappropriate.

Then he goes on to explain further. Franks and his wife can't have kids. They used a surrogate mother to bring their twins into the world and they wanted another baby. A surrogate mother miscarried and that's when Franks turned to his staffers.

We have no idea if Franks' version is the all there is to the story, but the way to get to the bottom of this isn't to simply demand that the accused step aside.

An easy sacrifice

There seems to be a strange trading of sacrifice going on in D.C. The Democrats need a clean shot at Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore over the highly detailed accusations that he chased teen-aged girls when he was in his 30s, so they drummed U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) out of office. The Republicans can't seem to have done nothing in the face of scandal. Moore is in a tight race. President Trump ain't going anywhere. So Ryan tells Franks to go.

Also, Franks is an easy sacrifice. He represents the arch-conservative Phoenix suburbs of Glendale, Sun City and Surprise. The seat will most likely stay Republican. Plus, Ryan gets to exact some retribution from a member of the Freedom Caucus, which has been a pain in the speaker's backside.

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None of this has anything to do with the facts of Franks' case. He should be allowed to realize his fate in a more workable way but the congressional process for investigating sexual harassment isn't taken seriously, so the media has stepped in.

Franks isn't off the mark that his ethics probe wouldn't be reported for its subtle distinctions. He can see the tweeting on that wall, as his statement continued:

In the midst of this current cultural and media climate, I am deeply convinced I would be unable to complete a fair House Ethics investigation before distorted and sensationalized versions of this story would put me, my family, my staff, and my noble colleagues in the House of Representatives through hyperbolized public excoriation.

I wish he was wrong. The climate has grown so super-heated that we are in zero-tolerance territory. The presence of gray equals an unacceptable degree of evil. Franken was drubbed out of office with anonymous accusers. U.S. Rep. Blake Ferenthold (R-Texas) has been cleared by the Ethics Committee but still faces calls for his ouster.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is a leader in the movement against sexual transgressions and she called for no distinction between any acts in calling on Franken to resign. I love her work on sexual assault in the military. She's been tough as nails on the Pentagon brass on the subject. But zero tolerance means zero distinction and that always leads us down a bad path.

Zero tolerance is the bastion of an impatient society not wanting to think too hard, or dig too deep. Zero tolerance leads to mass incarceration. Zero tolerance led us into Iraq. Zero tolerance allows for zero differences among vastly different allegations and every transgression becomes a Harvey Weinstein-level case.

Zero tolerance is for the folks who lack the imagination that they could one day be on the wrong side of a nasty accusation.

Standing accused

I got an education in what it's like to be on the hot end of justice during the most frightening five minutes of my life.

I was taking a break from writing about five years ago and walking out on a desert path near my apartment along River Road.

A cop car rolled up on me. "Hello, officer," I said. "How can I help you today?"  In moments I was surrounded by a half-dozen of Tucson's finest who wanted to know what I did with the kid.

Kid? What kid? Uh-oh.

"You match the description of a man who just pulled a kid out of a nearby park." Now, I'd just walked away from a documentary detailing how suspects matching the description can wind up on death row off eyewitness testimony alone and that testimony is highly suspect.

One minute I'm typing about 3D printing. The next I'm looking at a perp walk, dressed in orange and chains.

You haven't lived until you've been surrounded by cops telling you that you "match the description" of a possible child killer, while accusing you of acting too nervous. Swear to God, one officer even shouted at me: "Who in Tucson walks in the desert in the middle of the day?" Had I had my wits about me I would have answered "half of Tucson."

The cops were acting exactly the way I would want them to act if it were my kid ... but holy shit! Thankfully, the actual witness showed up and cleared me. The cops told me to get the hell away and I didn't come out of my apartment for about two days.

The police presence disappeared a few minutes later and there were no reports that tragedy fell upon a child that day. It got cleared up. Still, I bet some of you may be thinking "I better not let him around my kid ... just to be safe ..." That's why I hate telling that story. Even proximity to an allegation can screw with you forever.

So, yeah, I can imagine what it's like to stand accused.

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Karmic hypocrisy

The media pack loves zero tolerance because it's easily digestible. It fits in a 30-second segment or a containable 1A story. Failures of public and commercial systems to root out sexual harassment have failed and the media is running this show. 

Never, ever, ever look to the mass media to mete out justice, especially when the feeding frenzy starts and conventional wisdom gets minted.

The media – as a whole – deals in karma, not justice. It will give a pass on the run-up to the Iraq War but then turn Abu Ghraib into Watergate. It will ignore the housing bubble and then destroy Bernie Madoff as the symbol of Wall Street greed while the real perps get away.

Reporters do a great job covering complexity every day but the pack gloms onto the easily digestible and demands that heads roll.

Without an acceptable process in place, Franks was going to be tried in the press and the press makes a lousy jury. It's not set up for that.

Process matters

Beyond that, the media sells sex to men as a consumer product and then acts shocked — appalled! — that there's sexual mistreatment in the work place. From the Fox News "Gam Shot" to the covers of GQ and Esquire, the media sells sex to sell the news. Then it is appalled — shocked! — to see objectification going on in this establishment.

Mob media is mob rule. The mob doesn't make the rules in a constitutional republic, folks.

So maybe I'm being redundant calling for "due process," but due process is no small thing. Constitutionally, it only applies to the government denial of life, liberty and property. Losing a career can lead to the loss of all that, so we can err on the side of providing at least some in the work place.

Part of due process is the sentencing phase and it's called “ag/mit.” Aggravating facts concerning the crime are weighed against mitigating factors to arrive at a just sentence. Donald Trump bragging to Billy Bush that he grabbed women in a manner that can only be defined as sexual assault would be an aggravating factor. Trent Franks having lost a child through a surrogate mother and then blundering into his office seeking surrogates is a mitigating factor.

Was he subtly ordering his staffers to lend him their uterus or asking a favor? Or was his move clouded by depression and the dude just wasn't aware that he was freaking staffers out? There's a difference. Ag/mit would figure that out if the process was accepted by those involved.

More Madison, less Chaucer

Look, liberals, I get the poetic justice of one of the first members of Congress to endorse Donald J. Trump for president being wiped out by a scandal Trump helped create before personally escaping its consequences. Had Trump lost and Moore been obviously on his way to defeat then maybe there's less pressure on the GOP to provide some sort of offering to the collective outrage. Franks helped create the monster that ate him. That's biblical. That's a story that Chaucer might have written.

It's just that Chaucer didn't come up with the principles of common law. We didn't look to Yeats and Byron to come up with the mundane notion of due process. And liberals can protect  women's rights, cultivate their emergence, bring down the entitlement of the 5,000-year-old Western patriarchy and defend the principle of punishment fitting the crime all at the same time.

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We don't convict people because we wouldn't vote for them.

Trickle-down justice

The standard being set on Capitol Hill could trickle down to Main Street. Women have no place being harassed. The accused deserve an airing. We've seen what happens when the system is weighted toward the men and it's unacceptable. Over-correcting with zero tolerance for an allegation isn't a good answer either.

The long-term solution is to teach boys self-awareness in their dealing with women. I said it before and I'll say it again. Men and women need to spend as much time teaching boys and girls where the lines are as they do teaching the applications of Pi.

In the absence of short and long-term solutions we are stuck with the media and, even worse, social media to determine justice. That's unacceptable and tempts a backlash that could set the #MeToo movement back another two decades.

This kind of talk can seem like saying "All lives matter" to prove Black lives don't. But not even Black Lives Matter activists are demanding cops be fired as soon as an accusation is leveled and before an investigation is conducted.

So, now I'm stuck sort of agreeing with Laura Ingraham and Newt Gingrich. I hate when that happens.

Great TV won't establish justice anymore than Twitter will be a forum for rational discussion.

I kinda hope Franks is guilty of more because if not, he's the kind of collateral damage none of us who enjoy a free country should abide.

Blake Morlock is a journalist who has spent 17 years covering government in Arizona and also worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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Salvador Rodriguez/Cronkite News

Franks during a 2012 congressional hearing.