Earlier this week, I got the chance to sit down with Judge Ken Starr. The story went up and I was proud of the work and the team that came together to pull this off. Then I got some emails, texts, phone calls and even some in-person comments about the interview. In effect, these people said:
You blew your chance.
You didn’t ask the questions that needed to be asked.
You let him get away with it.
You soft-balled him those questions.
(Yes, I took some of that word-for-word.)
A week ago, Starr was dismissed as Baylor’s president by our Board of Regents and (just hours before our conversation) he stepped down as chancellor. Starr remains a professor at Baylor Law School.
Before our team got to his house, Judge Starr did an interview with KWTX Channel 25. Before he sat down with me, he did an interview with GMA. As we packed up gear, I crossed paths with his next interviewer — the Waco Tribune-Herald. That morning, Starr announced his resignation in a presser with ESPN.
All in all: he was tired. But that’s not why I “soft-balled” him in our interview.
Because I didn’t softball him. Instead, I talked to him like a human.
Going into that interview. I had some tough questions prepared. I wanted to break a story. I wanted to bring out the truth. Then I learned Starr hadn’t slept in days. That he hadn’t been able to eat much either. I felt for him. And then someone brought up his wife.
I hadn’t thought about her.
Our conversation started and I asked about Mrs. Starr. He was appreciative. I could tell it was a different kind of question than what he expected. Next, I asked him about what he would have changed in hindsight. He launched into a prepared speech. It was obvious he had practiced. It was obvious he was coached — his media handler was ever present with her watchful eyes and attentive ears.
This wasn’t what he wanted to talk about. This was what he was told to talk about.
Then the students came up in conversation. That’s when I changed my mind on where to take our conversation. It was mid-interview. If you watch the video, you can see me shuffling through my legal pad of questions, looking for the questions that would lead to deeper conversation. I realized I wasn’t going to get the deep, breaking story. If I had kept up the angle I started with, it would have been a conversation with a parrot. My story would have looked like every other news outlet’s.
Starr wanted to talk about the students. And that made sense for me — at the time and now, still — to ask him about. After all, I was reporting for the student paper.
Lots of outlets have made mountains out of molehills in this episode. Lots of outlets have let rumors drive their coverage. Lots of outlets have made those “deep, breaking stories” out of non-stories and speculation and hear-say.
Sure, the purpose of a journalist is to dig and find the real story and ask the tough questions. We comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted. But what happens after we bring that affliction to those who are comfortable. Do we keep kicking? Or do we look for humility and humanity and recognize that everyone is going to make mistakes? If we find that humility and humanity, what do we do then?
Personally, I found humility in Starr. So I chose — again, mid-interview — to let our time be driven by the story he really wanted to get to: his love of the students and how he’d miss them.
Many students at Baylor rejoiced in his firing. Many were filled with remorse. Some find it necessary, some saw it as backhanded.
The internet — You know, the hords of people who didn’t really even know who Baylor was 10 years ago but now all of a sudden have exhaustive opinions on everything we do? — made it known that they approved of his dismissal.
Mine and Starr’s time together was not an easy thing for him. In fact, he might say it was the toughest. He waxed and waned in holding back tears as we discussed his beloved students. In his final answer, Starr couldn’t hold them anymore. After he was de-mic’d, he made for the exit to collect himself. Moments later, I saw him dash by the door — his face was bright red and he was wiping tears. A few minutes went by and he came back in for goodbyes.
“Guys,” he said, with rosy cheeks, puffy eyes and a towel on his shoulder. “You broke me. You broke me.”
I’ve learned a good deal in all this about Starr. His nature is to work quietly behind the scenes. His nature is to get his ducks in a row. His nature is to do a big reveal and prove what he and his team are capable of. I’ve learned in other interviews he was indeed trying to accomplish that. Working tirelessly to make Baylor safe. Trying to right these wrongs. To his fault, though, he wasn’t as public about that work as he should have been. And now this work is cut short.
Yes, there are tough questions that need to be answered. Yes, there is deeper truth to the mere crumbs we’ve been given. Yes, there needs to be more transparency, more conversation, more people held accountable.
And, if you listen, that’s what Starr is asking for.
I’m on Judge Starr’s side. But that doesn’t mean I’m not on the side of the victims. Because, after our time together, I think they’re one in the same.