PROFILE

You’re Under Arrest, “Dad”

 

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Ting Li C’03 designed Architect Barbie’s Dream House

Esther S. Takeuchi C’75 WAM’98 is a Hall-of-Fame inventor

Penn Alumni wants you to get counted

Dave Lieber C’79 got a bad rap as a Bad Dad

Rick Cohen C’87 is a filmmaker who puts “everything on the line”

Chris Solarz C’00 “happened into” multiple world records

“Chaz” Howard C’00 has a better idea for your New Year’s resolution


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Class of ’79 | Ten minutes. That was how long it took Dave Lieber C’79 to almost lose everything one August morning three years ago. The trouble began in a McDonald’s in suburban Watauga, Texas, about six blocks from his house in neighboring Fort Worth. Lieber, the “Watchdog” columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, was arguing with his 11-year-old son Austin, who wouldn’t let him sip his coffee in peace. Fed up, he finally drove off, leaving Austin crying in the parking lot. By the time Lieber had cooled down enough to turn around and check on his son, two Watauga police cars were on the scene.

Lieber wasn’t just any citizen. The award-winning journalist (formerly a student columnist for the Gazette and The Daily Pennsylvanian and a staff writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer) had written a slew of columns on the misconduct of the Watauga police and other local authorities since his move to Texas in 1993 [“Bagels and Big-haired Women,” November 1997]. “I knew this was the last police department I wanted to be messing with,” he recalls.

Soon he was facing felony charges for abandoning and endangering a child, and his reputation was imploding all over the Internet. Though the case was dropped days later by the district attorney’s office, Lieber was shaken and changed by the experience, which he describes in his latest book, Bad Dad (Yankee Cowboy Publishing). He recently spoke by telephone with Gazette freelance writer Susan Frith:



What was going through your head that morning?

I try all kinds of different techniques with my son to get him to do different things I want him to do. That particular day I tried a particular tactic, which I later learned on the Internet, on thousands of posts, is basically quite common: “Get out of the car and walk home.” I just told him to walk home, to go across the street to our subdivision.

What was at stake after your arrest?

First, my family. When Child Protective Services comes to your house, they have the ability to break up a family. Then my column had been suspended. They said the “Watchdog” couldn’t be under arrest. I was about to take a buyout at the newspaper to avoid what could have been a lingering two years of being stuck with inside duties waiting for the case to be adjudicated. I wasn’t ready to go down like that.

You’ve earned some enemies through your reporting.

I took this idea of crusading journalism to the nth degree. I covered 21 towns and six school districts. Superintendents lost their jobs, mayors lost reelection, and city council members were recalled. 

[From reporting in Philadelphia] I learned how a political machine takes care of everybody from the bottom all the way to the top. The big difference is, when you write stuff in Philadelphia, nobody cares. Here [in Texas] you write something fact-based and the public acts on it right away. They throw the bums out.


Describe the range of reactions your case got from strangers.

Most people, 70 percent, took my side and defended me. That was a surprise because people are generally not supportive on the Internet. But I got a lot of love: “My mom did that to me” or “Hang in there, man.” Then there were a few that knocked you out of your shoes because they were so hateful. People rush to judgment with three sentences of information and all of a sudden decide your entire life story and character.


Do you believe, as the Free-Range Kids movement does, that we’ve gone overboard with our overprotective parenting?

The media scares people to death. One incident gets magnified over many, many times. I do believe you need to teach kids as soon as you can to be out, independent, and smart, so they know where to go and who to talk to. Having grown up in Manhattan, my highway of fun was Broadway, and there was dangerous stuff: heroin, crime, they were dropping mentally ill people off from buses. Walking down the street was an exercise in creepiness and I learned to navigate it.


Did this experience at McDonald’s change your approach to journalism or parenting?

With journalism, not really. I just had to go back and continue to do what I do. I don’t write about that police department anymore because I think I would have a conflict of interest. But it totally altered my parenting. I have replaced the go-walk-home discipline with a different kind of tenderness and love. I did that in reaction to all the people who wrote to me and told me what I should have done was slap Austin across face, take a belt to his backside, or make him go to bed without dinner. I thought, that’s not going to work with that child. I became much more attuned to where he was, and what he needed. And he’s made progress; his outbursts became much less frequent.
                                           

After 18 years of being a “Yankee” in Texas, how has it grown on you?

It’s a cliché, but Texas is a land of opportunity. People have been moving to Texas for a couple hundred years looking for a fresh start. I got that fresh start here. On the other hand you have to suffer because everybody around you is a Dallas Cowboys fan, and I will never give up the Philadelphia Eagles. But I think the goal is to get out of your comfort zone and do things that are hard and scary. Then you become something bigger than you were and more helpful to people. This is a stretch for me to be in Texas, but that’s exciting.
 
     
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Last modified 10/28/11