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The Contrarian

Editors at the Washington Post plan to tighten their ethics policies after an Observer exposé this week revealed a Post reporter had shared story drafts with sources prior to publication.

On Tuesday, we published a story by staff writer Forrest Wilder reporting that the Post’s Daniel de Vise had shared multiple drafts of a March 14 article about standardized testing at colleges with press officers at the University of Texas. “Everything here is negotiatble,” de Vise emailed UT officials. He later added in another email that he’s “never had a dissatisfied customer in this process. And that includes an article a few months ago about a school with one of the nation’s worst graduation rates.”

Journalists traditionally have been taught that double-checking facts and quotes with sources is good practice but sharing whole story drafts is a bad idea. The fear is that giving access to entire drafts will grant sources power to alter the content and tone of the story. Wilder uncovered evidence that de Vise changed the substance and tone of his story at UT officials’ request.

Our story sparked intense debate among national media critics and on journalism blogs over the ethics of draft sharing. (Read reactions from Politico, Poynter, Romenesko, the Post’s Erik Wemple and Gene Weingarten.) The Florida-based Poynter Institute devoted an online discussion to the issue.

The day after our story appeared, Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli responded by emailing Poynter that the paper would be cracking down on draft sharing. On Thursday, the Post made it official. The senior editors sent a memo to staff that began, “Over the last several days, there have been reports raising compelling questions of journalistic ethics in the practices of allowing sources to set rules on the use of quotations and the sharing of story drafts,” according to Poynter.

The editors detailed changes to the Post Stylebook that include, “Some reporters share sections of stories with sources before publication, to ensure accuracy on technical points or to catch errors. A science writer, for instance, may read to a source a passage, or even much of a story, about a complex subject to make sure that it is accurate. But it is against our policy to share drafts of entire stories with outside sources prior to publication, except with the permission–which will be granted extremely rarely–of the Executive Editor or Managing Editor.”

Kudos to Post editors for reacting so quickly. And kudos to Forrest for a terrific piece of accountability journalism

Update (12:10 a.m.): The Democratic primary race for Congress between Beto O’Rourke and incumbent Silvestre Reyes is bragging late into the night (curse you, Mountain Time Zone). O’Rourke continues to lead—and there have been several unconfirmed reports that O’Rourke will pull it out tonight. But according to the Secretary of State site, O’Rourke, as of this writing, remains just a breath away from a runoff. With 74 percent of the precincts reporting, O’Rourke has 50.2 percent of the vote. Reyes trails with 44.4 percent. If Reyes loses tonight, you have to think the $200,000 in negative ads from Leo Linbeck’s Campaign for Primary Accountability had something to do with it. Reyes told me late last week that the Super PAC was the “Bane of my life.” And with that, good people, I’m calling it a night.

 

Update (11:40 p.m.): Looks like Ciro Rodriguez and Pete Gallego are headed for a runoff in the key Democratic congressional primary in San Antonio. Rodriguez, a former congressman who lost to Quico Canseco in 2010, has been ahead most of the night in CD 23. But in the last hour, he’s dropped below 50 percent and into runoff city. Rodriguez did well in his home base of San Antonio. But Gallego, a state rep from Alpine, made up ground as returns came in from West Texas. With 78 percent of the vote in, Rodriguez still led, but with just 48 percent. Gallego has 38 percent and John Bustamante had 12 percent. The winner of the likely runoff will face Canseco in the general election. That’s a big race nationally. Canseco pulled the upset in 2010 and is vulnerable. It would immensely help the Democrats’ efforts to retain control of the U.S. House if Rodriguez or Gallego can topple Canseco.

 

Update (11:28 p.m.): So Ted Cruz dragged Dewhurst into a runoff for the U.S. Senate seat, and feeling emboldened, broke out the serious smack talk. He splashed the word “Showdown” across the front of his website and challenged Dewhurst to five debates between now and the July 31 runoff. That’s a lot of bravado from a newbie who’s never won a single election. The conventional wisdom is that Dewhurst is in trouble in a runoff, and you have to think Cruz has a good shot. But, stiil, Dewhurst won 48 percent of the vote tonight. Cruz has a big deficit to make up. The big questions will be which candidate wins the support of the people who voted for Tom Leppert, who won 14 percent, and how different will the electorate look in a Texas runoff in July. 

 

Update (10:36 p.m.): Ralph Hall has been in Congress nearly as long as I’ve been alive. I was 3 years old when the now-89-year-old first went to D.C. from northeast Texas. He was a conservative Democrat back then. Now he’s a Republican. But little else has changed. He’s headed back to Congress for 17th term, easily winning his three-candidate GOP primary tonight. With 89 percent of the vote counted, Hall was crusing with nearly 60 percent. Hall easily survived attack ads from Leo Linbeck’s Super PAC that said he’d been in Congress too long.

 

Update (10:00 p.m.): In El Paso, Beto O’Rourke, a former city councilman, is leading Democratic incumbent Silvestre Reyes. The Secretary of State site shows O’Rourke leading 51 percent to 43 percent in early returns. O’Rourke is known for once endorsing legalization of Marijuana to reduce cartel violence. He also was a key supporter of El Paso’s push to provide health benefits to domestic partners of city workers, a major symbolic victory for gay rights. Reyes is famous for once confusing Shia and Sunni facitons in the middle east while being nominated to head the House Intelligence Committee (you just can’t make this stuff up). More recently, he was dogged by allegations of helping his family members land jobs with a federal contractor. A loss by Reyes would be another victory for Leo Linbeck’s anti-incumbent Super PAC, Campaign for Primary Accountability. Reyes would be the fourth congressional incumbent the group helped defeat nationwide. While O’Rourke is ahead—and at least one El Paso media outlet was calling the race for him preematurely—this one still seems too close to call.

 

Update (9:40 p.m.): Some predictable results on the Democratic side. Marc Veasey and Domingo Garcia are headed for a runoff from the 11-candidate field in the new Democratic congressional district in North Texas.

 

Update (9:17 p.m.): Lloyd Doggett continues to confound Republican attempts to toss him from office. The Austin congressman trounced Sylvia Romo tonight in the Democratic primary in his new redrawn district. With 20 percent of the precincts reporting, Doggett was cruising with more than 70 percent of the vote, a tremendous victory. The AP just called the race for him. The interim redistricting maphad placed Doggett in a majority-Latino district that ran to San Antonio, but it didn’t matter. Of the five Anglo Democrats that Tom DeLay tried to unseat back in 2004, Doggett is the lone survivor.

 

Update (7:36 p.m.): Well, scratch Eddie Bernice Johnson’s name off the list of congressional races to watch. The polls have been closed less than 40 minutes, but the Associated Press and Texas Tribune have called the race for Johnson, the 10-term (soon-to-be 11-term) Dallas incumbent. In early returns, she captured 70 percent of the vote, avoiding a runoff despite facing two challengers. Republican Joe Barton may not be far behind. The man they call “Smokey Joe” for his support of industry has 66 percent of the vote in early returns. More updates to follow.

 

Posted earlier: The makeup of Texas’ congressional delegation will be largely decided tonight.

Thanks to gerrymandering and Republican dominance, the general election in November won’t provide that much suspense. Whoever wins the four-candidate race for the GOP nomination will be heavily favored to win Texas’ open U.S. Senate seat in the fall. Most of the U.S. House races are safe seats for one party or the other (with one major exception, which I get to in a moment).

So tonight’s the night to determine, for the most part, who Texas sends to Washington.

I’ll be liveblogging the results of Texas’ Senate race and key U.S. House primaries. The big question in the Senate race tonight is whether Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the presumptive favorite, can avoid a runoff. It’s looked for months like Dewhurst would win the nomination outright. But recent polls show Ted Cruz, a tea party favorite and former solicitor general (read the Observer profile of Cruz here), gaining on Dewhurst. Former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and ESPN football commentator Craig James are also running. If Dewhurst fails to capture 50 percent of the vote tonight and lands in a July runoff with Cruz, the lite gov may be in trouble. Cruz has boldly predicted that he’d win a runoff.

Many observer believe Texas will have only one competitive U.S. House race this fall—the San Antonio seat held by Republican Francisco “Quico” Canseco, who won this Democratic-leaning district in a 2010 upset. That makes tonight’s Democratic primary an important race to watch. Long-time Democratic state Rep. Pete Gallego of Alpine and former congressman Ciro Rodriguez, who lost to Canseco in 2010, are squaring off to see who will challenge Canseco in the fall.

I’ll also be closely watching incumbents Silvestre Reyes (D-El Paso) and Ralph Hall (R-Rockwall). Both are long-time congressmen—the 89-year-old Hall is the oldest man in Congress—who have credible challengers. And both are targets of the Leo Linbeck III-backed Super PAC called Committee for Primary Accountability. The group has embarked on a well-publicized and well-funded nationwide crusade against congressional incumbents. (Read our story on the Linbeck Super PAC, and the Hall and Reyes races here.)

Finally, there’s a smattering of other interesting congressional races across the state, including (but not limited to):

—Austin Congressman Lloyd Doggett’s attempt to fend off a challenge from Bexar County Tax Assessor Sylvia Romo;

—The 11-candidate race for the newly drawn Democratic seat in Dallas-Fort Worth, headlined by state Rep. Marc Veasey and former state Rep. Domingo Garcia.

—The plight of two long-time, yet controversial members of Congress from North Texas—Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson and Republican Joe Barton—who both face multiple challengers.

Check back for updates throughout the evening.

Texas Gaining National Rep for Executing Innocents

Revelations in Carlos DeLuna case feel eerily familiar.

I was talking to a couple from Philadelphia at a cocktail reception on the East Coast last week. When I said I worked as a journalist in Texas, the husband mentioned that he’d heard the state had executed an innocent man. He asked if I knew about the case.

“Well,” I said, “you’ll have to be more specific.”

Yes, it has come to this: Credible claims of innocence in multiple cases of men executed years ago. It’s becoming a disgrace for the state. What else can we say after the recent disturbing revelations in the case of Carlos DeLuna?

DeLuna was convicted of stabbing to death 24-year-old Wanda Lopez at a Corpus Christi convenience store in 1983. His conviction was based largely on the shaky testimony of a single eyewitness. Police had the eyewitness identify DeLuna at the crime scene while DeLuna was in custody—not ideal policing practice to say the least. No physical evidence linked him to the crime. Yet the state executed DeLuna in 1989. Now it appears they had the wrong man.

In 2003, Columbia University law professor James Liebman and a group of students began an eight-year reinvestigation of DeLuna’s case. Their results were recently published in a book-length Columbia Human Rights Law Review article.

The evidence strongly suggests that not only did Texas execute an innocent man, but that prosecutors and police could have easily discovered that another man named Carlos was the likely perpetrator. Carlos Hernandez, who looked remarkably like Carlos DeLuna, had a record of stabbing people with a buck knife—the same weapon used to kill Wanda Lopez. It was widely rumored in the neighborhood that Hernandez had committed the murder. Corpus police officers even heard those rumors, yet didn’t act on them. DeLuna himself told his attorneys about Hernandez, yet his defense team and the prosecution claimed they couldn’t find such a person. At trial, prosecutors suggested that Carlos Hernandez didn’t exist. But he did. An investigator hired by Liebman tracked down Hernandez in a matter of hours. He had died in prison in 1999.

Texans have sadly grown accustomed to the horrifying tales of wrongful conviction after more than two dozen DNA exonerations in Dallas County and the high-profile cases of Anthony Graves and Michael Morton. But the DeLuna case is one of the most dispiriting yet. Though the details are different, what happened to DeLuna is eerily similar to the infamous Cameron Todd Willingham case and to the Claude Jones case. (If you’re not familiar with the Jones story, which the Observer broke in November 2010, then read this story. DNA tests debunked the key evidence against Jones, who was executed in 2000, though the tests didn’t conclusively establish his actual innocence.) Then there’s the case of Ruben Cantu, a former special ed student executed in 1993 for a crime he almost certainly didn’t commit.

In all these instances, prosecutors, judges and police officers could have easily unearthed major problems with the evidence: the existence of Carlos Hernandez in DeLuna’s case, the debunked arson evidence against Willingham, the DNA test that Jones requested before his execution but wasn’t granted, and the key witness who said police pressured him to implicate Cantu. As with Willingham, Jones and Cantu, officials in the DeLuna case seemingly didn’t care to learn the truth. And an apparently innocent man is dead because of it.

Now Texas is quickly gaining a national reputation as the state that executes innocent people.

The Austin American-Statesman published a wonderful profile of Ronnie Dugger on Sunday. If you haven’t read Brad Buchholz’s the story yet, I highly recommend it.

Ronnie, of course, is the Observer’s founding editor, the man who, back in 1954, started this publication and authored the creed we still follow today, “We will serve no group or party but will hew hard to the truth as we find it and the right as we see it. We are dedicated to the whole truth, to human values above all interests, to the rights of humankind as the foundation of democracy. We will take orders from none but our own conscience, and never will we overlook or misrepresent the truth to serve the interests of the powerful or cater to the ignoble in the human spirit.”

Buchholz writes that Ronnie, who recently returned to Austin after some years in Massachusetts, is the “godfather of progressive journalism in Texas.” That’s inarguable. 

Earlier this month, Ronnie, 81, was honored with a George Polk Career Award for his many years of outstanding journalism. The Polk Awards are among the most prestigious prizes in our field, and the lifetime achievement award is a tremendous recognition of Ronnie’s work.

He received the award at a gala dinner in New York on April 5. I’ve pasted below the speech Ronnie gave that night. True to form, his speech begins with a few words about the early days of the Observer, but then quickly moves on to a discussion about the looming dangers of nuclear weapons. If you know Ronnie, it’s not surprising that on the night he received a prestigious career achievement award, he talked not about himself but about an issue close to his heart. With Ronnie Dugger, what matters most isn’t personal fame or recognition, but making the world a better place.

 

I’m deeply honored to be present among this award’s inspiring special achievers this year.

Texas in 1954 had no big-city daily newspaper in which one could sense freedom of conscience.  A group of us decided to build The Texas Observer into an independent liberal weekly paper that would introduce freedom of conscience into the press of the state.

From the first I sought to practice journalism according to three basic standards, accuracy, fairness instead of “objectivity,” and moral seriousness.  We were a tiny group, running on a shoestring, and we lost money at once and for the next 44 years.  But we found and told a lot of stories that would have been lost, and somehow together we made a go of it.

Once I did a story establishing that the man who was chairman of the Texas state agency regulating the oil companies was also drilling wells for them for his profit.  I gave him his full say, of course.  There was not a ripple in the rest of the press.  A year or so later the Dallas Morning News of that day—it’s a much better newspaper now– reported the same story as if it was new.  In that and other ways doing the Observer was like playing a guitar, but with no sound coming out of it.

In due course our freedom attracted serious reporters and writers, Billy Lee Brammer, Bob Bray, Jim Hightower, Elroy Bode, Willie Morris, Robert Sherrill, Kaye Northcott, Geoff Rips, Molly Ivins—too many more to name.  Then there were supporters making up the deficits with money—lumber heiress Mrs. R.D. Randolph, insurance man Bernard Rapoport, oilman J.R. Parten, banker Walter Hall, and thousands more with $5 to a hundred.  And the people on the business side, two of whom, Sarah Payne and Cliff Olafson, gave their lives for it.

The unattended-to injustices overwhelmed us, as they still do the staff 57 years later.  One day in 1955, a subscriber in East Texas phoned me that he had read a two-inch story in his area daily that somebody had driven through a little country town for blacks only, shooting bullets.  I went out there and got the story.  Bullets slammed into a schoolbus and houses, landing around a woman who was kneeling at her bed saying her nightly prayers, plugging into a café, killing a boy of 16 and injuring two younger girls who had been dancing together.   The publicity led to a trial and to Southern justice for one of the two young white men who had done it, “guilty, five years suspended”; no trial at all for the other one.  But the story was told, and 50 years later is part of the memorialized history of East Texas.

Now, here I am, the old guy you see, but still a reporter trying to find stories.  I’ve been worried since the fifties about Hbombs, and I’ll wonder a little with you now if we’re doing enough, and on a long-enough timeline, on the story about the likelihood of an Hbomb holocaust that would decimate, or end, life on earth.  That possibility seems like an old story, the Cuban missile crisis–Gorbachev and Reagan solved that, didn’t they?—end of the cold war.  But no, it’s not over.  It’s worse.

The present form of the story, like that about North Korea, is the daily drumbeat that Israel well may now bomb Iran, that is, attack it, to get at its nuclear program, and the consequences for the next two or three years. Could we not be overlooking some profound truths and questions concerning this spasmodically worsening situation, the rising danger of an Hbomb holocaust?

Why are nuclear weapons called “weapons of mass destruction” when morally they are weapons of mass murder?

If we put aside the Soviet collapse, the disassembly of grotesquely surplus nukes, and cosmetics, is it not true that there has not yet been any effective nuclear disarmament?

Why is the deterrence doctrine against nuclear attack so numbly accepted?   Deterrence has to mean retaliation.  It posits retaliation with nuclear weapons.  Mass murder for mass murder.

Has deterrence “worked,” as is so commonly said, or did the skin of our teeth work, barely saving us three times from at least tens of millions dead?  An Hbomb explodes in millionths of a second with several times the heat of the core of the sun.  Tens of millions of degrees.  Heat, blast, radiation, no life.  Only one failure of deterrence can be, the experts say, a billion dead.

Unimaginable.

When in the 1960s I asked President Johnson in the White House about nuclear weapons, he flared into anger against me that I had done so and exclaimed, “I’m the one who has to mash the button.”  Richard Garwin, one of the three inventors of the Hbomb, told me in an interview in 1986 that what we’re doing with deterrence is buying time, that nuclear proliferation can’t be stopped, there will be a nuclear war, and a billion people will die.  Why are so many of us so confident this will not happen?  Are we lemmings?  Is this not the most important subject on the world, whether it will happen, or can we prevent it?  More nations keep getting the bomb.

There is still no international control of these weapons that can end life on earth.  Is Gorbachev not right in cautioning us very recently that we need enough effective international governance to keep events from becoming “dangerously unpredictable”?  Are they not already so?  As Robert Jay Lifton said to me this morning, unpredictability is all right, except on nuclear weapons.

Dr. Garwin’s prophecy is coming toward true.

How have nine nations become nine separate owners of the Hbombs that can be sent to mass murder the people of any large city, or a country?  Why are these weapons still, 67 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, none of our business, with possibly apocalyptic facts about them blocked off from us by nine separate systems of military secrecy?

For example, does Israel have five nuclear-armed submarines in the Mediterranean, as indicated in the recent well-sourced book How the End Begins?

Jonathan Schell reports in his book The Seventh Decade that 50 more nations know how to make the Hbombs.  They are secrets no more.  Why, then, are Hbombs still a national, not an international, question?

Why has the actual and prospective nuclear policy and practice of the U.S., Israel, and Britain segued away from the promised disarmament into attacking nations we don’t trust that we believe insist on getting the weapons that we keep on having?

What really is happening to and in our own nuclear arsenal of almost 5,000 Hbombs?  Last fall in Los Alamos a former director of nuclear bomb development at our lab there told me what we should be doing is making our nuclear weapons more usable.  Might that be what we’ve been doing?

President Obama calls for a nuclear-free world, but not likely in our lifetimes, he added.  Why not?  We say other nations mislead us about their nuclear plans.  Are we reporting and analyzing, with the emphasis needed, whether our own government is also guilty of hypocrisy on this?

Why does our country, after 67 years, still not have a “No further first use” policy about our nuclear weapons?

How long has it been since one of us asked the President that question?

And what is the political and ethical responsibility of the American citizen for our Hbombs?

What, if aimed, are American nuclear bombs aimed at?  If exploded on target, how many people will they kill?  If we use them either to attack or retaliate, what would that do to our standing in the history and conscience of humanity?

This subject can turn anyone into a melancholiac, but none of us knows if the Hbomb holocaust will come, and  where there’s uncertainty there’s hope.

Dr. Lifton speaks of “species consciousness,” that we are all one species, all in this together, and one senses that this consciousness is spreading, although slowly, around the world.

And of all the looming subjects of our time this is the most nonpartisan.  Killing all of them and all of us must not  be a political, an ideological, a religious, a nationalistic purpose.  Preventing Hbomb holocaust is the all-partisan story, partisan to all of us and everything else living.

I believe we journalists have a professional and ethical responsibility to penetrate this story more deeply than we have on behalf of our readers and watchers.  A story that hasn’t happened yet is hard to investigate.  Perhaps we should have a new discussion on this among us.  If the holocaust comes we are not likely to be around to report it.

May our thought, our work, and our words do what we can.

Thank you again.

 

Honoring B Rapoport

At public memorial, hundreds pay tribute to Waco philanthropist

They came by the hundreds to honor and remember Bernard Rapoport on Wednesday.

B, as his friends called him, passed away late last week at age 94. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, B made his fortune in the insurance business and then set about giving away millions to causes he believed in: the University of Texas, scholarship funds, numerous nonprofits, many Democratic politicians, and the Observer.

Several hundred came to his public memorial service Wednesday at the cavernous Grand Mason Lodge of Texas in Waco to hear seven speakers offer touching tributes to B.

“He had unshakable confidence that he could change the world,” said his granddaughter Abby, a former Observer staff writer. She was joined on stage by her sister, Emily, who read a poem dedicated to B.

Abby recalled that B always kept up with what his granddaughters were learning and always had advice for what they should be reading. During her freshman year of college, Abby said her grandfather asked to look at her syllabi and, as the year went along, kept up with the reading himself. “His confidence and his big ideas made me think he could change the world,” she said.

And in many ways, he did. The number of people whose lives were touched or changed by B Rapoport is far too numerous to list. His donations to Democratic candidates made him a well-known political figure and welcome in many Democratic congressional offices in Washington. And Wednesday’s memorial was filled with anecdotes of B’s proximity to power. In their eulogies, both Ben Barnes and Bill Cunningham, a former UT chancellor, told of visiting the Clinton White House with B. (Politics never came before family, though. Former Congressman Chet Edwards remembered sitting in B’s office while Rapoport talked on the phone with President Clinton. Then another call came in, and B said, “Mr. President, I have to go. My granddaughter just called me.”)

His political donations helped make him famous, but B’s philanthropy likely effected many more lives.

“If you were in need, he was there for you,” said Lyndon Olson, a former ambassador to Sweden and B’s long-time friend, in his eulogy. “How many of us present here today did he help in some way? Big and small ways! He did that for the people here in Waco, Texas… in the State of Texas… in the nation… and around the world.

“Those who were less fortunate, who were in poverty, who were the victims of injustice, or were just in need due to some personal calamity had a champion in B.”

The Rapoport family has generously requested that donations be made in B’s memory to The Texas Observer, or to the Rapoport Scholars Program at the University of Texas.

B Rapoport’s Legacy

Everyone at the Observer was tremendously saddened to learn of the passing late last night of Bernard Rapoport—our board member, great friend and supporter—at age 94.

A public memorial service for B will be held at noon on Wednesday, April 11, at the Masonic Grand Lodge of Texas (715 Columbus Ave.) in Waco. The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, you make a donation to the Rapoport Scholars Program at the University of Texas, or to The Texas Observer.

B supported the Observer for decades and helped it through some lean years. Put simply, this magazine probably wouldn’t exist without his long-time financial contributions.

Of course, he didn’t just support the Observer. It would be impossible to compile a comprehensive list of all the political campaigns and good causes B supported, and all the lives he changed. To understand what this great man was about and why he did what he did, I suggest you read former Observer editor Lou Dubose’s wonderful appreciation.

As Lou writes—and a long line of Observer editors, myself included, will confirm— B never tried to influence the Observer’s editorial content, despite his generous contributions.

B explained his support for this cantankerous, investigative publication in a 1979 op-ed that we’ve unearthed from our archives and posted on our website here: “As one who has been deeply involved with the paper, I love it because I can’t tell anybody on the Observer what to do or say. This makes me know positively that no one else can. That’s why I am so supportive and shall continue to be in the future… .

“What I like best about The Texas Observer is that it is the most unpolluted institution in Texas. John Dewey once mentioned that one of his favorite quotations was ‘Every government needs a minister of irritance.’ The Texas Observer has fulfilled that need for many years in Texas, and what I hope is that it will continue to do so in the years to come.”

Indeed it has. We’ll be posting more tributes to B in the coming days. But perhaps the best tribute we can offer is our very existence. All the great journalism the Observer has done (and will do) would never have been possible without B Rapoport.

The debate over President Obama’s health care reform law, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court this week, touches all kinds of complex concepts and fancy jargon: a mandate, a severability clause (or lack thereof) and the Commerce Clause, health care exchanges, over-taxation and underinsured, and even a donut hole.

But the central issue is this: Should the government, under threat of monetary fines, force Americans to buy health care from private companies?

The health care reform bill famously requires all Americans to obtain health insurance either through their employer or purchase it on their own. Anyone who refuses to follow the mandate would face government fines. 

It would, I believe, be the first time in American history that the government required all citizens to buy a product from the private sector. (The often-cited car insurance and home insurance analogies don’t fit. More on that further down.)

Politicians on both sides are complaining about many of the other provisions too. Republicans don’t like the Medicaid expansion to cover more poor families. And many Democrats wanted a government-run insurance plan.

But, generally speaking, your opinion of the health care law generally hinges on whether you can accept the health insurance mandate.

There seem to be two camps. Some look at the prospect of providing health care to 30 million currently uninsured Americans, including millions in Texas, and at the success the system has had in Massachusetts, and conclude the mandate is worth it.  Others see government overreach—an unprecedented intrusion on individual liberties that can’t be justified no matter how many more people gain health insurance as a result.

No matter what you think of it, the mandate does set a dangerous precedent. As I wrote more than two years ago when Congress was debating the mandate:

“What items in your life does the government require you to purchase from a private company?

“I’ll venture a guess at the answer: Nothing.

“Car insurance, you say? Not really. You’re required to buy it only if you have a car. You still have the choice whether to buy a car. No car, no insurance. Same with home insurance. You’re still choosing to buy a home.

“In other cases, the government mandates something but provides the means. For instance, you’re required to educate your child, but the government provides a system of free, public schools.

“Nowhere in our lives does the government mandate that — no matter what — we must buy a product from the private sector.”

That may be about to change, depending on how the Supreme Court rules. The justices heard arguments over the mandate for two hours this morning—the second of the High Court’s three days of oral arguments on the law. As the New York Times reports, the conservative justices posed probing questions about the health care mandate.

“’Can you create commerce in order to regulate it?’” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy asked the lawyer, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., only minutes into the argument.”

“Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked if the government could compel the purchase of cellphones. And Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked about forcing people to buy burial insurance,” according to the Times.

I won’t venture a guess on whether the mandate is constitutional or how the court will rule.

But if the court does strike down the mandate, we also may lose the most popular provisions in the law such as the ban on denying coverage due to pre-existing conditions and allowing dependents to remain on their parents’ plans up to age 26.

The insurance industry accepted these provisions in exchange for the mandate. The industry claims it can’t afford to insure people with pre-existing conditions without the added revenue from the many new customers the mandate would deliver. If the mandate is struck down, then perhaps insurance companies will again deny coverage because of pre-existing conditions.

Is that worth it?

Unfortunately, we’ve been forced into this choice by the bill that Congress and the White House designed. By maintaining the private insurance system and by refusing to implement a public option, the designers of the law had little choice but to require all Americans to buy insurance.

We’ve been forced to decide which principle is more important: basic civil liberties and freedom from government telling you what to buy or providing health care to tens of millions.

It’s a tough call, and it’s what made today’s Supreme Court argument so fascinating.

Why Was Scott Braddock Fired?

Like many journalists in the state, I was saddened to learn this week that Scott Braddock had lost his job with News 92.1-FM in Houston.

Braddock, who previously worked as a radio reporter in Houston, Dallas and Austin,  has a well-earned reputation around the state for high-quality, fair journalism. He returned to Houston last November to help launch the city’s new FM news station, News 92. His three-hour morning show tackled some of the most controversial and important issues facing Texas, from immigration and border issues to energy and the environment.

Last Friday morning, he broadcast an interview with Austin writer Carolyn Jones about her first-person account in the Observer of her ordeal with Texas’ new pre-abortion sonogram law. Jones’ powerful piece raises questions about whether politicians should be meddling in one of the most personal decisions a woman can make.

On Tuesday—two business days after the Jones interview aired—Braddock was called into his boss’s office and fired.

The timing has led to speculation that abortion politics contributed to Braddock’s firing.

The president of Texans for Life, Kyleen Wright, emailed the station to protest Braddock’s firing. “[H]he is one of the few news guys I always make time for—he does his own homework and works very hard to be fair to both sides, a rare commodity in broadcasting today,” Wright wrote.  Quorum Report, Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle posted stories suggesting that abortion politics may have led to Braddock’s firing.

I certainly hope that Braddock wasn’t fired for simply practicing good journalism—airing a good interview on an important subject for public debate.

The reasons for Braddock’s firing aren’t clear. The station managers, who work for the national company Radio One, have refused to comment on his termination.

Braddock says he can’t be sure why he was let go, but he says the  stated reason—that he guest-hosted a friend’s radio show on another station—doesn’t make sense. “There’s been no explanation for it that’s been given that adds up,” he told me.

Last Friday night, Braddock hosted a show on KPFT, the listener-supported Pacifica station in Houston and aired the Jones interview that he had conducted earlier in the day for News 92.

As Quorum Report noted, Braddock didn’t obtain permission, but didn’t think he had to. Braddock says it’s not unusual for radio hosts to fill in on other stations.

He suspects that his bosses weren’t pleased with the content of his show, By taking on controversial issues, Braddock’s show differed from the  rest of News 92’s content, which Braddock terms “fires and shootings…crime blotter type of stuff” and other local items. Braddock says that media outlets must have the courage to cover complex, controversial topics—like abortion, immigration, education, and the environment—from all sides. Otherwise, “It doesn’t give anybody any perspective on decisions they’re going to have to make. Who they’re going to vote for. Do they need to contact their congressman? Do they need to show up at their school board meeting tonight?”

I called Doug Abernethy, the regional vice president for Radio One, which owns News 92, for his side of the story. Abernethy refused again to comment on Braddock’s firing. But he did stress he thinks “Scott is a very talented reporter.”

Abernethy said he was pleased with the quality and content of Braddock’s show; it was what managers expected when they heavily recruited Braddock to join the station last fall.

Asked if the sonogram interview contributed to Braddock’s firing, Abernethy said, “I don’t think he got reprimanded for any content he had on the air last week. … There wasn’t even a discussion [among station managers] about any of his shows last week.”

I don’t know what the truth is here. But what is clear is that one of the state’s best radio journalists is now off the air. I hope it doesn’t stay that way for long.

Until recently most Texans had probably never heard of the Women’s Health Program. It was one of those out-of-the-way, good-government programs that consumes a relatively small amount of money (about $40 million) but does copious social good: paying for health screenings and birth control for 130,000 low-income, uninsured Texas women.

Yet despite the obvious benefits, the program’s future has been in doubt for nearly a year. As early as last spring, some Republicans in the Texas Legislature made clear their desire to do away with it. Most Texas media outlets—the Observer included—have been covering the effort to preserve the Women’s Health Program for many months.

But in the past few weeks, this once little-known program has become the issue in Texas politics—bandied about like a beach ball between Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the federal government. Here’s the short version in case you haven’t been following along: Texas had to ask the federal government to renew the Women’s Health Program, which typically would be pro forma. Except this time Perry’s administration announced it would apply to renew the program only if it could bar Planned Parenthood. The Obama administration said Texas couldn’t do that. Texas did it anyway. The feds responded by essentially saying they wouldn’t renew money for the program—and they pay for 90 percent of it— unless Planned Parenthood was included. Texas said nuts to that.

And there you have it: The Women’s Health Program is expiring in a flurry of finger-pointing, with the feds announcing the program’s end yesterday. Democrats are calling its demise part of the Republican “war on women” (war on Planned Parenthood would be more accurate). Meanwhile, conservatives are shouting about the Obama administration favoring abortion and Planned Parenthood over women’s health (it would be more accurate to say the feds are favoring federal law).

Amid all the political posturing and spinning, it’s difficult to discern what’s actually going on here. Quite a few Texans, even those reading the headlines, still don’t really know what it is, including some folks in my office.

So let’s clear up some misconceptions with a few FAQs that might help you see through the political rhetoric.

 

1. Women’s Health Program—sounds like a fitness regimen at the Y. What the hell is this thing?

The goal of the program is to prevent unplanned pregnancies. Oh sure, there’s a lot more to it—it’s a Medicaid waiver program with strict eligibility rules and provides health screenings for a long list of ailments and so on. But at its core the Women’s Health Program exists to provide poor uninsured women with the birth control and family planning services they need to avoid unintended pregnancies. Simple as that.

 

 

2. OK, but why is that necessary?

The program came about to fill a gap in the health care system. Lower-income women who become pregnant are usually eligible for Medicaid, which will provide health insurance during their pregnancies, deliveries, and for a short time after they give birth. Medicaid pays for more than half the births in Texas. So that’s covered. The child will likely be eligible for Medicaid. So that’s covered. But what about the mother? A couple of months, after giving birth, the mother could well be uninsured. Medicaid’s eligibility is much stricter for adults who aren’t pregnant. You have to be really poor to qualify for Medicaid as an adult. So even though her child may be on Medicaid, the mother may have no health insurance—that means no access to preventive health care or birth control.

 

If the mother soon becomes pregnant again and it’s an unplanned pregnancy, then not only will Medicaid have to pay for another birth, but more importantly, the mother will have another child she can’t afford to care for. That can lead to all kinds of ugly outcomes—from child abuse to neglect to placing the child in the foster care system. None of that benefits the child or taxpayers.

 

So providing uninsured women with family planning services seems like a good idea. And that’s how the program started. States began by asking the federal government for a Medicaid waiver—essentially permission to spend Medicaid dollars outside the program’s traditional rules—to provide birth control to uninsured, non-pregnant women.

 

More than two-dozen states have done this, including Texas in 2005. The Texas Women’s Health Program is narrowly focused: women ages 18-44 (child bearing age) who earn less than about $1,700 a month on their own and who aren’t pregnant. If you become pregnant, you’re off the program. It will pay for women to be sterilized—cause that’s a pretty effective way to prevent pregnancies—but once a woman is sterilized, she’s booted off the program (cause she’s no longer a risk to become pregnant).

 

 

 

3. Ok, we get it—the goal is to prevent unplanned pregnancies. Yeesh. But how come we keep hearing about abortion and Planned Parenthood? What does the Women’s Health Program have to do with abortion?

Nothing. Except that by preventing unplanned pregnancies, the Women’s Health Program might reduce the number of abortions. But, otherwise, nothing.

 

 

4. Doesn’t the Women’s Health Program pay Planned Parenthood to do abortions?

No. Taxpayer money can’t pay for abortions.

 

5. But Texas Comptroller Susan Combs sent out a statement last week in which she said excluding Planned Parenthood from the Women’s Health Program was good because, “As Comptroller, I have consistently opposed using taxpayer dollars to fund abortion services.”

This is a highly misleading statement. Taxpayer dollars don’t fund abortions (or whatever an “abortion service” is). There are very strict rules to prevent it. And Susan Combs knows it.

 

 

6. OK, that’s the official story. But Planned Parenthood is probably shifting money around under the table to pay for all kinds of things. The Women’s Health Program money may be intended for birth control, but once Planned Parenthood gets it, the money probably supports abortion some how, right? Wink, wink.

It’s basically impossible for Women’s Health Program money to contribute to abortion in any way. Remember, no pregnant women can even be on the program. And even if Planned Parenthood wanted to game the system, that would be difficult. Medicaid (the Women’s Health Program included) is a fee-for-service system. That means a woman who has signed up for the Women’s Health Program goes to an approved medical provider (a hospital or, until recently, Planned Parenthood) and receives a screening or birth control or other family planning service. The hospital or clinic then bills the state and gets reimbursed.

 

But—and here’s the key part—if the patient wasn’t eligible or the medical service provided wasn’t on the approved list, then the state won’t pay the bill. In other words, the government controls what services the program pays for. If Planned Parenthood tried to game the system, it wouldn’t get paid.

 

And Medicaid rates being what they are—which are incredibly low—hospitals and clinics aren’t making money off the deal. The Women’s Health Program money can pay only for screenings and family planning and nothing else. No abortion anywhere in sight.

 

But don’t take my word for it. I asked Stephanie Goodman, spokesperson for Texas’ Health and Human Services Commission, “If patients can’t be pregnant on the program, and it’s fee for service, and government money can’t pay for abortions anyway—then am I right in assuming that WHP funds couldn’t ever pay for an abortion?

Her answer: “Correct.”

 

7. Then what was Susan Combs talking about?

 

Good question. We called her spokesperson to ask. He hasn’t responded.

 

 

8. So is this really about attacking Planned Parenthood?

Seems so. In late February, the state implemented a rule that technically forbids any entity (or its affiliates) that provides abortions from participating in the Women’s Health Program. That could leave hospitals in a tough spot. Many hospitals provide abortions.

 

But state officials didn’t want any part of taking on the hospitals, so the hospitals were specifically exempted. That pretty much leaves Planned Parenthood as the target. Perry has said as much.

 

 

9. And what’s wrong with excluding Planned Parenthood?

Well, it provides more than 40 percent of services in the Women’s Health Program. It’s not clear who or what would step in to provide that care if Planned Parenthood is excluded.

 

But there’s a larger legal question. The Obama administration contends that Planned Parenthood is a qualified Medicaid provider, and the state can’t simply exclude qualified providers simply cause it doesn’t like them. The feds say that violates federal law. Texas AG Greg Abbott disagrees and argues that Texas can exclude whoever it wants.

 

10. Didn’t the Legislature already cut family planning funding last spring?

Yes, but that’s a different program. The Legislature cut funding for the state family planning program by two-thirds. That’s an entirely different program that provides family planning services, though a lot fewer than it used to. The two programs offer similar services, but they’re two different pools of money.

 

11. Rick Perry says that Texas will create its own version of the Women’s Health Program without the federal money. Can Texas do it?

We’ll find out. Goodman, the HHSC spokesperson, says the state intends to cover all the women who were eligible for the Women’s Health Program. It doesn’t cost that much. Texas could easily make up the loss of $40 million in federal funding. But the state has to set up a new system. As part of Medicaid, the Women’s Health Program had everything all ready to go—established providers, rates, payment system. Texas will have to do all that now outside the Medicaid system and without any authority from the Legislature, which doesn’t meet till next year. State officials told the Austin American Statesman yesterday that the details aren’t that complicated. We’ll see. It’s possible the new state system won’t be ready when the Women’s Health Program expires.

 

If Texas does succeed with its go-it-alone strategy and excludes Planned Parenthood, then you have to suspect that other conservative states will try it too.

Find out what happens when four talented, talkative journalists crowd into a basement room that doubles as a fallout shelter (no, really), open a bottle of wine, and discuss the most controversial and divisive political topics of the day. The result is the inaugural episode in our new series of Texas Observer podcasts. This week we discuss “Valley of Death,” this month’s cover story about the deadliest place in Mexico, the GOP’s attack on the Women’s Health Program, and the kerfuffle over state sonogram laws. Check back in two weeks for the next installment.