State of the Media

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A team of Harvard researchers recently released a deeply sobering study quantifying how many Americans stand to die needlessly in the unflinching states hellbent on denying Medicaid expansion, as provided by the Affordable Care Act. The study singles out Texas:

“In Texas, the largest state opting out of Medicaid expansion, 2,013,025 people who would otherwise have been insured will remain uninsured due to the opt-out decision. We estimate that Medicaid expansion in that state would have resulted in 184,192 fewer depression diagnoses, 62,610 fewer individuals suffering catastrophic medical expenditures, and between 1,840 and 3,035 fewer deaths.”

Crunching the numbers, the study suggests that Texas could bear almost 18 percent of a potential 17,104 unnecessary deaths nationwide. The figures are stark, damning, and presented with dispassionate and clinical precision—and yes, the study was quickly subjected to right-wing critics arguing the math.

But neither this thoroughly newsworthy study nor scrutiny of it have earned much attention in the Texas media. Perhaps it will come. More likely, reporters will remain transfixed by horserace coverage of the upcoming November election, as exemplified by Wayne Slater’s mid-January “gotcha” in The Dallas Morning News about how Wendy Davis “blurred” the truth, having lived “only a few months” in the mobile home her official biography describes. (The Huffington Post has a brilliant takedown of that tempest-in-a-teapot by Jim Moore, Slater’s former colleague in Texas.)

Slater’s current colleague at the Morning News, Bob Garrett, has at least written about the financial repercussions, if not the life-and-death ones, of Rick Perry’s abject refusal to bend on his anti-expansion stance, noting that the state stands to lose billions by refusing to expand Medicaid.

Just one or two mainstream Texas outlets have tried to put a human face on the issue. In late January, the San Antonio Express-News wrote about Irma Aguilar, a mother of four who earns $9 an hour at her no-health-insurance job at Pizza Hut. Because she makes a whopping $19,200 a year, by Texas rules she is unable to secure the Medicaid benefits that would help offset the $80,000 in emergency-room care costs she’s accumulated over the past two years, including an uncovered surgery to remove her gallbladder.

Meanwhile, Baton Rouge Advocate reporter Marsha Shuler had an interesting tidbit in her February story about former Louisiana State University System Vice President Fred Cerise being hired as CEO of Dallas’ massive Parkland Memorial Hospital:

“A former state health secretary, Cerise has been an outspoken supporter of Medicaid expansion, which would provide government health insurance to Louisiana’s working poor. Gov. Bobby Jindal has rejected the expansion.”

Makes you wonder how Rick Perry, who out-flanks Jindal from the right, might feel about Cerise’s imminent arrival.

A doctor of internal medicine who recently locked horns with Louisiana lawmakers over their disemboweling of that state’s charity hospital system has now been put in charge of the hospital where Dallas resident George W. Bush, if he were sick and couldn’t afford health insurance, would likely seek treatment—alongside the roughly 15,000 women who go to Parkland every year to give birth (more babies are born in Parkland each year than at any other hospital in America). Parkland’s new CEO adds to a near consensus among Texas hospital administrators—people who daily see the realities imposed by poverty and lack of health insurance—in favor of Medicaid expansion.

If the new opt-out study is to be believed, Texas’ infamous history of resisting federal directives promises more deadly consequences. It might be a good idea for the state’s media to do more stories about the thousands of folks like Irma Aguilar who fall between the coverage cracks, and to let readers know where knowledgeable players like Cerise stand on the issue.

Maybe Cerise, administering a heavyweight public hospital in Dallas, can help drum up the kind of political resistance among his administrative brethren that can persuade Perry to see the light of reason. Maybe that’s a story to poke at, prod, investigate and editorialize about.

Millions of Texas’ poor people remain uninsured, and their stories remain underreported. Maybe we’ll get to read about them when their families start placing the obituaries.

Charlie Strong
Charlie Strong

When Charlie Strong was named football coach at the University of Texas on Jan. 5, many regional and national news accounts duly noted that he is making history as the first African-American head coach of a men’s team in UT’s 131-year history.

The Houston Chronicle mentioned the racial significance of the hire in the second paragraph of its first story. The Austin American-Statesman and San Antonio Express-News stories referenced it in their fifth paragraphs. The Dallas Morning News noted it in the ninth paragraph.

Strong’s new job is newsworthy, and his race, given the lack of precedent, is arguably newsworthy as well. What hasn’t been widely discussed is how coverage of the hire highlights the lack of diversity among the state’s mainstream media and how that influences coverage. Almost all of the state’s newsrooms, The Texas Observer’s included, are predominantly white.

It will be interesting in that light to see how the cover of the state’s flagship magazine, Texas Monthly, responds to the news of Strong’s hiring.

In the 1970s’ 82 issues, two black people appeared unaccompanied on Texas Monthly’s cover: U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan and Cootie Hill, a street hustler from Houston’s Fifth Ward. (Two other black faces were featured on the 1970s covers, both as maids attending to white women).

There were no solo black Texans on the covers of the magazine’s 120 issues in the 1980s.

Four of Texas Monthly’s 120 covers during the 1990s featured stand-alone black Texans: athletes Dennis Rodman, Hakeem Olajuwon, George Foreman and Michael Irvin—the latter depicted with a white-powder moustache.  (Carl Lewis was featured on another 1990s cover alongside two white men).

Two stand-alone black Texans graced the 120 covers of the 2000s: quarterback Vince Young and singer Beyoncé. (Others include Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith flanking white quarterback Troy Aikman).

From 2010 until now, no Texas Monthly cover has featured an image of an unaccompanied black person.

They’re not alone. The Observer, while taking a conceptually different and celebrity-averse approach to cover design, has done little better in representing the state’s diversity on its front page.

Why does it matter? According to the Texas Monthly website, “The single most important page of a magazine is its cover. It’s the one that editors and art directors spend the most time thinking about, arguing over, and tweaking right up until the last minute.”

I’ve worked for three national magazines (The Sporting News, Talk and People), and the “cover meetings” always had one purely pragmatic aim: to figure out what would sell. Race was always the invisible elephant in the room. I once witnessed an exceedingly awkward debate about why a People cover was not being devoted to megastar Beyoncé: because she was, well, not the right person at the moment.

In an increasingly diverse place like Texas—a state still wrestling with bitter racial divisions—every publication needs to do more to mirror the population. Every publication needs more minority writers, more minority news, more minority covers.

I asked Jake Silverstein, the talented and thoughtful editor of Texas Monthly, about the challenge:

“Absolutely there is more to be done in terms of diversity at Texas Monthly. No question. In the past, the magazine has sometimes struggled to represent the full array of voices in Texas. We have made some strides the past few years but we still have a long way to go. … It’s something I take very seriously. What I can say is that this is a problem throughout the magazine industry, and it’s my hope that in years to come Texas Monthly can be a leader in helping to fix it.”

Then I asked Observer editor Dave Mann the same question. He, too, recognizes the problem:

“Lack of diversity—both on the cover of our magazine and, especially, in our newsroom—has long been a problem at the Observer, and I’m deeply troubled by it. We’ve worked in recent years to have our magazine better represent the state we cover, and while we’ve had some successes, our efforts haven’t been enough. … We have to do better.”

Charlie Strong was hired to make sure the Longhorns perform better on the field. His arrival is as good a reminder as any that Texas media has plenty of room for improvement as well.

Louis Canelakes
Courtesy of the Canelakes family
Louis Canelakes

As 2014 uncorks, it’s fitting and important to celebrate the enduring legacy of an extraordinary man who influenced generations of reporters—all from behind the burnished counter of a dark bar in inner-city Dallas.

That’s where the mercurial genius named Louis Canelakes dispensed beverages, encyclopedic knowledge and lasting wisdom to hundreds of journalists from around the globe.

Lou, no doubt the smartest man on the planet, passed away late last year, leaving behind not just a beautiful and loving family, but also an imprint on many reporters who shape the way we view the world. You will be following their work this year and for years to come. And that’s reason enough to ponder Lou’s importance.

One writer for The New York Times puts it this way: “He raised me.”

His friends told a story about Lou growing up in Illinois, where he was in charge of walking a neighborhood boy home from school. One day the kid veered into the street and Lou had to yank him out of the path of oncoming cars. It was something Lou would often do after he moved to Texas—he pulled one reporter after another to the right side of the story.

In the mid-1980s, Lou and his brother opened a tavern called Louie’s and it quickly became the most important media haunt in Texas—a distillery of ideas, editorial debates and news leads unlike anything else in that part of the country. Journalists from near and far huddled with Lou, seeking his expertise on sources, tips, the history of all things Texas, sports, cuisine, politics, music, weaponry, military history, Greek philosophy, horticulture, horse racing and how to approach the big-time judges, defense attorneys, secret agents, priests, school administrators and whistleblowers populating the back tables and booths of his joint.

Editors glanced up from drinks to see first lady Laura Bush walking in through the small doorway. Hockey players arrived with the only Stanley Cup ever won by a Texas team. ZZ Top’s promoter hung out in the corner.

There have always been places where newsies gather to wrestle with ever-inscrutable Texas: Warren’s in Houston, Scholz Garten in Austin, The Esquire in San Antonio. These de facto newsrooms are part of a journalism tradition that encompasses the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, the P&H Cafe in Memphis and reporter-friendly watering holes across America

But Louie’s surpassed them all. You could see that in the faces of the hundreds of people paying homage at his standing-room-only memorial service.

The New York Times guy had dropped everything to fly straight to town; so had the Boston Globe journalist and the former writer for The Wall Street Journal. There was a contributor to The Washington Post and Newsweek. There were stars from Dallas’ WFAA, muckrakers, nonfiction authors, photojournalists, and a sportswriter who’d won the prestigious Dobie Paisano Fellowship from the Texas Institute of Letters.

After the service, I thought about how Lou had taught me so many enduring lessons in those countless hours when we talked until the sun came up:

The best reporters are the best listeners. The best reporters run to cover race, inequality, and folks struggling to find whatever is left of the American Dream. (Lou spent decades quietly caring for the less fortunate. He kept at least one homeless man alive with hardly anyone knowing about it.) The best reporters honor ordinary people and loathe glossy pandering and trendy bullshit.

Louie Canelakes really did raise a legion of reporters, from Texas to New York. I learned more about life from him than I did at the three Ivy League schools I went deep into everlasting debt to attend. In time, I simply called him my brother.

Lou never worked for a news organization, but the reporters who loved him, like me, knew him as a role model for pursuing the real truths of life.

He pursued them every night at a humble little intersection deep in the heart of a tough Texas city.

He pursued them in his very own street-corner newsroom, where he always insisted to his reporters that love, grace, righteousness and human dignity reign supreme.

The Daily Campus masthead

Southern Methodist University’s newspaper, The Daily Campus, recently published an op-ed column by a senior student essentially saying that some women could save themselves from being raped if they didn’t get so drunk.

“Although it sounds harsh to place any blame on the victims of these incidents, if the media continues to place all the blame on the perpetrator, young college women will never learn that there is a way to help prevent these kinds of acts,” wrote SMU journalism major Kirby Wiley. “The best way for women to prevent these assaults from happening to them is to never drink so much that they cannot control themselves or remember what happened the next day.”

The piece in “the independent voice of Southern Methodist University since 1915” caused an instant uproar. CNN, The Dallas Morning News and the Dallas Observer picked up on the op-ed, and an online petition was created by the SMU Women’s Interest Network and SMU Spectrum, a campus LGBT organization, protesting the column as an example of “blame the victim” journalism.

Online comments were filled with blistering outrage: “Holy crap this is awful. The only one responsible for rape is the rapist,” wrote one reader. “You know what prevents rape? Rapists not raping,” said another.

The most stinging rebuke came in a letter sent to SMU President Gerald Turner from Jennifer Genson, who was raped during her senior year of high school and went on to graduate from SMU in 2007. She said Wiley and the student paper’s editors had not only misplaced the responsibility for rape, but denied women basic human respect. In the letter, which Genson shared with the Dallas Observer, she wrote, “By allowing this misogynistic, vitriolic, blame-shifting hate speech to be propagated under the guise of journalism—with or without its classification as ‘opinion’—you have stripped your students of that respect.”

Wiley defended her work to CNN, suggesting that, in fact, the media is at fault when it comes to coverage of sexual assaults, that journalists have somehow fallen down on the job and allowed an improper imbalance to creep into stories of such attacks against women.

“The purpose of my column,” Wiley told CNN, “was to call the media’s attention to an often overlooked side of sexual assault and rape cases on and around college campuses—the all too common intoxication of victims. I feel the facts of a woman being too intoxicated should also be included in reports, not to place blame or any additional stress on the victim, but rather to inform other women of this factor that studies have shown increases the risk of sexual assaults.”

Daily Campus editors were quick to stand up for their contributor, telling The Dallas Morning News that Wiley was entitled to her opinion, and that as long as the piece contained no “huge errors and lies,” editors had no “reason to censor a voice from being on that page.”

But response to the piece clearly suggests that explanation has done little to heal a divide over journalistic responsibility on campus. “The Daily Campus at SMU has published numerous sexist and misogynistic articles so far this school year,” according to the online petition engendered by Wiley’s op-ed. “The Daily Campus at SMU must stop publishing articles contributing to rape culture.”

Wiley seemed a bit shell-shocked by the storm of negative feedback, and that might point to the episode’s real lesson: that she and her editors hadn’t thought the issue through, and hadn’t submitted Wiley’s expression to an appropriately rigorous sensitivity test.

The column cites a Sarah Lawrence College study (actually, the statistics are sourced to New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault) that found at least half of all sexual assaults on college students are associated with alcohol use. Wiley’s piece also references a well-publicized case in which four Vanderbilt University football players allegedly raped an intoxicated woman. But the column fails miserably to present not just a persuasive argument, but an argument attuned to the victim-blaming language that too often informs, and deforms, discussions of rape prevention.

A slightly contrite Wiley did finally tell The Dallas Morning News, “I would have definitely reworded things because I don’t believe in blaming the victim at all.”

That’s as it should be, but that’s not how people read what she wrote. And because she failed to make her case with precision and sensitivity to the complexities of her highly charged topic, the young journalists at the almost century-old student paper learned a simple and powerful lesson: Words really do matter.

money

If you want to get rich in journalism, one way—maybe the only way—is to host droning conferences and symposiums to debate the fate of the news industry. That’s where the fat money in the news business is. Just launch another roundtable and let the Cassandras, Thomas Malthus acolytes and Chicken Littles have at it.

Then hold a panel discussion about how to monetize the news. To make sure you draw a crowd, bring Spiro Agnew back from the dead as your keynote speaker so the bribe-taking Nixon sycophant can explain why we need more happy news, and how it’s the investigative reporters, those “nattering nabobs of negativism,” who are driving the decline of the news business.

The fact is that nobody knows where the hell to find the profits to pay for increasingly rare kick-ass investigative reporting in a state as perpetually crooked and underreported as Texas.

The Texas Tribune has its model: Take donations from as many folks as possible and profess editorial independence from all of them. The Texas Observer scrambles from year to year relying on the wallets of liberals who like the magazine’s mission—or personally liked Molly Ivins enough to help keep the publication she once edited afloat. (You can tell from the magazine in your hands that it sure ain’t relying on advertisers.)

But bless us all, no newspaper has experimented more, tinkered more, or thought about survival in a big, public way more than The Dallas Morning News. Dallas’ daily remains the agenda-setting news organization in the state, and repeatedly changes direction in an ongoing attempt to stay financially afloat in this age of News 2.0.

Here’s more proof: The paper just quietly announced that it is abandoning a radical strategy it started in early 2011 with the erection of a paid firewall between customers and digital content. In that failed strategy’s place comes a new experiment; this one entails giving away the paper’s news for free, but charging customers extra for a “premium digital experience.”

What does that mean?

The Dallas Morning News, which is studied by every newspaper executive in America (while its stories are read and aped by most mainstream reporters in Texas), will now charge extra for “premium” content, which amounts to a multimedia-driven collage of extras including links and interactive material and advance notice of upcoming events. It’s like charging only for dessert, if the dessert is eye candy: some infographic appetizers, a side of salted social media, a flight of multimedia “experiences.”

In short, you’ll be able to go to the paper’s site and choose the free news option, or the visually enhanced option for $11.96 a month. It’s a model that The Washington Post has also been toying with.

Dallas’ daily has experimented before. The most horrific example was an abysmal failure called “The CueCat.” Basically, the paper distributed scanners that readers were supposed to wave over the printed paper, ads and all, while staring at their computer screen as related content suddenly appeared online.

It was like being asked to drive a car with a horse attached to the front bumper. That multimillion-dollar experiment is now enshrined in the annals of American journalism’s truly dumb moves. Friends tell me some of the scanner devices were used for target practice in Dallas urinals.

Still, that fiasco aside, no regional paper in America has been as aggressive in trying to map a route to its own survival. What’s happening now in Dallas will be monitored, and there’s a good chance it will be replicated.

The Morning News was once run by Ted Dealey, who was so steadfast in his arrogant extremism that he called President Kennedy, to his face, a little child—and then ordered his reporters to investigate ridiculous, scurrilous, salacious rumors that Kennedy had once been secretly married to another woman. It was Dealey’s version of the Obama “birther” story.

The paper has clearly moved on from those dark days. And now they’ve owned up to their monetizing mistakes. The firewall didn’t work, it didn’t drive profits, and it didn’t allow the paper to spend more on newsgathering.

So they’re tweaking again, and betting that the market for bells and whistles is large enough to allow the paper to provide the hard news for free. Because one way or another, news isn’t free.

Editor’s Note: When this story was published we did not mention that Bill Minutaglio previously worked for the Dallas Morning News

Rich Men’s Games

Jeff Bezos in 2010
Steve Jurvetson/Wikimedia Commons
Jeff Bezos

The big buzz this summer is the news that even more really rich men have decided to try their hands at reviving decimated legacy media outlets. Red Sox owner John Henry is taking over The Boston Globe. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, already pouring millions into a secretive spaceport and a mammoth “10,000 Year Clock” inside a West Texas mountain, just bought The Washington Post. Warren Buffett has forked over millions to build his 88-newspaper empire in Texas and elsewhere. And Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim continues to keep The New York Times afloat.

Maybe it’s just hubris. But with any luck, the new old-media moguls are looking to ape The Orange County Register, where two East Coast tycoons (one of whom made his fortune in greeting cards, the other with breweries) are bucking conventional wisdom. In the year since taking over, they’ve doubled the newsroom staff, put a renewed emphasis on the print product, and added pages. So far, they say, revenues are better than expected and circulation has rocketed.

Time will tell if it works, but one thing is clear regardless: The media landscape in recent years is littered with cautionary examples of Big Rich newspaper owners running amuck and retrenching. Think of real estate magnate Sam Zell’s disastrous oversight of the once formidable Chicago Tribune, or the conglomerate “saviors” of the now-ghostly Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom.

It’s a pretty safe bet that the dial will eventually point to Texas and one of the state’s large metro dailies will wind up in the hands of another mega-wealthy investor who thinks he can save it—or milk it dry. The Austin American-Statesman, on and off the market in recent years, is a likely candidate.

Some Texas media history might serve as a guide to the pros and cons at the nexus of personal wealth and journalism:
This magazine survived for years because of Bernard Rapoport, the Waco insurance executive who dearly loved Molly Ivins and all that The Texas Observer stands for. Rapoport always allowed the magazine to pursue an independent editorial vision. (Ivins, wealthy from her bestselling books and national columns, was also a financial lifeline for the Observer).

The Texas Tribune likewise exists because Austin venture capitalist John Thornton created and bankrolled it. By most accounts, Thornton has left reporters alone (typing “John Thornton” into the Tribune’s search box reveals no in-depth stories about him or the $3.8 billion firm he works with).

But now consider Rupert Murdoch’s late 1973 purchase of the San Antonio Express and the San Antonio News, early American beachheads in Murdoch’s global media empire. Murdoch came to Texas carrying a golden rule: Screaming journalism wins. The News ran pictures of young women in bikinis on page 3. Wacky headlines and newspaper vending machine “rack cards” were ordered to pump up the volume with teasers like “Willie Nelson Song Wakes Woman in Coma”; “Aliens In Desert Battle Over Urine” (for a story about border-crossing immigrants drinking urine to survive); and “Mom Bakes Tot In Oven.”

Bizarre newspaper-sponsored events were concocted by Murdoch’s Texas representatives: Can we start a contest to see who can collect the most dead rats in San Antonio … and bring proof to the paper? Editors once decided to juice marketing efforts by inviting readers to watch an escape artist, padlocked in a straitjacket, hang upside down from a 100-foot crane just outside the front door of the paper’s beautiful Art Deco lobby. Murdoch sold the merged Express-News in 1992, and it took the paper the better part of 20 years to cleanse itself of his mad-money influence—just in time, ironically, to bump head-on into the decline of the newspaper-dominant era of American media.

Today, Murdoch’s reign in Texas seems like a surreal anomaly, but it should also serve as a warning about what can happen when the wrong rich guy comes riding into town on a white horse.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst
Patrick Michels
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst

Willie Nelson, describing his idea of freedom, once said, “I’m from Texas, and one of the reasons I like Texas is because there’s no one in control.”

The truth of that observation was never more apparent than last month, when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst came unhinged at the statehouse and began threatening to imprison members of the Texas media.

Dewhurst’s freak-out bears examination, because it was one of those wonderfully revealing moments that shows how frustrating it can be for Texas reporters trying to gather facts from state officials. His knee-jerk disdain for the state’s press corps also pulled back the curtain on the Texas government’s increasingly antagonistic disrespect for the public’s right to know—a disrespect that began when George W. Bush and his designated media ass-kicker, Karen Hughes, began plotting ways to permanently change the culture—and the coverage—of the state’s political reporters.

Dewhurst’s gavel turned to limp roadhouse okra when he lost control of the Senate chamber, the clock and perhaps his mind in the waning minutes of the raucous statehouse “debate” over Senate Bill 5, the thinly disguised attempt to ban abortion in Texas that launched state Sen. Wendy Davis’ now-famous filibuster.

With elderly pro-choice advocates being hauled away by state troopers and fevered partisans hooting and hollering in the Senate chamber gallery—and seemingly no one paying any attention at all to the funereal-looking Dewhurst, the Lite Gov. apparently fell under the impression that fault for the chaos must lie with the Texas media. Dewhurst concluded that biased Texas reporters—not the procedural chicaneries on blatant display—were inciting the gallery to the noisemaking that ultimately blocked a last-minute vote on SB 5.

Dewhurst quickly decided to visit right-wing gasbag Ed Morrissey’s radio show to spell out his conspiracy theory. Terry Southern—the Texas genius who helped write the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, the sine qua non look at paranoid American politics—could not have made up Dewhurst’s monologue:

“We have reports, and I have my staff taking a look at the video, the Internet video that we keep, we store, on the proceedings of that evening, and if I find, as I’ve been told, examples of the media waving and trying to inflame the crowd, incite them in the direction of a riot, I’m going to take action against them. That is wrong. That is inciting a riot. And we have a provision that rules that if people do not deport themselves with decorum and they’re not respectful of the legislative process, one of our rules says we can imprison them for 48 hours.”

Dewhurst gets props for openly articulating the state leadership’s true feelings—a suspicion of the Texas media that has been a hallmark of the Texas GOP since Ann Richards left office. Richards was close to Molly Ivins, and she understood that statehouse reporters were doing their jobs—not advancing a creeping socialist agenda.

Even the increasingly delirious Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock—haunted by whiskey dreams and decades of backroom deals—messed with the media only selectively, and one-on-one, whispering in the ear of a Dallas Morning News reporter that he wanted to “fuck” the paper’s editorial page editor, for instance, or sending seductive roses to Ivins, or unleashing telephone tirades against reporters he claimed were smoking pot inside the Capitol.

Bullock at least had a wary respect for the Texas media—a respect instilled in him by Ivins. He’d once tried to “imprison” that most influential political reporter in Texas history in an Austin bar by refusing to let her out of the booth they were sharing. Ivins responded by knocking the most powerful politician in Texas on his ass, stepping over him and strolling away.

But it was Bush and his “communications specialist” Hughes who began orchestrating an aggressively dismissive stance toward the state media. Dewhurst merely inherited their playbook. But David Dewhurst is no George W. Bush, and his posturing has generated nothing but backfires. In a rare show of solidarity, almost every legislative reporter at the Capitol has expressed outrage at his threats.

Just maybe, those threats will “incite” a more probing scrutiny of Dewhurst and the statehouse. Not as a matter of vengeance, but as an expression of professional pride, and of a reawakened and reinvigorated sense of skepticism by the state’s journalists, who could hardly be blamed for wondering just exactly what the hell David Dewhurst is so paranoid about.

There is a lot to criticize about Texas media, including the paucity of true muckraking journalism, and especially in so-called legacy (i.e. mainstream) news circles. So when a brave project on an underreported topic appears in the San Antonio Express-News, it is worth taking note.

The San Antonio paper (disclosure: I worked there three decades ago) has been relentless in putting a human face on harrowing stories of sexual assault in the military and exposing the ways in which these brutal episodes are ignored. The work appears in a multimedia project titled “Twice Betrayed,” and it is without question one of the best recent examples of what reporting teams can do when given the time and resources to dig deep.

The seven-month project offers a hard look at some of the estimated 26,000 sexual assaults committed within the military each year, and shows how “victims who report the incidents often are retaliated against and discharged on false claims that they have mental disorders.” The investigation reveals that offenders routinely go unpunished and are often allowed to remain in the military. In some cases victims have been ordered to undergo “therapy” sessions with their alleged attackers, or were simply booted out of military careers that they once loved dearly.

The Express-News’ original pieces, featuring work by reporters Karisa King, Sig Christenson and others, spawned several follow-up stories, opinion columns and public condemnations, not just in the city but nationwide. MSNBC did a segment centered on the San Antonio paper’s findings. The New York Times referenced the paper’s reporting in a stinging indictment of the “military’s entrenched culture of sexual misconduct.”

The work out of San Antonio, which highlights several achingly poignant interviews with soldiers who decided to come forward and tell their stories, has its roots in the newspaper’s 2012 reporting on a basic-training instructor at Lackland Air Force Base accused of serially raping female soldiers. That early window into a malfunctioning military culture eventually circled back to a recurring theme: that servicewomen were being victimized twice—first by their attackers, and then again by a willfully negligent military bureaucracy.

“The response and retaliation that they often received from their chain of command aggravates their difficulties,” King told MSNBC.

One fact especially stood out as King investigated: “the striking pattern of psychiatric diagnoses that we were hearing victims talk about.” In fact King and her colleagues “did find indications that women are being diagnosed with these personality disorders and adjustment disorders at significantly higher rates than men in the military.”

Considering the city where the project was published, it is a singular work of investigative journalism. For decades San Antonio has been one of the American cities most closely aligned with the U.S. military. The military has always been the bedrock of the city’s economy, with close to 90,000 soldiers and civilians working on San Antonio’s four military bases. Some estimates suggest that military and related spending has poured more than $13 billion into the city’s coffers over the years. San Antonio even has its own Office of Military Affairs, overseen by retired Air Force Gen. Robert Murdock.

So pushing back against the city’s often impenetrable military community is a welcome sign of life at the 148-year-old daily. And proof that the investigation hit its target can be found in the fact that Sen. John Cornyn responded with a sympathetically angry op-ed that ran in the Houston Chronicle, the Austin American-Statesman and the San Antonio Express-News. Cornyn was moved by the coverage to support the Combating Sexual Assault in the Military Act, a bill sponsored by Sens. Patty Murray of Washington and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.

The sexual assault debacle revealed by the paper was “infuriating,” Cornyn wrote, and “with Texas being home to 15 major military installations and well over 100,000 service members, our state has a massive stake in fixing this problem.”

The Express-News story clearly did not come easy. King told the Houston Chronicle that she and Christenson initially had “terrible difficulty” convincing victims to go public. But they stayed with the story, and victims eventually agreed to go on the record. Now a project that started with a single military rape case in Texas is driving the national dialogue—and throwing sunlight onto one of the nation’s darkest secrets.

If you live anywhere but the University of Texas’ Austin campus, you might not care a whit about the fate and future of The Daily Texan, the university’s struggling, 113-year-old, student-run newspaper.

But you should, if only because it has been a wellspring for some of the best progressive journalists in American history. Before they went on to create or lead The Texas Observer, for instance, student editors Ronnie Dugger, Kaye Northcott and Willie Morris used The Daily Texan’s pages to blister the university over segregation, waste, and the school’s cozy relationship with Big Oil.

Once, when the university squelched a Morris editorial attacking the state’s natural gas titans, Morris famously left the editorial page blank.

It was that kind of heroic stand that drew scores of idealistic young people to the paper and to the profession. Old-guard legends like Bill Moyers started at The Daily Texan. So did new-guarders like Leah Finnegan, who helps assign and edit pieces on the op-ed page of The New York Times.

Even heavy-hitting political insider Mark McKinnon once served as the paper’s editor, and found himself jailed over a First Amendment squabble. Years after that crusade, he abandoned his progressive politics and became the media mastermind behind George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns.

The Texan’s influence is almost impossible to quantify. The paper has produced hundreds of journalists, some good, some bad, and some who have gone on to take the reins at prominent media, lobbying and consulting outlets. (Morris went on to Harper’s, where he published some of the finest American writers of the 20th century.) By dint of sheer longevity and size, the paper has helped define the landscape of American media.

But most of all, The Daily Texan has always been the best prism through which to view the massive Austin campus. Student editors and reporters hone their chops on a university bigger than many towns—an always-evolving beat that the understaffed Austin American-Statesman increasingly can’t cover.

But now there’s a chance that the largest university publication in the nation, the one that claims to have garnered more journalism awards than any other student newspaper in America, might simply disappear.

“Advertising, which makes up the bulk of The Daily Texan’s revenue, is declining at an alarming rate, and expenses haven’t fallen quickly enough. That’s the heart of it,” says Robert Quigley, a UT journalism professor who works with the Texas Student Media Board, which helps administer the paper.

The paper has been under the gun all year, facing proposals that would have knocked the five-days-a-week publication schedule to four days. Instead, the paper’s board voted to maintain the print schedule but to cut tuition reimbursements for some student managers.

In March, students learned that the paper’s veteran “professional adviser”—Doug Warren, a highly skilled fixture who spent a combined several decades at The Miami Herald and The Boston Globe—is resigning his position effective in June. For years, Warren has been the unsung spirit guide of The Daily Texan, letting the students run their own shop but autopsying every journalistic faux pas along the way.

There are going to be plenty of Texans who simply don’t care about these changes. But they should, even if they never went to UT. Here’s one reason why: over the last few years, Texan staffers (particularly Collin Eaton and Jordan Rudner) have done the best work in the state investigating the often-controversial University of Texas Investment Management Company, the nonprofit corporation that oversees the UT system’s investments. In January, the Texan broke a story revealing that even as UT-Austin banned smoking on campus, it continues to profit from investments in several tobacco companies.

Here’s another reason to care: “The Texan remains a powerful voice for the students, and it’s clear that the university’s administration reads and responds to the articles and editorials,” says Quigley. “You just have to look at the Texan’s coverage of the UT System’s Board of Regents to see that it still strongly serves a watchdog role.”

Watchdogging is a skill, and the Texan has always been a place where student journalists learn by doing. Now more than ever that opportunity needs protecting. Not just to preserve history, or tradition, but to give our next generation of watchdogs teeth sharp enough for the job.

A graduate student at the University of Houston recently uncorked the Armed Citizen Project, which may be a first-in-the-nation program, with the goal of distributing free guns to people in Dallas, Houston, and Tucson, Arizona (where Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot, 13 bystanders injured, and six killed in a 2011 assassination attempt).

The group, which is applying for nonprofit status, has already handed out at least 10 shotguns and will probably enjoy profile-building support when Wayne LaPierre and the National Rifle Association alight in Houston for the NRA’s national convention in May.

But the gun-giving group appears to have already achieved a side goal: unquestioning media coverage of its suggestion that the giveaway is designed to allow the group to “analyze” what happens to crime rates when guns are injected into Texas communities.

From the website: “The Armed Citizen Project is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to training and arming residents in mid-high crime areas with defensive shotguns, for free! In training and arming law-abiding residents, we are saturating neighborhoods with defensive weapons and measuring the effect that a heavily armed society has on crime rates. We are an organization that is not simply content to hold the line on guns. We are also training and arming single women in high crime areas, competing against gun buybacks, calling out anti-gun politicians as being pro-crime, and fighting the anti-gun establishment in general.”

When the organization launched earlier this year, several news venues quickly ran with the story. Houston’s CBS affiliate did a generally upbeat piece anchored by the assertion that the gun giveaway is really all about sociology and criminology: “A University of Houston graduate student says he’s conducting a study to hopefully answer the question being debated across the country, ‘Do more guns reduce crime or not?’’’

Dallas’ CBS station concentrated a good portion of its feature report on an elderly black resident of South Dallas who endorsed the distribution of free guns, which are apparently paid for through donations to the group. The story went on to consider the attributes of the 20-gauge shotguns being handed out. Gun aficionados claimed that shotguns are “the most effective” weapons for home protection, no matter the shooter’s competence.

“Even if you are off, you’re still likely to have something in your target,” a Dallas gun promoter told the station. Almost as an afterthought, there was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 10-second soundbite glued to the end of the report from a resident who said she just doesn’t like guns at all.

Then, in March, the group sent out another press release: “It is with great pride that we announce our new Anti-Rape Kit Initiative, in which we will be providing shotguns, ammunition, and training to vulnerable women in high crime areas free of charge… With our Anti-Rape Kit Initiative, we will aid in the reduction of the backlog of untested rape kits, by providing clear, direct, severe, and permanent consequences for the crime of rape.”

Almost instantly, Houston radio station KTRH posted a link: “If you are interested in signing up to get a free shotgun and training or want to donate click here.”

Finally, the Dallas Observer invoked a bit of healthy skepticism when it wondered whether the organization was really more interested in “trolling liberals” than arming citizens, and suggested that the group’s website hints at the giveaway’s real aim. The Observer’s piece noted that the group’s site says, “We are pissing off all of the right (left) people,” and “having a blast doing it.”

And to date, it doesn’t appear that any news accounts in Texas have explored the online endorsements the group has received from survivalist forums, or the founder’s LinkedIn page, which indicates he’s worked with the Houston Young Republicans, Ted Cruz’s Senate campaign, and Win Florida 2012 (a group dispatched from Texas to Florida to get out the vote for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan).

Bottom line: Kyle Coplen, the 29-year-old student who started the whole thing, seems to be having fun messing with the Texas media. In an interview later scooped up by Stephen Colbert, Coplen told Current TV (the only news outlet that has seriously tried to grill the group) that he’s having a ball.

“It makes me feel great. I get up every morning with a pep in my step, giving out guns . . . living the dream.”

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