State of the Media

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Patrick Michels
Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Texas Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial hopeful Greg Abbott gave the media a great gift this summer when he opened his mouth—and then quickly attempted to shut it—about his ruling on how much information companies that handle hazardous chemicals have to share with the public.

On May 22, Abbott ruled that the general public has no right to Tier II chemical inventories, which could be “likely to assist in the construction of an explosive weapon.” In July, responding to a growing outcry about the ruling, which seemed to contradict federal “right to know” laws, Abbott backpedaled, sort of, telling reporters that any Texan “can go to any chemical facility in the entire state of Texas and say, ‘Identify for me all chemicals you have on your facility,’ and you are entitled to get that information within 10 days.”

How would folks know where those facilities might be? “You know where they are, if you drive around,” Abbott said.

The problem with suggesting that folks “drive around” poking their noses into the dealings of chemical companies and fertilizer manufacturers is that, well, folks are probably going to do it. Especially if they get to bring a camera crew along. Abbott inadvertently issued the open invitation of every TV news producer’s dreams: confrontation with corporate baddies, film at 11.  

Indeed, Dallas ABC affiliate WFAA has been on the story since reporters there broke the news of Abbott’s ruling in June, having asked the Department of State Health Services (DSHS) about Tier II chemicals housed at a storage facility in Athens that caught fire in late May. DSHS responded that it could make those inventories available only to first responders and emergency officials, per Abbott’s May 22 ruling.

Just our trusty AG doing his part to fight the terrorisms.

The Dallas Morning News followed up in July, suggesting an alternative to the AG’s bomb-thwarting reasoning: Perhaps the ruling had more to do with a $25,000 contribution to Abbott’s gubernatorial campaign from the head of Koch Industries’ fertilizer division—a first-time contribution delivered five months after the West fertilizer explosion that killed 15 people and injured 200 more in April 2013.

We don’t know for sure whether terrorists could use information about Tier II chemicals to make explosives. What we do know for certain is that Texas facilities where Tier II chemicals are stored—and where they are under-regulated, which more or less means “in Texas”—pose a significant and demonstrated threat to public safety.

Without chemical inventories in hand, the public—and the media, acting as the public’s advocate—have no means by which to hold corporate entities and government agencies accountable for harm done. And history shows that harm will inevitably be done.

But in this case, knowledge alone isn’t necessarily power. Without a robust regulatory system, Texans can do little more than try to steer their families, schools, nursing homes, businesses and hospitals clear of these potential powder kegs—if they have the means to do so. For folks who cannot afford to move out of the line of fire or who lack the political or financial capital to lobby decision-makers for change—say, by making $25,000 donations to candidates—there may be little to do besides pray that the local fertilizer plant keeps a lid on it, as it were.

The media must and should be empowered to act as watchdog on behalf of those whose concerns would otherwise go ignored by the powers that be, and perhaps more important, by the powers that fund the powers that be. You could say Abbott’s ruling has backfired, leading more Texans than ever to get interested in the goings-on at their local chemical storehouse. 

But while WFAA’s reporting on the availability of Tier II chemical information has certainly been dogged, and makes compelling TV for those of us who are able to work through the second-hand embarrassment that comes from watching grown adults wilt in front of television reporters, it’s not particularly useful for those members of the public who need results more than ratings.

The best practical reporting on the Abbott/chemical kerfuffle has come from the Houston Chronicle’s Austin bureau reporter, Lauren McGaughy, who dryly detailed, in just a few hundred words, the outright rigmarole that Texans must now go through to obtain Tier II reports directly from chemical facilities—after, that is, they’ve driven around and found them. 

Road trip, anyone?  

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The Trouble with TribTalk

Trib Talk logo

The tens of Texans who’ve been waiting with bated breath to read Republican Congressman Steve “If babies had guns, they wouldn’t be aborted” Stockman’s ever-developing thoughts on the virtual currency Bitcoin finally exhaled in May, when Stockman took to the pixeled pages of The Texas Tribune’s new op-ed offshoot, TribTalk, to chastise the federal government for its “costly, job-killing” approach to taxing the modern libertarian’s favorite legal-ish tender.

TribTalk bills itself as “an op-ed page for the 21st century” and purports to provide “pointed, provocative perspectives” on a wide range of issues affecting Texans.

The site has so far featured columns from Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, Republican lieutenant governor candidate Dan Patrick and sitting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst alongside a host of lesser-known strategists, lobbyists and campaign veterans. Columnists aren’t compensated by the Tribune, though some must certainly be recruited in pursuit of a predictable pairing of counter-perspectives on almost every issue—whether those perspectives are warranted by good sense, good science, or even good conscience.

TribTalk also invites reader submissions and offers “paid placement,” $2,500-a-pop sponsored content marked on the site by a differentiated background color. Plain old ads start at $12,500.

This latest Tribune venture may be a 21st-century op-ed page, but it’s hardly an innovation. It perpetuates a top-down model of discourse that privileges the privileged and lends credibility to the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz, who’s already used TribTalk to decry the influence of “big donors” on energy policy.

In a post-Citizens United America, where the political conversation is increasingly dominated by voices best able to buy the highest-ranking ears, and struggling publications lean on hyped-up headlines and thinly veiled advertorials, TribTalk so far looks like a Huffington Post-wannabe more concerned with clicks than content.

Smart reporting from the Tribune’s hyper-focused beat journalists keeps our state’s storied dailies on their toes, but TribTalk merely engenders horse-race political writing. A verifiable crackpot like LaRouche Democrat Kesha Rogers can enjoy a byline alongside outgoing University of Texas Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis.

The obvious rejoinder is that hey, it’s just an op-ed page. The Tribune isn’t endorsing John Cornyn’s laughable support for a racist voter ID law that a federal court declared was expressly intended to disenfranchise minority voters, and TribTalk certainly does publish a bipartisan array of views. And yes, it clearly labels its “paid placement” content.

But the Tribune can’t have it both ways. Either politicos and institutional gatekeepers want to be published in TribTalk because it is valuable media real estate under the imprint of a rising name in Texas journalism, or it’s a free-for-all (er, free-for-some) blog with no editorial oversight and no meaningful connection between its brand and its bylines.

I suspect that the Tribune would like to see TribTalk as the former. Indeed, in its own “paid placement” guidelines, the Tribune reserves the right to “refuse publication of any content that undermines the integrity of its brand.”

TribTalk simultaneously asks too much and expects too little of a readership that appreciates the Tribune’s ostensible non-partisanship. TribTalk lets its deeply biased writers float untethered from political reality in what feels like a bizarre attempt to act as a somehow objective clearinghouse for unbridled partisan posturing. Republican campaign veteran Ray Sullivan is billed as a “political consultant.” Liberal gadfly Harold Cook is identified as a “public affairs consultant.” A couple of clicks will take readers into more detail—Cook is a Democratic commentator and Sullivan worked as a spokesman for Bush-Cheney and later Rick Perry—but there’s no reason not to be more initially forthcoming, particularly on a web platform without the printed page’s space limitations.

If TribTalk wants to be taken seriously, it might start by applying its “paid placement” guidelines to its unpaid content, vetting its submissions more thoughtfully, increasing transparency and soliciting opinions with real teeth, rather than simply curating a click-bait puppet show.

Unless, that is, TribTalk wants to be known as the kind of place readers turn to for Steve Stockman’s thoughts about Bitcoin.    

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Gov. Rick Perry addresses the Republican state convention in Fort Worth. June 5, 2014.
Christopher Hooks
Rick Perry speaking at the 2014 state Republican convention.

The New York Times dutifully took note of Toyota’s late-April announcement that it will move its corporate headquarters from Southern California to Plano over the next three years. The nation’s paper of record reported that as many as 4,000 employees may be relocated, and then added a celebratory couple of sentences:

“The move is a victory for Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and his campaign to woo businesses from California. Toyota considered several sites in the United States before deciding on the Dallas area, where taxes, real estate and other costs are considerably lower than California’s.”

The Times piece neglected to mention that the move by Toyota—a company posting $23 billion in 2013 profits—will be greased with $40 million from Rick Perry’s Texas Enterprise Fund (TEF).

The TEF is an under-scrutinized program that Texas’ mainstream media routinely ignores. Worse, the fund’s “successes” are often celebrated blindly.

Perry advertises the TEF as a carrot to lure jobs to Texas. But critics have long maintained that it’s more a Perry slush fund designed to help political patrons. The TEF has drawn the attention of Mother Jones, which did a takedown last year. And critics on the left and the right have called it one of the biggest examples of corporate welfare in America. For example: In 2012, Apple, Inc. got $21 million from the TEF (despite having more cash in its coffers than the United Kingdom has in its treasury) to help open a new Austin campus, and last year Chevron ($240 billion in 2012 revenue) picked up $12 million in TEF money for an office expansion in Houston (see “Oiling the Skids for Chevron in Houston,” July 29, 2013).

The problem is that there’s little evidence the TEF money does what Perry says it’s supposed to. And since the money is appropriated by the Legislature out of the state’s general fund, it’s effectively taken out of the hands of desperately necessary and chronically underfunded programs throughout the state: children’s health insurance, environmental remediation, mental health services, anti-poverty programs, and on and on. But in the recent breathless media coverage about Toyota, precious few Texas reporters have explored Perry’s largesse, and whether the Toyota money—one of TEF’s biggest gifts ever—could be put to better use. 

Even fewer members of the Texas media are holding Wendy Davis and Greg Abbott to account about their respective plans for the TEF once Perry leaves office. The Texas Tribune did take a stab at it earlier this year, and in a more recent and incredibly prescient instance, The Beaumont Enterprise ran an editorial two days before the Toyota announcement asking whether Davis or Abbott would have offered the grant. The paper boldly said that Perry’s “pet” project needed “a strict accounting of all profits and losses.” 

But why aren’t Texas news outlets doing their own audits of every dollar Perry has handed to Oracle, Dow Chemical, Home Depot, Visa, Frito-Lay, Kohl’s Department Stores, Facebook, Petco, Lockheed Martin, T-Mobile, even the U.S. Bowling Congress?

Lauren McGaughy of the Houston Chronicle, the state’s biggest paper, did a story in which Toyota admitted that the car giant didn’t actually care about the $40 million, thank you very much. “That wasn’t one of the major reasons (in) deciding to go to Texas,” Toyota spokesperson Amanda Rice told the Chronicle.  

Texas Monthly, meanwhile, opined that TEF’s Toyota grant is “Expensive, to be sure, but hopefully the investment will put a muffler on critics.” And mirroring The New York Times, The Dallas Morning News wrote that “Toyota’s decision to build a new North American headquarters in Plano gives Gov. Rick Perry more bragging rights.” The TEF is mentioned in that piece’s ninth paragraph, but with no reference to its controversies. 

Echoing the others, Forbes posted a horserace piece concentrating almost exclusively on the “Texas vs. California” angle. Forbes trotted out one of the state’s stalwart quote machines on economic development, Southern Methodist University’s Bernard Weinstein, who told the magazine that Texas could offer Toyota “some excellent suburban school systems where, I assume, most of the kids [of Toyota staffers] will be attending.”

It was perhaps an unsubtle nod to the fact that the white-collar Toyota employees coming to Texas will be earning salaries in the six-figure range.

And maybe it was an unsubtle reminder as well that the Texas media needs to do more to report on whether it’s good public policy to throw money we can’t afford at companies that don’t need it.   

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Evan Smith
Evan Smith

Jim Moore—the ballsy writer behind the Karl Rove takedown Bush’s Brain—began tarring The Texas Tribune early this year, and the fallout is lingering.

On his own site and in The Huffington Post, Moore writes that the Tribune has a history of being too aggressively cozy in courting the powerful interest groups that also happen to fund it.

Moore makes the case for guilt by association, and argues that the Tribune needs to distance itself from philosophical or even physical proximity to the folks giving it money. He might not have proved that the Tribune’s reporting is sullied by the money it receives, but he sure suggests that readers can’t be faulted for noticing a perception problem.

Since former Texas Monthly editor Evan Smith co-founded the nonprofit online publication in 2009, the Tribune has employed some of the finest, most ethical reporters in the nation. Investigative Reporters and Editors just honored the Tribune with an award for “innovations in watchdog journalism.”

Even so, according to Moore, “Smith has created a kind of carnival barker approach to news and sidling up to power brokers and the wealthy … The Texas Tribune he built is cancerous and must be euthanized. If a new version is born, it must have new leadership.”

This isn’t the first time questions have emerged. The Observer pointed out in 2012 that billionaire T. Boone Pickens and Smith performed a series of “road shows” together, set against the background of Pickens’ $150,000 contribution to the Tribune.

All news outlets deserve such scrutiny. When the late Waco insurance man Bernard Rapoport gave money to the Observer (the Rapoport Foundation still does), critics thought he was paying to advance his own socialist-liberal agenda. When I worked at The Dallas Morning News, the paper was accused of bowing to major advertisers like Neiman Marcus.

Since Moore’s attacks, Tribune editor Emily Ramshaw has been eloquently defending her publication, and writing about new ways the Tribune will let readers know who funds it. “We hope,” she wrote on the site, “these new standards … will make us the most transparently funded news organization in the country.”

Here is one example of the painstaking new full-disclosure policy, affixed to a recent story about the donors supporting Gov. Rick Perry’s national marketing of Texas to business:

Disclosure: Paul Foster was a major donor to The Texas Tribune in 2011 and 2013. Western Refining, where Foster serves as chairman of the board, is a corporate sponsor of the Tribune. Bruce Bugg is chairman and trustee of the Tobin Endowment, which is a major donor to the Tribune. The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of the Tribune; Southern Methodist University was a corporate sponsor of the Tribune in 2013. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

 

Donations don’t necessarily equal influence, but in the end it doesn’t matter whether perceptions about a publication are driven by innuendo or facts. Perceptions are shaped regardless, because news consumers are more skeptical of the media than ever.

One big-time Texas lobbyist-consultant, someone so deep inside the statehouse he can touch its cold heart, told me in an interview that public perception of the Tribune is defined primarily by Smith, whom he christened “the new Cactus Pryor.”

Cactus Pryor was the legendary Austin broadcaster who morphed into the most ubiquitous of media figures in Texas, the “go-to” guy when politicians needed a roastmaster, or when a chamber of commerce needed someone to induct a Big Shot into the local Hall of Fame.

Smith is running a serious news organization, not a rent-an-emcee service, but the brouhaha isn’t going away if someone at the core of the state’s political firmament sees him as an omnipresence hopping on stages with the powers-that-be.

The conundrum points to how fine a line the brave new world of nonprofit journalism has to tread in the search for viable business models. Access to the state’s heavy-hitters can put readers close to important news and sources. But the perception of favor toward those same heavy-hitters is an obvious pitfall. Readers might begin to wonder what really happens when you dance too closely with the bigwigs what brung ya. And that’s when image can start to overshadow all of that hard-earned journalism.

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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.

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