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State of the Media

Chef John Tesar
johntesar.com
Chef John Tesar

Last July, Dallas bad-boy chef John Tesar (who won’t hesitate to casually remind you that he’s buddies with ur-bad-boy chef Anthony Bourdain) apparently had some wine and took to Twitter to tell Dallas Morning News food critic Leslie Brenner exactly what he thought of her: “fuck you ! Your reviews are misleading poorly written, self serving and you have destroyed the star system and you really suck” [sic, sic, etc.]

Eater, the online restaurant news-and-gossip empire of which I am a former Austin editor, jumped on Tesar’s tweet, and chefs both known (think Mario Batali) and unknown lined up to defend Tesar’s willingness to talk back to a powerful critic, if not his delivery.

Tesar’s outburst—which was brought on by a pretty fair three-star review of his restaurant Knife in the Morning News—opened a festering wound in a food-journalism community that’s struggling to find its footing in a world where Yelp, Twitter and Facebook have democratized criticism and undermined the power of big-name print critics.

Tesar told me he just wanted to start a conversation about who gets to play tastemaker in these uncertain times, and he wants to see an end to a star-based rating system he believes encourages diners to write off restaurants too easily. But he followed his incendiary tweet with what can only be called an online harassment campaign targeting Brenner. He threatened to release photos of the critic, who until late 2014 had operated in traditional restaurant-reviewer anonymity. He called her a “terrible narcissistic person” and wrote a scathing letter to her bosses, accusing her of violating journalistic ethics.

The paper stood by its critic, and Brenner responded with aplomb, dropping the anonymity—a move she told me she’d been preparing even before the Tesar kerfuffle. The Morning News published her portrait.

It sounds so simple: chefs cook, critics review. To borrow a phrase from Ina Garten: How easy is that? But with the rise of the Food Network and foodie-tainment like Top Chef, chefs are grappling with the balance between simply cooking and the temptation to build personal brands on the festival-and-TV circuit.

The terrain is also changing for traditional restaurant critics and food journalists, who now compete with an Internet-empowered commentariat for influence at a time when daily newspapers and glossy magazines are shedding full-time food critics.

Brenner told me she enjoys the competition, which she says makes her a better writer. At the same time, the new cults of personality (around chefs and writers alike) mean that talent doesn’t always win out. Controversy plays especially well online, even when it’s unwarranted. People love a good Facebook fight.

Brenner has been on the receiving end of legitimate criticism—none of it particularly unusual in the hyper-vigilant world of food writers. There’s the 2010 “barbecuegate” incident, wherein she was accused of plagiarizing the work of current Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn back when he was but a wee blogger. Over the years she’s made some factual errors and issued some corrections, which aren’t especially uncommon in journalism.

But Tesar’s vitriol has largely obscured his original intention and his perhaps legitimate complaint. His palpable anger at Brenner—he needed no prompting to launch into an hour-long rant about her when I called him for this story—situates him as little more than another Twitter troll. And it’s no secret that women—particularly women journalists—get much more than their fair share of abuse online.

Some Dallas chefs and restaurateurs who initially joined Tesar in public opposition to what they believe is Brenner’s intentional capriciousness—they claim she unfairly targets specific chefs and restaurants and withholds information that would enable them to meet four- or five-star criteria—have distanced themselves from Tesar after a December Washington Post feature on the feud.

Things have simmered down, as it were, over the last few months. Brenner told me she is excited to be newly non-anonymous, meeting the readers from whom she hid her face for most of her six-year career at the newspaper. She’s blocked Tesar on social media.

But Tesar is holding firm. He says he wants to see an end to the star system. He wants critics to ignore bad restaurants and cover the good ones. He wants critics to do more or less what Tesar wants them to do.

It may be true that star ratings encourage laziness in some readers, but Tesar’s singular obsession with Brenner makes his beef seem more than a little overdone. If he can’t take some mild heat, well, you know what they say about kitchens.

Being Charlie Hebdo

Peter Klein #JeSuisCharlie Charlie Hebdo
Peter Klein

Allow me to dig up some long-forgotten high school French: Somme-nous Charlie?

Are we Charlie?

I’m referring, of course, to Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine that lost eight journalists, four of them cartoonists, in a terrorist attack in Paris in early January. In the wake of the attack—which killed a total of 12 people and injured 11 more—the phrase “Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” became a worldwide rallying cry in support of free speech and solidarity with the magazine.

But what does “I am Charlie” mean in light of this leftist publication’s long history of publishing incendiary cartoons, many targeting Islam and other religions, that often use racist visual tropes—hook-nosed Arab men, big-lipped African women—in its South Park-esque crusade as an equal-opportunity offender?

I put the issue to Jen Sorensen, an award-winning Austin-based political cartoonist and graphic culture editor at Fusion.net.

“I was horrified by the attacks,” she told me. “It is a cartoonist’s worst nightmare.”

But she’s also struggling with responses to the attacks that demur from and even decry criticism of the cartoons themselves—a strange irony in light of the fact that Charlie Hebdo itself is a space where nothing is sacred.

“I’m seeing people imposing abstract principles onto realities without really taking into account the situation on the ground,” Sorensen said.

There is a tension here between the admirable and sometimes abstract principle of free speech and the real-world impact of cartoons that lampoon a marginalized population—for example, French Muslims, who have come under literal attack in the wake of the Hebdo murders, with bombing attempts at French mosques and Muslim businesses.

“I think you have to view this in a context and not in a vacuum,” said Sorensen. “And when you do, I think things become more complicated and you can’t be so simplistic.”

Standing up for and supporting the right to free speech, even—perhaps especially—for those with whom we might vehemently disagree, is honorable. But so too is using that same free speech to question, criticize and even condemn cultural artifacts that promote and reify damaging narratives about race, sexuality, gender, religion or any other trait for which people are oppressed or persecuted.

Who is empowered, and who is harmed, by depictions of hook-nosed Arab men in Muslim dress? Who are we laughing at, and who are we laughing with? We cannot simply stop at support for free speech when we talk about the murders at Charlie Hebdo; we must go further and ask: What do we do next?

Do we merely republish these cartoons—often without payment to their creators—and call it solidarity? Do we chant “Je suis Charlie” without considering the fact that many people—many of the most marginalized people—cannot align themselves with a publication that seeks to deliberately offend them? Do we empower those in French society who would oppress such marginalized people? Who is able to claim membership in the “Je” of “Je suis Charlie”?

“As a cartoonist, I feel a little like a doctor, where you want to do no harm,” Sorensen said. “I try very hard not to punch down. Yes, we can be irreverent and even tasteless at times, but you try not to punch down.”

Defending someone’s right to punch down is not at all the same as defending the downward punch itself. This is the problem with the idea of equal-opportunity offenders—it presumes that power is equally distributed. We know, of course, that it isn’t.

Take on the mantle of “Je suis Charlie” if you choose, but there is more to be done in the service of free speech worldwide. Sorensen’s suggestion: Support the work of Cartoonists Rights Network International, a nonprofit group that, per its mission statement, “defends the creative freedom and human rights of editorial cartoonists under threat throughout the world,” especially in countries where political cartoonists have been silenced, threatened and, yes, even killed for publishing their work.

“There are cartoonists around the world, people in the Middle East and South Africa, who really are doing intelligent cartoons that really do speak truth to power,” Sorensen said, but “they don’t get talked about when they get killed, it doesn’t make the news. We should give them the outpouring of respect and concern that we’re giving Charlie,” Sorensen said.

That’s not to take away from the terrible tragedy in Paris, but to add another layer of nuance to a difficult and ongoing conversation about Western privilege.

Larry McQuilliams
Facebook
Larry Steve McQuilliams

On Thanksgiving night, a religiously motivated political extremist on a suicide mission took to the streets of downtown Austin, wearing military-style riot gear and armed with illegally obtained automatic weapons and a van full of explosives, just as revelers from the surrounding entertainment districts were pouring into the street after bar-closing time.

Larry McQuilliams, 49, trekked across the city from the federal courthouse to the Mexican Consulate to police headquarters, firing hundreds of rounds and attempting—unsuccessfully—to set off improvised explosive devices along the way. No one was injured except McQuilliams, who was killed by police.

Following McQuilliams’ rampage, the Austin American-Statesman went looking for more about this homegrown terrorist. According to the Statesman headline, he was a Midwesterner who’d sought a “fresh start in Austin.” The Statesman went on to interview McQuilliams’ neighbor, Katie Matlack, who described him as a “very kind person” who was “frustrated.” (Later, Matlack wrote a first-person piece for the Observer describing McQuilliams’ relationship with his South Austin neighbors).

I thought of the coverage following the police shootings of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

A New York Times piece described Brown, who was stopped for jaywalking before being shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson, as “no angel.” After officer Tim Loehmann shot and killed Rice at the park gazebo where Rice was playing with a replica gun, the Cleveland Plain Dealer hurried to run a story about Rice’s parents’ criminal records, apparently desperate to associate the boy with criminality any way it could.

Surely these people must have done something to invite their deaths at the hands of law enforcement?

Meanwhile, a white Christian man plans and executes a terrorist attack in Texas’ capital and he’s just a nice guy who lost his way, a Renaissance Faire enthusiast in a tricorn hat who enjoyed tubing and trying to blow up government buildings.

This response accomplishes two things: It obfuscates the role of racism and white supremacy in the construction of the “victim” in our discourse, and it excuses white-perpetrated violence as a fluke, rather than as the not-illogical result of pro-gun, anti-government and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Austin police chief Art Acevedo was unequivocal in calling McQuilliams a terrorist, and local and national news outlets did pick up on that language in the brief spate of coverage following McQuilliams’ spree, though rare was the coverage that exposed and examined the connections between McQuilliams’ beliefs and mainstream conservative ideology about border militarization, the unassailable right to bear arms and an imagined war on Christian religious freedoms.

We heard no calls for a national conversation about religious extremism in the Christian community, no hand-wringing cable news pundits imploring American whites to get their violent males in line, no somber public statements from Christian leaders hurrying to distance themselves from McQuilliams and his ilk.

And while Acevedo connected McQuilliams’ motivations with right-wing rhetoric, he also called McQuilliams a “lone wolf.” Indeed, McQuilliams appears to have acted alone, but we should not pretend that his ideology or his actions came wholly formed out of some unfathomable ether.

Though his violent downtown tour blessedly resulted in no civilian deaths, McQuilliams follows in the terroristic footsteps of Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, and Joseph Andrew Stack, who flew his single-engine plane into an Austin IRS building in 2010.

The Southern Poverty Law Center keeps a tally of dozens of such plots and attacks on government buildings, abortion providers, gay bars, civil rights groups and minority neighborhoods. And yet the media ignores the pattern time and time again, choosing instead to focus on what a 12-year-old boy might have done to provoke a police officer to shoot him on sight or whether an 18-year-old Missouri man deserved to be murdered for jaywalking.

In the aftermath of McQuilliams’ rampage, one Austinite told a local news team that he’d seen the white man in riot gear and wasn’t immediately sure if he should report the gunshots. Maybe, he’d thought, McQuilliams was one of the good guys.

I don’t wonder where he got that idea.

Ebola tweet
The satire Ebola tweet that landed Twitter user @colin_dime in hot water.

Is a silly Photoshop prank the equivalent of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater?

The Frisco Police Department seemed to think so when officers took a high school jokester into custody in early October.

The student’s crime? Trolling his fellow Friscoans for their gullibility, playing on their willingness to believe hyperbolic news reports generated by a 24-hour news cycle ravenous for speculation about Ebola’s recent arrival in nearby Dallas.

Punctuating an Oct. 1 tweet with just the right amount of bawling emoji, the student—whose name has not been released—posted a pretty good imitation of a Fox News screenshot broadcasting the sort of Ebola story that readers might fear to find splashed across the Dallas-Fort Worth affiliate’s website: “6 New Cases of Ebola Discovered Within Dallas Fort Worth Area, Specifically Frisco ISD.”

Even a cursory perusal of the student’s Twitter timeline would lead a thinking person to conclude that he was goofing, but that didn’t stop the image from spreading, and in what appears to have been a matter of hours the affluent exurb was all afroth.

Parents kept their kids home from school. The district issued a soothing email: “… there is currently no reason to believe that the situation [in Dallas] presents a health concern to Frisco ISD students or staff members.”

Police took the teenager into custody for making a “false alarm or report.” Law enforcement authorities tell me he was later transferred to the Collin County Juvenile Detention Center, and that as of mid-October the case was “still under investigation.”

Juvenile incarceration. Over a fake news story attributed to an “AP Medical Scriber.”

Give the kid credit—imitating the local Fox affiliate was a brilliant move. Average Joes and Janes will find the “source” just reputable enough to not immediately dismiss the “news” as a hoax, and “Obola”-fearing Fox loyalists will treat it as the word of God Hisownself.

In the tweet accompanying the photo, the student perfectly captured the fear and confusion that’s run beneath the surface of news reports since the Ebola diagnosis of a Liberian man in Dallas was announced Sept. 30.

“… [O]ut of everywhere in the USA [Ebola] is at my EXACT HIGH SCHOOL.” This followed an earlier panic-belying chastisement that “Y’all know its [sic] not an airborne disease? You’d have to share body fluids to get it.”

That nugget—that Ebola is actually pretty difficult to contract and spread—has been notably missing from a great deal of the mainstream coverage so far, despite the fact that it’s arguably the most important information for reporters to relay to a jumpy public clearly ready to believe, and overreact to, just about anything.

The Dallas Morning News showed how CareFlite crews disinfect their helicopters. Television news broadcast a seemingly perpetual reel of hazmat-suited cleaners filing in and out of the Dallas apartment where patient Thomas Eric Duncan—who succumbed to the disease Oct. 8—stayed before his hospital admission. A WFAA-TV phone interview with Duncan’s wife used a spooky silhouette as a stand-in for the interviewee.

But this Frisco kid is thrown in the clink for pulling off a pretty solid Photoshop job? Even as the perpetrators of far more insidious Ebola-related fictions remain free to engage in racist right-wing agitation over what they claim is a very real possibility of the disease infiltrating the Texas-Mexico border?

Two days after the Frisco teen was taken into custody, Fox News Latino printed the headline “Border Patrol on alert after 71 people from hard-hit Ebola countries illegally enter U.S. this year,” building on Rand Paul-fueled fears of a “whole ship full” of American soldiers returning from Africa teeming with the virus. A week after the Frisco Fox hoax, Breitbart Texas didn’t hesitate to imply that the National Institute of Health’s infectious disease czar, Dr. Anthony Fauci, was either stupid or a liar when he called the Ebola-infiltration claims of Paul and others “far-fetched.”

These are real lies being spread by people with far more influence than a suburban Texas high schooler. This is real fearmongering, and it’s given morbidly gleeful credibility by people who get paid by the byline.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should imprison journalists, hucksters or hypesters. Freedom of speech and all that. But no more should the police be jailing a kid who used a computer to create a mirror that reflects our terrified faces right back at us.

Apparently it’s only OK to scare the shit out of people if that’s your main line of business.

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George P. Bush
Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons
George P. Bush

When Breitbart Texas, the Lone Star “vertical” of the right-wing news and commentary site Breitbart.com, launched in February, I was privileged to be one of its first targets. The site ran what I believe it was trying to pass as a smear piece about my abortion politics.

“Ms. Grimes doesn’t just want abortion,” wrote then-columnist and self-described “Breitbart protégé” Lee Stranahan, about my work for the site RH Reality Check. “She wants it freely available and she wants the state to pay for it.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Except when I say it, there tends to be quite a bit more cussing. Perhaps that’s why Breitbart printed the piece—plucked from my extremely public Twitter feed—with this pearl-clutching advisory: “LANGUAGE WARNING: ANDREA GRIMES UNCENSORED.”

Stranahan kindly warned me on Twitter that a storm would soon be brewing about me. He implored his readers to “please treat [me] civilly.” But I heard nary a peep from any of them. I didn’t even get any nice church ladies threatening to pray for me.

Whither the Breitbart Texas storm?

When Breitbart Texas launched last winter, Managing Editor Brandon Darby claimed the site was poised to “bring a voice to grassroots Texans,” and to “arm Texans … with the information they need to stand up against the institutional Left.”

Ten months later, I’m still wondering: Where’s the storm? As yet, the site hasn’t exposed the dark-blue underbelly of mainstream Texas journalism. Rather, Breitbart Texas has imported an inside-the-Beltway model of smear “journalism” that’s blatantly partisan, enthusiastically flakkish and of a type not commonly seen here in Texas. Breitbart Texas has positioned itself as a sympathetic ear and attendant mouthpiece for right-wing communications cronies tasked with grinding their bosses’ axes.

Case in point: This summer, The Texas Tribune quoted George P. Bush—currently running for Texas land commissioner—talking about coastal erosion in the same sentence as climate change, as if he believed the two might be related. It was a horrifying instance of a Texas Republican saying something that vaguely recognized the existence of climate change.

Within 72 hours, a Breitbart Texas writer fresh off a gig at the right-wing think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation stumbled upon an “exclusive” with the P. Bush campaign, running a convoluted attempt to reconstruct what P. Bush had really meant in his Tribune interview. That proved awkward given that the Trib had posted a transcript online.

But Breitbart’s Sarah Rumpf plunged ahead with her scoop anyway, writing,  “Bush’s comments and positions have been seriously misrepresented.” The headline? Rendered in CAPS LOCK, as are all Breitbart headlines: “REPORTER MISREPRESENTED GEORGE P. BUSH CLIMATE CHANGE INTERVIEW.”

Typically, a serious misrepresentation is the kind of thing that merits a conversation with the reporter and/or the editor. It’s something news outlets might consider addressing with a correction or a follow-up.

But Tribune Editor Emily Ramshaw told me via email that they “haven’t heard from George P. Bush or his campaign staff about the story or the transcript, and generally [they] would immediately if someone took issue with the story.”

Generally, that is, if right-wing campaigns were playing by old Texas media rules, rather than crying foul to a more malleable partisan site. As the Observer’s Chris Hooks noted in September, Bush didn’t need to try to “undo” his statements with a Trib correction: “Breitbart will do it for him.”

I asked Breitbart Texas’ Darby whether Rumpf has an knack for reading the hivemind of the P. Bush operation, or if this was an engineered smear from the campaign. He didn’t reply.

In the absence of a definitive explanation, Breitbart Texas appears itself to be guilty of the right-wing version of the very crimes it accuses the “institutional Left’s” Obummer-worshiping media lapdogs of committing. And at the same time, the site proved itself not loyal to the unruly right-wing grassroots, but rather to the Bush family.

Breitbart Texas: a little thunder and lightning but no rain. Didn’t anyone tell ’em we’re in a drought?

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A graphic, Dan Patrick offers on his campaign site for users to upload to their Facebook and Twitter profiles.
danpatrick.org
A graphic Dan Patrick offers on his campaign site for users to upload to their Facebook and Twitter profiles.

When the David Dewhurst campaign slapped a spinning bowtie on state Sen. Dan Patrick this spring, I knew Texas voters were in for something special in 2014, something that screams “elevated political discourse.”

Ideologically, every tea party race is a race to the bottom, but the guys vying for the Republican lieutenant governor nomination made sure the campaign aesthetics matched the overall tenor of the conversation: vague, sloppy, carnivalesque. 

Hence the spinning red bowtie pasted on a dancing Dan Patrick GIF featured on the now-defunct attack site TheRealDanPatrick.com, which made it appear as though the scariest thing about Dan Patrick is the possibility that he might try guessing your weight.

The pre-primary exchanges between Dewhurst and Patrick read as little more than juvenile schoolyard tiffs, scuffles between the boy whose daddy runs the factory and the boy whose daddy runs the coal mine, and Patrick ultimately trounced Dewhurst to secure the nomination. 

It’s probably a good thing we lost “Mountain Dew” back in May. One shudders to consider the chicanery his team might have pulled on Democrat opponent Leticia Van de Putte, an eminently qualified lieutenant gubernatorial candidate with the well-earned gravitas of a longtime stateswoman and a clean, forward-thinking campaign aesthetic that reflects the same.

Indeed, this year’s Democratic candidates roundly outclass their Republican opponents when it comes to graphic design, producing a steady stream of social media-friendly ads and online signage neatly tailored to target demographics, from purple LGBTQ placards to pink-tinged paraphernalia meant to appeal to much-coveted lady voters.

The Wendy Davis and Van de Putte campaigns cast a wide, generally well-designed net, their Twitter feeds full of grinning candidate photos and pithy quotes artfully arranged for Facebook users who love to post inspirational memes. Not feeling the stark, square, official “Wendy Davis For Texas” logo? Grab yourself a blue, cursive, “Generation Wendy” sign. Want to signal your support for a Latina lieutenant governor? There’s a “Viva Leticia” sign for that.

Meanwhile, the Dan Patrick campaign is constantly searching for new fonts in which to print “SECURE THE BORDER,” and GOP attorney general candidate Ken Paxton’s website features an unsettling and poorly clipped lineup of floating-head endorsements from right-wing lawmakers and lobbyists. Greg Abbott renders his name in a blocky, blue, seriffed type on a white background, which looks especially cheap on T-shirts, like something your church might print for its fall fun-run.

The cover of Wendy Davis' memoir <i>Forgetting to Be Afraid</i>.
Blue Rider Press
The cover of Wendy Davis’ memoir Forgetting to Be Afraid.

And yet the most notable design flub of any 2014 campaign so far is the inexplicably cringe-worthy cover of Davis’ memoir, scheduled for release this month. Davis is posed as if being photographed by the lesser of a very small town’s two portrait makers, then Photoshopped onto a despair-gray background. The title (Forgetting to Be Afraid—not so bad as fluffy political memoirs go) floats directly over her torso in an insubstantial blue sans-serif font that might be named “error: font not found.”

It looks like the cover of a self-published e-book, and we are going to see it over and over as journalists, talk-show hosts and reviewers plumb it for clues about what kind of governor Wendy Davis might be.

But shouldn’t voters cast ballots based on issues? Why should anyone care about kerning while the state’s water runs dry and our public education system is slated for sale to the highest charter-school bidder?

Particularly for Democrats, good design can build a bridge between unengaged voters and the candidates who need their support if anything is to change this November. It makes perfect sense that Democrats would try to wrap their appeals in prettily designed bows, and that Republicans wouldn’t bother.

Everything about the Republican reliance on stodgy serifs says, “Don’t you like things the way they are?” while everything about the Democrats’ aesthetically accessible imagery—some of which is sourced directly from fan-like supporters who love making Wendy Davis sneaker cakes and Photoshopping the candidate as the “mother of dragons” a la Game of Thrones—says, “We’re as different as y’all are.”

How that will play out in November remains to be seen, but if elections were won in Adobe Illustrator, Texas would turn blue in a brushstroke. 

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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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