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State of the Media

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.”

Access to public documents is the bedrock of investigative journalism. The godfather of modern reporting in America, I.F. Stone, built his reputation parsing the endless reams of neglected paperwork churned out by government bureaucracies, then using the often-overlooked documents against the government that produced them, resulting in a series of incriminating scoops.

Austin-based Ken Martin, a feisty 70-something former Marine who runs a small investigative news website called, has helped kindle a fire that could spread around the state, and might prove that the tools of Journalism 2.0 have leveled the media playing field more than most people realize.

Two years ago Martin began an aggressive one-man campaign to see if he could ferret out personal emails sent by Austin City Council members that might relate to public matters. Martin filed requests under the state’s Public Information Act asking for the emails, and when the city dragged its feet in response, a friendly lawyer filed suit, arguing that the public has the right to know if city council members are negotiating the public’s business in private.

The case ping-ponged back and forth, but in the end the city coughed up some of the correspondence, validating Martin’s belief that residents of Austin and other Texas cities are often subject to what he calls “government in the shadows.”

Martin’s lawyer, Bill Aleshire of Austin, is now working with attorneys in El Paso who are trying to obtain another batch of city council and city manager emails that might be tied to public business—in this case, communications dealing with a controversial plan to bypass a public vote and speed construction of an expensive new downtown baseball stadium in El Paso.

The Texas Attorney General’s office—rightly insistent on municipal compliance with the Texas Public Information Act—has been at war with El Paso city attorneys who have claimed that the act’s transparency rules are unclear, and that not all the requested documents need to be released.

Adding more evidence that non-mainstream sites like Martin’s Austin Bulldog are stealing journalistic thunder from Texas’ so-called legacy outlets, an El Paso website has sprung up to bird-dog the emerging El Paso documents. It’s called, and it describes itself this way: “Born out of the exposure of the downtown baseball stadium scandal, Chucoleaks is the regional aggregator of El Paso City Council records City Council does not want you to see.”

For his part, Martin is waiting to see whether other citizen journalists will challenge other Texas cities on similar grounds—perhaps Dallas Area Residents for Responsible Drilling, which has already used open-records requests to keep an eye on natural gas operations in and around the city.

“To allow officials to evade turning over the records of public business conducted on private devices and accounts would be to gut the Texas Public Information Act and permit the public’s business to be done in the shadows, instead of in sunshine, where it belongs,” Martin says.

But a 2012 study by The Center for Public Integrity (conducted by Kelley Shannon, a Texas media stalwart formerly with the Associated Press) reveals that there remains a lot of work to be done before Martin’s brand of investigation becomes commonplace in Texas. Shannon discovered that certain Texas cities consistently petition the Attorney General’s office seeking exemptions from release requirements. Dallas suburbs including McKinney, Garland, Mesquite, Plano and Arlington were among the places most prone to resisting open-records requests. (The AG’s office has referred to Dallas as a “repeat offender” in its resistance to public–records requests).

Despite such stonewalling, Martin is optimistic that citizen journalists will continue to pursue city officials.

“No one is asking for and no one wants access to a public official’s private correspondence,” he says. “We ask only for electronic communication exchanged with others about public business.”

Martin also expects his strategy to become contagious: “I hope it’s a virus that spreads rapidly.”


A recent headline-grabbing report criticizing Texas public universities for imbalanced teaching of American history—by overly emphasizing issues of race, gender and class—should be monitored by anyone who cares about the righteous mission of journalism in a state where true equality remains achingly elusive.

In the report titled “Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?” The University of Texas-Austin and Texas A&M University are cited as schools where 50 percent or more of history professors are “high assigners” of articles and books on race, gender and class.

It was the latest salvo in a seemingly unrelenting assault on education in Texas—an assault that could easily be turned toward another inviting target: statewide journalism departments educating thousands of future reporters and editors.

The impact of this new manifesto remains to be seen, but departmental debates are already popping up in its wake. At a minimum, the report has opened the window a bit wider for hard-line reactionary intrusions on and off campus.

Missing from most mainstream news of the report is the fact that it was funded, in part, by a member of the Texas media: Wick Allison, who created D Magazine in Dallas and also publishes The American Conservative (founded by Pat Buchanan, among others).

The report was written by the National Association of Scholars and unleashed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Austin-based free-market think-tank chaired by Wendy Lee Gramm, former Sen. Phil Gramm’s wife, who once served on an audit committee at Enron.

TPPF was founded 24 years ago by San Antonio businessman James Leininger, the wealthy Christian conservative who has consistently been one of Gov. Rick Perry’s most fervent financial backers.

Here is one line toward the end of the almost 50-page report, meant as an indictment of the way some Texas public university professors teach: “They . . . increasingly think of themselves as responsible for reforming American society and curing it of prejudice and bigotry.”

That’s also, of course, one definition of a journalist—at least as Ida Tarbell, I.F. Stone, Molly Ivins and many others would define the job. It could be argued it is also the definition of a good citizen.

If the old saw is true, and journalism is the first draft of history, what’s to prevent journalism programs from finding themselves in the same crosshairs currently trained on history programs? What’s keeping TPPF and similar groups from deciding that journalism programs in Texas’ public universities also need debunking and derailment?

What does such agenda-motivated meddling portend for the “Race, Gender and Media” class offered at the University of North Texas—or any class that attunes young journalists to under-reported issues of race, injustice, poverty, political extremism and women’s rights?

Why not insist that all state-funded journalism departments ignore the sobering facts of Texas’ often-cruel history—never mind its present?

Why not urge students not to tell the stories linking the historical padrone system to modern poverty in the Rio Grande Valley, and not to tell the stories bridging historical freedmen’s towns to the poverty of 21st-century South Dallas?

I asked two colleagues—thoughtful educator/journalists teaching young Texans how to report responsibly in a democratic society—what they think about the report’s conclusions.

“The heart and soul of good journalism is a sustained challenge to illegitimate authority. To not focus on race, gender and class would be irresponsible,” says professor Robert Jensen at UT-Austin.

“Since the 1960s, we have made substantial progress toward building a society that is a more inclusive society, one where people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and sexual orientations, are respected,” says professor Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, also at UT-Austin. “For us as journalists, it’s been an exciting development—finding underreported stories and holding up a mirror to our communities.

“We can’t understand our country, our state and our communities if we leave out those underrepresented groups. As journalists who seek to understand our world in a profound way, we absolutely need that research and those classes.” 

San Marcos Daily Record

The sale of the San Marcos Daily Record by an Alabama-based company to a limited partnership in Texas was announced on the last business day of 2012, capping a year of wholesale changes in the state’s community newspaper landscape.

These barely noticed changes often involve historic news outlets—hyperlocal venues once owned by folks who lived in the community, and often the most diligently read publications in their areas. The developments have been coming fast and frequently, and they should have local readers questioning who is now running their neighborhood paper, whether constant change of ownership is good, and whether increasing consolidation—often with local, family-run papers being subsumed into chains—is improving or diluting the quality of local coverage.

In November, four different publishers scooped up 11 papers previously owned by Texas Community Media: Atlanta Citizens Journal, Bowie County Citizens Tribune, Cass County Sun, Pittsburg Gazette, Daingerfield Bee, Mineola Monitor, Wood County Democrat, Lindale News & Times, Gladewater Mirror, Big Sandy & Hawkins Journal, and Grand Saline Sun.

Texas Community Media—run by the family that has owned The Victoria Advocate, Texas’ second-oldest daily newspaper, for three generations—had held those 11 papers for only six months before flipping them to various investors for undisclosed sums.

Operating through several business entities, Brenham-based Jim Moser also went on a buying spree last year, picking up the San Marcos paper plus five others that Texas Community Media had put on the market. Moser Community Media already owned The Jackson County Herald-Tribune, The Cuero Record, Yorktown News-View, The Mexia News, The Clifton Record, Meridian Tribune and The Robertson County News.

Meanwhile, California-based Freedom Communications sold six Texas papers for between $60 and $80 million to a partnership headed by former Dallas Morning News executive Jeremy Halbreich, formerly CEO at the Chicago Sun-Times during a period of cost-cutting and staff-slashing.

Halbreich’s AIM Media Texas is headquartered, in part, in Dallas’ Highland Park Village, perhaps the most exclusive business district in Texas. Six of AIM’s seven newspapers are located in deep South Texas, in Weslaco, Brownsville, Harlingen and McAllen, far from the Hermes, Christian Dior, Yves St. Laurent, Chanel and Harry Winston stores of Highland Park. (Before selling it for $80 million, Halbreich also ran American Consolidated Media, a Dallas-based outfit that owned 105 community newspapers).

Even Warren Buffett has noticed the media money to be made in smaller Texas cities, bolstering his growing investment in dozens of American newspapers by snapping up the Waco Tribune-Herald and the Bryan-College Station Eagle.

Community newspapers have loyal readers in places the urban technorati often overlook. A National Newspaper Association survey two years ago showed that in small towns served by publications with circulations of 8,000 or less, 78 percent of those papers’ readers said they read “most or all” of their local newspaper. This devoted readership is good news. The open questions are the effects of repetitive publisher turnover, constant changing of the guard, and acquisition of mom-and-pop papers by chains—the same sorts of changes that began afflicting large legacy newspapers in Texas in the late 1980s.

AIM and the other chains picking up Texas’ small papers are on record saying they’re committed to the communities their papers serve, and AIM even promises to beef up watchdog reporting.

But can that be sustained with so much churn?

The same weekend that Moser scooped up the San Marcos Daily Record, Buffett shut the doors on Virginia’s 143-year-old Manassas News & Messenger, letting all 33 employees go. Nothing so drastic has happened—yet—at the small Texas papers that have been changing hands in recent months. But the revolving doors can dampen consistency of coverage and erode institutional memory, allowing formulaic journalistic homogenization to creep in.

Studies show that smaller-city readers need and want their hyperlocal news—but will small-town Texas readers remain loyal, or be best served, if their hyperlocal paper is constantly under new management by people who’ll never be their next-door neighbors?

As the New Year uncorks this month, let’s imagine that you are just emerging from a very long self-imposed exile.

It began 50 years ago, after President Kennedy was killed in Dallas. The awful news drove you into hiding, and you vowed not to come out until half a century later.

Maybe you felt that an unquestioning and unblinking media had allowed a reactionary toxicity to wash over Texas.

Sure as hell the media will be different in 50 years, you thought, and hopefully more skeptical.

Now here it is, 2013, and you’re stepping back into the light to read today’s reporting—seemingly endless news space devoted to men complaining about a “socialist” administration and a union-loving president.

Texas should secede.

Liberal judges are rewriting the Constitution.

The president is a megalomaniac, a liar, a weak-willed rube . . . a limousine liberal morphing into a damned socialist. He is consolidating power in the White House.

What else?

Federal appointments are going to people who are only picked because they are “diversity candidates.”

The government is giving away free money to people who don’t need it, or deserve it.

The country is threatened by people who are not praying enough in schools, and who are not monitoring the dangerous books being read in public schools.

There is an invasion coming from Mexico that threatens our way of life, our jobs and our families.

A thought wells up: I read the same exact headlines 50 years ago.


I’ve been lucky to work recently with the brilliant Texas journalist/historian/writer Steve Davis (he did Texas Literary Outlaws, a wise look at some of the great Texas reporters) on a long investigation into media and right-wing hysteria in Texas from 1960 to 1963.

The project involves an acute examination of the way the state’s journalists covered events back then, and the ways in which they gave unquestioning credence to the anti-liberal, anti-socialist hysteria propelled by a small handful of people and organizations, basically enabling those voices to hijack the national dialogue.

Bellowing social conservatives and anti-Kennedy zealots in Texas—Gen. Edwin Walker, Rev. W.A. Criswell of Dallas’ First Baptist Church, and University of Dallas President Robert Morris (arguably even more fervid in his communist witch-hunting than Sen. Joseph McCarthy)—had their vitriol validated by constant, non-skeptical media coverage.

And as the media gave such extremism credulous coverage, it also gave it political oxygen.

Exhuming the old stories, Davis and I discovered time and time again that if you pull John F. Kennedy’s name out of the vilifying items that appeared in countless news outlets—excepting The Texas Observer and certain courageous newspapers serving black Texans, such as The Dallas Express—you can substitute the name Barack Obama and instantly update the dateline to now.

In the stories suggesting that Texas and the nation were under threat from socialists, simply plug in “the Tea Party” for “the John Birch Society.”

What you see, then and now, is an unquestioning media and a paucity of journalistic investigation into who is bankrolling the anti-White House and pro-deregulation movements, and what their real (profit-driven) agendas are.

Fifty years after Kennedy was killed, has anything changed?

There were countless stories in 1963 featuring aggrieved Dallas energy titans complaining about over-regulation, and claiming that Washington socialists were tax-happy martinets out to squelch the state’s entrepreneurial soul.

There were even dirt-digging stories slamming the president for “hiding” his personal history from voters.

Molly Ivins would have responded on point: Why offer the lying zealots so much acquiescent ink? Why not, instead, investigate the holy hell out of them?

University of Texas at Austin professor Don Carleton wrote a great book called Red Scare! that looks at how, just a few decades ago, a small group of Texas pre-tea partyers basically commandeered the state’s airwaves, front pages, city councils and school boards, and were allowed by a willing media to hyperventilate about creeping liberal conspiracies.

Fifty years later, as Yogi Berra said, it’s déjà vu all over again.

T. Boone Pickens
David Shankbone / Wikimedia Commons
T. Boone Pickens

The Texas media has a long tradition of reverentially lapping up the morsels doled out by über-rich Citizen Kings, as if those folks are sages on everything from private morals to public policy.

Looking back on 2012, journalists continued celebrating the billionaire who religiously funds Karl Rove’s shadowy political machines—champion fracker and oil driller T. Boone Pickens. Both in Texas and nationally, Pickens was offered routine access to the airwaves and editorial pages, to the point where he morphed into our twangy version of Donald Trump.

But in October, while Pickens was basking in hagiography, The Center for Public Integrity quietly noted that he had just forked over a million dollars to Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC, one of the heaviest supporters of right-wing politics in the nation, and one that gave well over $30 million to ultraconservative campaigns in the days leading to the November election.

And let’s not forget Pickens’ often-ignored-by-the-media history of underwriting the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry, in which he conspired with pro-Bush-dynasty Texas tycoons Harold Simmons and Bob Perry. (The New Republic did a brilliant piece in April tying Simmons, Pickens and Rove).

All of which dovetails with a charade that myopic media outlets still ape: Pickens’ promotion of himself as a born-again proponent of alternative energy.
Here’s one recent example of Pickens holding the media keys: Two days before the presidential election, Pickens was in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with a column endorsing Mitt Romney and slapping Obama (“… his administration has systematically launched a regulatory war on oil, gas and coal”). Karl Rove had to love seeing his bankroller ink a column in a swing state—one filled with moneymaking opportunities for Pickens to frack the holy hell out of the Marcellus Shale.

The fact that he is wrong about Obama’s energy record is almost beside the point. What the media really should investigate is why his once-ballyhooed “Pickens Plan” to promote alternative energy sources—when it was introduced four years ago some in the media embraced him as an Oilman-Prodigal-Son-turned-Rachel Carson—has, ahem, radically changed.

All the while, the media continues to ignore the fact that he is as consistent as ever in support of right-wingers pushing old, dirty energy.

Recently, tucked away in some diligent Minnesota newspapers, came the telling news that Pickens has abandoned his stake in a large-scale wind farm in that state. Earlier, he had slashed his once-lionized plans to build massive wind operations in West Texas.

Bottom line: Pickens spent 2012 pulling the plug, saying that solar and wind energy are not worth his time and money—while putting his muscle into the kind of mega PAC that makes a mockery of campaign financing.

In late summer, at an Amarillo forum, Pickens appeared in an easy chair for onstage musings elicited by The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith. The chat allowed the billionaire to reminisce about his big-money water-rights deals, his preference for natural gas and Romney, and his favorite college football teams. (After The Texas Tribune’s founding, Pickens gave a $150,000 donation.)

In October, The Dallas Morning News published a Pickens piece exploring “what makes the legendary oilman’s mind tick.” Pickens, now in his 80s and accustomed to unfiltered access to the media, said, “I start every morning with, ‘Does anyone have an idea of how we can make money today?’”

That same month, Pickens was in Louisiana stumping for Big Energy pols, where he was granted friendly face time with the editorial board at the Gannett newspaper chain’s The Advertiser in Lafayette. He told them, “You’ve got a bunch of these people who are very environmentally indoctrinated and they want to shut down the coal fire plants and get on wind. Well, wind doesn’t blow every day, so they say: ‘Solar.’ Well, the sun doesn’t shine every day either.”

Years ago, eccentric billionaire H.L. Hunt’s rants against “government regulation” were dutifully written about all over Texas—even as the Dallas anti-communist advocated a new Constitution wherein rich people were given more votes than ordinary Americans.

Maybe not a lot has changed.

A Texas reporter, someone who once embraced top members of the Dubya gang, once told me this about the statehouse press corps: “Only 1,000 people ever read our stories.”

His cynical thinking was that today’s political-media rat pack in Austin writes pieces that appeal only to the 1,000 lobbyists, operatives and opposition researchers snaking in and out of the high-dollar office buildings along Congress Avenue. There is precious little critical thinking, deconstruction, explanation—and nary a real human face on these stories.

The two best daily political explainers in the history of Texas—the late Molly Ivins and the late Sam Attlesey—are reaching for beer and cigarettes in their populist newsroom in the sky. Those two reader-friendly reporters actually got out of that incestuous Austin circle and roamed Texas, always aiming to explain what the hell national and local politics really meant—and the impact on ordinary Texans.

When I slaved at a big Texas daily, I once begged my editor to let me report on how Dubya’s so-called welfare reform policies were going to hurt people all across the state, and I counted myself lucky to bang out one story from South Texas that involved interviewing a desperately poor family living in an abandoned yellow school bus hidden in high weeds. I was never allowed to roam again.

Today, the state’s print and online dailies drown readers in a pool of data bits and tweets stripped of nuanced explanatory journalism and the voices of real people.

Here’s one recent example of the kind of news item that begs for extrapolation and interpretation—and a human face. It’s a political move that needs to be analyzed, by the media, for its impact on the people of Texas. Instead, the item garnered the thinnest mention in the Texas press.

The Washington Post broke the story that Texas is one of 19 states being booted out of the national collection of statewide election polls orchestrated by the National Election Pool—a consortium of major news organizations that has stewarded exit polls for the last decade. The Houston Chronicle did a small summation: “The elimination of Texas means that voters in the Lone Star State will not be polled about their choice for president or the U.S. Senate.”

Exit polls are always controversial, and sometimes they wind up breaking some of journalism’s cardinal rules (“cover the news, don’t make news”), especially when it seems that the polls begin to sway late voters. They are also infamously unreliable. Plenty of experts say that exit pollsters delivered vastly inflated figures for the number of Hispanics in Texas (and the nation) who voted George W. Bush into the presidency.

Still, exit polls are important not just to need-for-speed news jockeys in a rush to announce winners and losers on the evening news or the online front page. If conducted with cultural sensitivity, they can open a window into the soul of Texas’ rapidly changing minority demographic.

Latino Decisions, a polling and research firm run by professors from Stanford and the University of Washington, suggests that the mainstream media often does a poor job of polling Latinos and interpreting the results. If done right, exit polls can return more than numbers—they can tell you about people’s hopes, dreams and fears.

Now Texas has been sliced from the NEP consortium, in what is being framed as a cost-cutting move. Props are due to the Houston Chronicle for at least trying to understand the bigger implications, in a blog post that reads: “The omission also will prevent political scientists from comparing changes in the Texas voters’ views of social and economic issues over the past four years.”

If heavy hitters in the Texas media spend money to fill the gap created by Texas’ polling omission, it will be a minor miracle.

And even if they do, it would be a major miracle if they really put in the time to interpret—and put a human face on—that material. Something, anything, to get out of the insider ballpark.