State of the Media

For the last few months, the Houston Chronicle has transfixed the city with an internal fandango that seems like a mashup of La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini’s nod to journalism, and Miss Lonelyhearts, Nathanael West’s brilliant take on the Fourth Estate.

A Chronicle reporter was covering Houston high society until the feisty Houston Press revealed that she had been working as a stripper. High-profile feminist attorney Gloria Allred recently joined the fray, representing the reporter, who was apparently fired by the newspaper for not indicating her other work on her employment application.

At the center of this story is a sticky ethical conundrum that keeps labor lawyers gainfully employed: Do the past—and extracurricular—activities of journalists have anything to do with their “day gigs” as news providers?

For a decade, the Houston Chronicle has been looking for an heir to the legendary Maxine Mesinger—easily the most famous chronicler of high-and-mighty society in Texas. For almost 40 years, Mesinger subtly mocked and unabashedly celebrated Houston’s power circles. The columnist’s self-referential catchphrase was “She Snoops To Conquer.”

When she died in 2001, some feared a desperate Chronicle would eventually import fizzy tabloid gossip gatherer Lloyd Grove, who honed his craft at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and The Dallas Morning News. Others wanted Douglas Britt, the Chronicle’s respected art critic and part-time society writer, to do a full-blown, post-modern column about the guarded Houston elite.

But last year, Britt left the paper and then blogged that he had once been a male escort. He still writes at Reliable Narratives, as “an artist, critic and gay sex worker—an escort and occasional adult-video performer—I’m the visual arts editor of Arts + Culture Houston magazine and the former art writer and society reporter for the Houston Chronicle.”

Following Britt, Sarah Tressler, an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Houston, was entrusted with doing some of the Chronicle’s coverage of society functions. In March, the Houston Press reported that Tressler was the anonymous author of the “Diary of An Angry Stripper” blog and had worked as an exotic dancer. A week later, she was fired from the biggest newspaper in Texas.

New York magazine, Radar, The Huffington Post, The New York Daily News and The Los Angeles Times picked up the story. Tressler hired attorney Allred, who said:

“Most exotic dancers are female, so to terminate an employee because that employee had previously been an exotic dancer would have an inverse impact on women, since it’s a female-dominated occupation. Terminations like this would also discourage women from trying to improve their lives.”

Tressler has filed a gender discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In her one-page document, she says she was canned “because my prior activity as an adult dancer was not disclosed when I applied for the job [at the Chronicle]. I believe that the stated reason for my termination was pretextual in that I answered the questions that were put to me truthfully in connection with my application for employment. The true reason for my termination was discrimination on account of my gender.” She maintained she was an independent contractor, an entrepreneur.

The newspaper has refused media inquiries about Tressler. A brisk, dutiful May 11 story about her complaint read, “The Chronicle declined to comment.”

That article also noted that Tressler was very pleased to be working with Allred– who is well known for tightening the screws on everyone from Rush Limbaugh to Tiger Woods to disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner.

“Couldn’t ask for anyone better by my side… So grateful,” Tressler tweeted on May 10.

Clearly, journalism still doesn’t pay much. (Britt has astutely blogged about this subject.) There is little job security. Today, editors everywhere are telling reporters to be fiercely entrepreneurial at work; build “brands” through Facebook and Twitter; develop high profile, public platforms; seize any multimedia opportunity and, well, do several jobs at once.

In the end, an inherent hypocrisy creeps in: The very institutions pushing for all those aggressive, new ways to monetize the news sure as hell don’t want their journalists to be too entrepreneurial in their private lives.

Other than coverage of Mexico, there is almost no original international reporting by the Texas media anymore, leaving Texans increasingly in the dark as we experience the ripple effects of events abroad.

The Texas Observer’s courageous Melissa del Bosque routinely travels across the Rio Grande to cover Mexican issues. The Houston Chronicle’s Dudley Althaus has been a rock-steady, fearless reporter living in Mexico for over two decades. Alfredo Corchado of The Dallas Morning News has been on the front lines from the newspaper’s bureau in Mexico City. Almost any other international reporting for a state audience by Texas publications is now practically non-existent. Almost every media outlet in Texas has slashed its foreign news budget—as have most national news organizations—in response to economic pressures.

A count by American Journalism Review last year found only 230 foreign correspondents employed by U.S. newspapers, down from 307 in 2003, when the last AJR survey was conducted. (The AJR study showed only Althaus and Corchado working abroad for Texas publications).

Texas does have a precious few magazine correspondents who sometimes roam abroad, including The New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright (based in Austin, and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11) and Forbes’ Christopher Helman (based in Houston, who occasionally covers the energy industry’s power plays in Saudi Arabia and Qatar). Arguably Texas’ most well-traveled international reporter is National Public Radio’s John Burnett. He routinely jets to cover natural disasters in Haiti or Japan for the national radio audience.

The sad fact is that the dearth of foot soldiers covering international news on behalf of Texas media outlets has often allowed xenophobes to go unchallenged. Billionaire T. Boone Pickens loves summoning the foreign bogeyman as he touts natural gas as a “patriotic” alternative to imported oil. The search for alternative energy sources is one issue, but employing jingoistic tones is another. And the media in Texas still too often stumble on their idolatry of the state’s citizen kings—especially the international oilmen—and don’t drill down on how these powerful business leaders may be swaying U.S. foreign policies for their own corporate benefit.

With Texas’ ascension to certified Super State status and the deep inroads made here by foreign corporations such as British Petroleum, there are clear reasons for Texas media outlets to cover more foreign news. Never mind that Houston and Dallas are filling with immigrants from every corner of the globe.

Beginning in the 1980s, there was an incredible surge in ambitious foreign coverage led by Texas reporters: The Dallas Morning News won Pulitzers for its photojournalism about Romanian orphans and the war in Iraq. It won an international reporting award for a powerful investigative series into global violence against women. The best foreign correspondent in the history of Texas newspapers, Ed Timms, covered the hottest spots: Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, the Palestinian territories, Angola, the Balkans, Haiti and Zaire.

For a while, the Morning News seemed almost hellbent on proving its international mettle. The paper opened bureaus in Berlin and Toronto and many other major international cities and several correspondents (including me) were dispatched to cover strife in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, East Germany, the Soviet Union and the Philippines. The Houston Chronicle and Fort Worth Star-Telegram also had coverage from abroad, some leading to Pulitzers and other major prizes.

The Dallas paper even set up a Havana bureau in 2000. At the time, that bureau seemed to be some sort of symbolic last stand for Texas-tied international reporting. The bureau closed in 2004, and with it rang a death knell for foreign news’ heyday in Texas.

For now, there isn’t much to be done about it—other than tune into NPR and read The New York Times and The Economist, or search your other favorite online sources. And hope some reporter out there has seen the ties that bind this country called Texas to events around the world.

Either that, or you can read some more numbingly simplistic, subservient coverage of Texans who embrace natural gas as a surefire way to give the middle finger to all those wicked foreigners— from Venezuela to the Middle East.

For the next several months, plenty of eyes will turn to Texas for insider intelligence. The emails of Austin-based firm Stratfor, a private global security analysis company, have been hacked and given to WikiLeaks.

In late February, WikiLeaks started publishing more than five million emails from the company; the process could go on for months, maybe years. WikiLeaks has partnered with 26 media outlets around the world, including Rolling Stone, to analyze and provide news coverage about the material. None of the outlets are in Texas.

Initial findings from the correspondence underscore the sadly redundant and deliberate ways that Big Government and Big Business work together. There is a mash-up of surveillance details about political campaigns and activist organizations. There are insights into how Dow Chemical, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are linked to the Obama administration, and hints about how the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Marines fit into the mix.

Beyond the evidence of government-and-business collusion, the emails contain disturbing suggestions about the relationship between reporters and the elusive world of “intelligence gathering,” in which reporters can grow far too close to the people they cover, influencing what they report and how they report it. It’s an old problem, one that scorched former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, whose exclusives about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were later proved wrong.

Stratfor has posted a note on its website that should resonate with anyone who questions how journalism is practiced:

“Stratfor has worked to build good sources in many countries around the world, as any publisher of geopolitical analysis would do. … We have developed these relationships with individuals and partnerships with local media in a straightforward manner, and we are committed to meeting the highest standards of professional and ethical conduct.”

Alternately, here’s what WikiLeaks had to say about how reporters from Argentina to Azerbaijan delivered information to Stratfor’s offices in downtown Austin:

“Stratfor did secret deals with dozens of media organisations and journalists—from Reuters to the Kiev Post … While it is acceptable for journalists to swap information or be paid by other media organisations, because Stratfor is a private intelligence organisation that services governments and private clients these relationships are corrupt or corrupting.”

The reaction in the U.S. media says volumes. The Nation and Rolling Stone are predictably not lingering over how the emails were lifted from Stratfor. Rather they are fixated on what the emails contain. The New York Times, on the other hand, has noticeably shied away from the content of the emails, instead concentrating on criminal allegations and the role the FBI has played in investigating “data stolen from Stratfor.” Good luck finding any drilled-down work in the Texas media about the information contained in the emails, or the extent to which it was gathered from working journalists here and abroad.

That lack of coverage doesn’t just indicate a lack of curiosity, but an ongoing culture in Texas media circles: Intelligence organizations, spin doctors and think tanks have long relied on sympathetic state journalists. Some young Austin journalists go to work as “open source intelligence monitors” for Stratfor. Some do research for Public Strategies (run in part by Mark McKinnon, who years ago was the crusading editor of The Daily Texan, the University of Texas at Austin student newspaper, before he single-handedly invented George W. Bush’s media campaigns). Some journalists even move on from years at the liberal news weekly The Austin Chronicle to become affiliated with conservative policy shops like The Manhattan Institute.

Such “exchange” of information may also be less deliberate than the deals suggested in the Stratfor/WikiLeaks revelations. It could take other forms, maybe some social lubrication at The Austin Club, The Petroleum Club, The Houston Club.

One thing is sure: More emails are coming this year. And the more the story is ignored in the Texas media, the more it says about the Texas media.

I recently exchanged emails with a reader about whether one has to have some sort of socio-cultural DNA to actually get this place—to really decipher Texas. Do you have to be from here to understand here, and to do the public-service journalism that is the connective tissue between justice and truth?

An easy answer is embodied in the extraordinary legacy of the late Barbara Karkabi, one of the finest journalists in the state—ever. To me and countless other journalists, she was proof that if you carry enough love and understanding into the contract you broker with the people you interview, then you can produce civic-minded journalism that matters.

Karkabi was raised in New York City and began her journalism career in war-torn Beirut before becoming a stalwart of the news scene in Houston. She passed away recently at the age of 65 after a long battle with cancer. She leaves behind a devoted husband (Mike Snyder, another bastion of Houston journalism) and daughter. She also leaves behind a body of work that shows boundless empathy and compassion—and how we are all far more alike than different.

Barbara rolled up her sleeves each day for almost 30 years to work for the often derided mainstream media, and courageously wrote about subjects that made the editors of the Houston Chronicle uncomfortable. When I worked with her in the early 1980s, the Houston Endowment ran the paper like the Great Eye of Sauron, staring down and sometimes condemning coverage of what Barbara knew had to be addressed: women’s rights, poverty, and the mistreatment and neglect of ethnic populations, immigrants and refugees.

She fought the good fight and stood her ground with humor, grace, and generosity. And she introduced Houstonians to people, to worlds, that were often hidden in plain sight.

She wrote about a hunger strike by Baylor College of Medicine student Ahilan Sivaganesan. The doctor-in-training was fasting to draw attention to the ethnic conflict engulfing the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. Barbara hooked Houston into a global humanitarian concern and let readers know about that young man’s human rights group, People for Equality and Relief in Lanka.

She told the story of another Houstonian, Anjum Bilgrami, who honored the Muslim month of Muharram by visiting his mosque to pray for healing—especially amid the ceaseless strife in Gaza.

And in what is now an oft-told tale in Houston media circles, Barbara once wrote about cost-effective medications that could save countless people from river blindness, a parasitic disease associated with poor and developing nations. Upon reading her story, Houston philanthropist John Moores gave $25 million to fund an initiative by a University of Houston professor to get the medicine to the people who needed it most. That is the very definition of cause-and-effect journalism.

She helped found the Association for Women Journalists in Houston. She was long admired by Houston feminists for her work on the board of the Friends of Women’s Studies, affiliated with the University of Houston’s women’s studies program.

The New York Times’ Samuel G. Freedman talks about great journalism existing on a temporal axis and an eternal axis. Good stories and good journalists are of the moment, but they also open a window on timeless values. Barbara did that, by design, and by dint of her smarts. It was her spiritual gift to her readers. She covered a seemingly hard, divisive Houston and found its multi-hued soul.

Her brilliant colleague at the Chronicle—her friend Claudia Feldman—has called Barbara “humble.” That is so perfect. Barbara treated people in the newsroom and in interview settings with care, dignity and life-affirming humor. She was self-effacing. She listened to people; she listened to the heartbeat of her city.

In the end, she was a writer who showed so many “ordinary people” in her adopted state to be truly extraordinary. Her work, day in and day out, proved that no matter where we are from, we ultimately have more in common than we know. She was an example for journalists in a melting-pot country called Texas.

In September, a high-ranking Manhattan editor who worked on Scott McClellan’s bestselling takedown of the Bush administration told me she was inundated with book pitches from Texas journalists eager to write about Rick Perry, the presidential candidate. Around the same time, Politico quoted Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith saying, “I have dropped to my knees before bed every night and prayed that this man would run for president.”

Journalists soon realized that Perry’s run for the White House wasn’t going to make for great political journalism. Of course, 2012 uncorked with Perry still stumbling, and Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka saying, “The best thing he can do for Texas in the time left to him is to resign.”

On Jan. 19, Perry suspended his presidential campaign. Did his national foray mean a damned thing for journalism in Texas? One Austin insider suggests an intriguing possibility: The national media’s fascination with Perry’s decade-long environmental record might actually lead to a renewed reportorial emphasis on the environment in Texas.

The last few months have seen hard-hitting environmental pieces about Texas in The New Republic and Mother Jones, and by former Observer managing editor Chris Tomlinson, now with the Associated Press in Austin. The big mainstream Texas papers have done their bit, too, publishing stories about Perry’s abysmal environmental record (though too often settling for he-said-she-said coverage of the governor’s squabbles with the Environmental Protection Agency).

It was encouraging to see some attention paid to what may be the state’s single most egregiously under-reported issue. But, that said, don’t look for Texas venues to reintroduce the kind of day-in-day-out reporting the state’s best environmental journalists used to do in the glory days of newspapers.

Jim Schermbeck, among the state’s most courageous environmental advocates, told the Dallas-area Pegasus News that readers “certainly can’t rely on more mainstream resources anymore. … If people really want to know what’s happening with public health and environmental issues in [the Dallas-Fort Worth area], they need to plug into the myriad of citizen and group blogs and websites that are out there breaking news every day.”

He’s right. It’s too much to hope that big outlets will ever recreate dedicated environmental beats. But it’s clear there is no shortage of stories to pursue. To cite just one example: San Antonio residents deserve a full investigation of pollution on the outskirts of the old Kelly Air Force Base, which is located in a predominantly Latino community. An investigation should examine whether the contamination is part of a national pattern near U.S. military installations.

Perhaps, if the trend toward hyper-local news continues, news outlets will pay more attention to such “in-my-backyard” environmental hazards. Last year, citizen journalists in North Texas explored how mineral rights and fracking controversies evolved in increasingly urban areas. As affluent white Texans flock to East Austin and Oak Cliff in Dallas, there might even be an upsurge in accountability reporting on neighborhoods, long victimized by abject environmental racism.

While we can wish that hard-hitting environmental journalism inspired by Perry’s presidential campaign will continue in Texas, readers might better focus on the consistently excellent work done by The Texas Observer’s Forrest Wilder and the swelling ranks of online grassroots investigators and bloggers around the state. There’s Schermbeck’s Downwinders At Risk site. Sharon Wilson’s Bluedaze website has examined the environmental record of the former editor of The Oak Cliff Tribune, former Dallas City Council member, and gas industry advocate Mark Housewright, and scrutinized a Texas Tribune event last year that provided a forum for T. Boone Pickens and other natural gas heavyweights.

Bottom line: There is at least a bit more awareness. You know things have changed when The Dallas Morning News named Port Arthur environmental hero Hilton Kelley a finalist for its 2011 Texan of The Year. (Just a few years earlier, the paper named Karl Rove Texan of the Year, with political reporter Wayne Slater describing Rove as “someone of uncommon character who demonstrated both leadership and vision.”)

Maybe, just maybe, Perry’s failed presidential run exposed a bit more of Texas’ toxic underbelly, reinvigorating mainstream media coverage of the environment while empowering a hell of a lot more citizen journalists.

The big term bandied about in media circles these days is impact journalism. Cause-and-effect journalism. The kind of journalism that gets people talking, uncorks indictments, passes bills, frees the unjustly incarcerated, and might convince people to pay for their news.

At the same time, more and more news veterans are worrying about the thousands of new reporters being spit out of journalism schools who could care less about game-changing journalism. They want to be Anthony “No Reservations” Bourdain. They wish their lives were as interesting as David Sedaris’, so they could write a memoir and have critics declare them the voice of a new generation. They don’t want to be I. F. “Izzy” Stone or Sy Hersh, in their thick eyeglasses, hip deep in the deadly dull but ultimately damning reporting that renders government malfeasance transparent and cleaves a lot closer to what John Henry Faulk said were our “guaranteed liberties and freedoms.”

These are the things I think about as the presidential race kicks into high gear this new year. The stakes seem higher than ever. With the economy ground to a raw nub, college graduates carrying record debt, and journalism students less certain than ever that there will be any kind of paying job in the news game, you may wonder if there are any young journalists at all willing to take on the hard, droning work of the modern muckraker.

Thankfully, there are. From the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) to Southern Methodist University, students are signing up to become muckrakers.

Don’t tell Rick Perry as he continues his fevered quest to ferret out research on Texas campuses, but student journalists are researching him and other profoundly important issues in Texas and elsewhere. They are committing to a career in investigative work, and diving into it without much faith that there will be jobs with 401(k)s waiting for them when they graduate.

They are doing it as a calling, “swooping down” on government bureaucracies like a “guerilla warrior,” as Izzy Stone once put it.

At UTEP, the extraordinary “Mexodus” project is a sweeping investigative narrative, driven by student journalists, that shines a light on middle-class families fleeing Mexico because of drug-related violence. The ongoing “Light of Day” project, spearheaded by the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, teaches students from universities across the state how to use public records to create investigative stories. The project has led student journalists to take long, hard looks at whether Texas schools are fully disclosing their public records.

In my investigative journalism class at the University of Texas at Austin, students spend several months looking into these issues: the breakdown in a federal system meant to protect parents against international child abductions; whether public universities are violating federal labor laws; why Texas immigration judges have the highest denial rates for asylum seekers; what happens to women in Texas when lawmakers slash health care funding; the lives of poverty-stricken college students; how U.S. policies for assimilating refugees cause further suffering for newcomers to this country.

As the new year unfolds, and you worry whether the media’s clucking prophecies (“You’ll miss the news when it’s gone”) are about to come true, take solace in the fact that there are fresh legions of young journalistic foot soldiers who are clearly not averse to investigative news.

I knew a Dallas reporter who was nicknamed, behind his back, The Reverse Nostradamus. He wrote a column that often featured excerpts from stories that had appeared decades earlier. People said he was good at predicting the past. I’m taking a crack at predicting the future:

Journalism will survive in 2012 and the years to come. The hard stories will be covered, and covered well, by young Texas reporters who are doing it because it is a calling. With no reservations.

The sad news out of San Antonio this fall is that Cary Clack, one of the stalwarts of that city’s journalism community— hell, one of the gems of modern Texas media—has left the San Antonio Express-News. The former columnist is now a senior adviser and campaign spokesperson for state Rep. Joaquin Castro’s congressional campaign.

Since the mid-1990s, Clack almost single-handedly directed news coverage to the chronically underreported black community in one of the 10 largest cities in the nation. Clack knew things—that San Antonio’s Percy Sutton served as Malcolm X’s lawyer and was the owner of the Apollo Theater in Harlem; that St. Philip’s College, one of the state’s important institutions of higher learning, battled to stay afloat.

His departure is one of 10 by African-American columnists across the nation this year. In the last few years some of the highest-profile minority journalists in this state—Linda Jones and Ira Hadnot of The Dallas Morning News, Carlos Sanchez at the Waco Herald-Tribune—left their venues.

National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) president Kathy Times said, “it’s heartbreaking to think that one-third of the black journalists in newsrooms in 2001 are not there anymore.” A study by the American Society of News Editors, released in April, shows that the percentage of minorities in newspaper newsrooms slipped for the third straight year, to 12.79 percent. With the departed went cultural reference points, institutional memories, and the righteous pressure they put on other news outlets. The Observer has struggled for years to have a staff that reflects the diversity in the state. Former editor Lou Dubose says: “During the 11 years I was there, the staff was all white, mostly male. We tried.”

Staffing is one matter, content another: Susan Currie Sivek, who did her graduate work at the University of Texas School of Journalism, wrote in a 2008 analysis of Texas Monthly that its coverage of minorities was “especially problematic.”

Sivek documented that Hispanics were on 1.8 percent of the magazine’s covers; blacks were on 3.6 percent of the covers. Hispanics were the topic of a feature story 5.6 percent of the time; blacks were the topic 4 percent of the time.

An NABJ study of 74 of the largest TV stations in America, released in September, found that staffing doesn’t match city demographics. Although they compose 35 percent of the U.S. population, people of color filled only 12 percent of broadcast newsroom management positions at the stations surveyed. In a nod to one of the bright lights, the NABJ study noted that Dallas-based Belo Corporation (which owns several TV stations, as well as The Dallas Morning News) was “closest to matching the diversity of the nation with 10 percent of its managers being of color.” Still, “its station in Charlotte has no diversity, and there is only one person of color in management at its station in New Orleans.”

The solutions? As always: Hire more minority journalists, overhaul the news menu, support the creation of minority news sites.

Clack says, “There’s a reason why minority groups will always need their own news sites. Mainstream media don’t have the knowledge or interest to cover those communities as thoroughly as they should.”

And, Clack adds: “I believe we will see more minority news websites such as The Root and theGrio.”

And now, some journalists of color have complained about the lack of minority representation at online news/social media sites. Citing a Pew Center study showing that blacks and Hispanics are more than twice as likely to use Twitter as whites, some journalists say new media sites are succumbing to old media habits.

Former Fort Worth Star-Telegram assistant managing editor Jean Marie Brown addresses the gulf in an excellent article for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard called “Familiar Patterns of Minority Exclusion Follow Mainstream Media Online.” Her thesis: Don’t get lulled into believing that the democratic tendencies of new media will result in instant diversity.

“Mainstream online media are caught in the same loop that ensnared legacy outlets,” Brown writes. “Their view of minorities is limited… Rather than fostering understanding that might help us find common ground, mainstream online media maintain the divisive ‘us vs. them’ mentality that is evident in many of our contemporary conversations about race.”

A Tale of Two Editors

In September, two Texas editors announced they were stepping down—Fred Zipp at the Austin American-Statesman and Robert Rivard at the San Antonio Express-News. Rumors began to fly: They were tired of corporate types telling them what stories to run; they quit before they were forced out; they were “ink-stained” leftovers in a digital world; they refused to lay off more reporters.

“I have felt my passion for the job wane and decided to leave so that others can pick up the fight,” said Zipp in a story in the American-Statesman.

Rivard’s email to staff read: “I look forward to pursuing new opportunities in a new field.”

I asked both if they wanted to expand on how Texas editors who had guided their papers through tough storms and stories had moved on. I also asked each how he sees journalism in Texas, and what advice they have for young folks entering the field.

Zipp, who became managing editor in 2000 and editor in 2008, replied: “Thanks for the generous offer. I’m reluctant to adopt the role of wistful crank just yet, though, so I will pass. I’m confident whatever you are thinking is on target.”

Rivard, who became editor in 1997, simply said: “Ask me on or about Jan. 2.”

Whether you liked them or their newspapers, the two newspaper veterans were tasked with keeping their wounded publications on life support. And I would argue that you have to view their departures through the prism of the weird, often awful, history of journalism in Texas—and its future.

In the 1970s and part of the 1980s, the San Antonio Express-News was a laughingstock among seasoned journalists, molded by the absolute worst instincts of Rupert Murdoch. Under Murdoch’s ownership, the newspaper regularly featured pictures of local women in bikinis. There were bizarre contests, including one that involved readers delivering the tails of dead rats to the newspaper. There were aggressively insensitive stories, headlines and story promotions, including “Aliens In Desert Battle Over Urine,” about immigrants dying of thirst in the Texas-Mexico borderlands.

The newspaper barely covered the Latino and black communities on the east, west and south sides of the city. Emphasis skewed toward the “white north,” just as it did in Dallas, where The Dallas Morning News spent decades refusing to devote substantial coverage to the communities of color in South and West Dallas.

The American-Statesman never stooped as low as the Express-News when it came to lunatic sensationalism, but for good chunks of the 1970s and 1980s, it was an unambitious outpost for investigative news, and tone deaf to the grinding realities of black and Latino life. Like Texas Monthly on the statewide level, the American-Statesman sometimes wrote about its city in a self-congratulatory vein—more celebration, and fewer indictments of people in power.

Without question, the American-Statesman and the Express-News ultimately improved. Rivard, Zipp and others broadened coverage and enacted some technological advancements. And they continued moving their papers away from the temptations (celebration versus investigation) of the not-too-distant days of daily newspapering in Texas.

That said, there will always be debate about whether any modern editors in Texas ever went far enough. And there will always be debate about what readers really expected from their daily newspaper.

In the end, deciding what constitutes progressive coverage in an age of diminished resources and increased corporate intrusion is subjective. When I first subscribed to Rolling Stone, then an “underground” publication, it introduced a column called “Dope Notes,” a guide to what drugs were safe to buy on the streets of America. The Village Voice used to run articles that, to the crowd I ran with at Columbia University, were excellent blueprints for student revolution.

The real, lasting legacy of the two departing Texas editors might be defined by the revelation of any advertiser-friendly pressures they felt over the years from corporate bigwigs at Hearst and Cox Communications, which own the Express-News and American-Statesman, respectively.

What’s already certain is that with these departures, Texas is zooming away from a newspaper culture run by people with more ink than bytes in their veins. The resignations mark a paradigm shift. Journalists who were born in the digital age and are attuned to social media’s influence on the news will soon run Texas newsrooms.

That’s the real revolution at Texas newspapers, and the big question is whether the new editors will use their new tools to improve local journalism.

Until that’s determined, look for other top-level resignations to come in Fort Worth, Dallas and Houston.

Somewhere, Molly Ivins is laughing at this season’s contradictory political coverage. News stories say one thing about Texas Gov. Rick Perry; blogs such as the conservative RedState often say the opposite. What’s a concerned citizen to do? Who and what should you believe when no one can agree on the facts?

I like to think of Ivins as a proto-blogger. Like today’s bloggers, she riffed off the news, adding extra takes and insights. But she did it with the reporting chops to nail down the facts. Ivins’ work was informed by fastidious research—her own and the work of her staffers (full disclosure, I hired her best researcher to work for me on several book projects.)

Ivins believed in what she called “informed subjectivity,” which was based on something called “reporting.” But she didn’t pander to a rigid journalistic notion of balance and objectivity. Ivins wouldn’t waste her time reporting lies—from the left or the right. Why give equal weight to the phonies and con artists?

Her reporting on Perry and Texas politics wasn’t disconnected from the facts; it was driven by the facts.

Today, “disconnected” is a big buzzword at places where the future of journalism gets parsed. Are readers disconnected from politics because they don’t know which version of the facts to believe? Are young people cynically disconnecting from the political process after seeing contradictory stories on partisan blogs and in biased mainstream media coverage?

The contradictions are showing themselves right now in the coverage of Perry’s presidential campaign. Thinly reported partisan blogs offer one version, thinly reported traditional media outlets offer another. The versions are often so disparate that they appear to be written about different people.

The Observer’s Forrest Wilder expertly pondered how he could see and hear one thing at a Houston religious rally convened by Perry in August while other reporters saw something else.

Scan the articles and commentary about Perry on Reason magazine’s “Hit and Run” blog. After reading the libertarian/conservative site, you might be convinced that Perry’s track record has been far less conservative than his rhetoric, which he’s softening by the day.

Check out RedState, where some bloggers say Perry is Conservative Lite and not as Tea Party-ish as he purports. They say Perry believes in raising taxes through the roof and supports Big Government intrusion into citizens’ private affairs—kind of like those Democratic Party demons.

Of course, the editorial divide isn’t always driven by old-fashioned partisan agendas, by liberal or conservative bias in the media. It’s driven by what readers want. The same people researching how “disconnected” readers are from the news are also studying how millions of Americans seek out news sites that reaffirm their existing worldviews.

They want their biases shored up. So say you have a feeling that the public art around Rockefeller Center is really a secret ode to communism—a mind-control plot to insert pinko ideology in public places. You can get your suspicion affirmed by listening to Glenn Beck.

In our age of information overload, with multiple websites and blogs claiming to offer “news,” rumors substitute for facts, and facts are subject to debate. We can’t have an informed citizenry—or a healthy democracy—if bloggers and mainstreamers don’t acknowledge or make a full-faith effort to report the facts. Left or right, their work should be grounded in the hard-to-achieve “informed subjectivity.”

Remixing Dubya

Rick Perry’s run for the White House is a stark reminder that not too long ago an identical media game plan was mapped out in Austin for then-Gov. Dubya:

Tout the Texas leader as the CEO, the man who runs a state like a buck-stops-here businessman.

Leverage national events against Texas themes so the candidate can claim to have solutions (“You want jobs? We got your jobs right here!”), all while suggesting that Congress and the White House are overspending idiots.

Cement the social conservative voting bloc.

And ignore sit-downs with tough-minded members of the media, opting instead for well-timed public appearances highlighted by unsubtle nods toward religion.

What’s obviously different today is that there are fewer and fewer dedicated national media resources to hold Perry to serious scrutiny. The Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune, to name two outlets, once jumped early and hard to lead the way with major, time-consuming and probably costly stories about presidential candidate George W. Bush and his military background.

But today the usual, aching reasons—dwindling money and staff—make drilling down on any candidate’s record much harder to do.

Meanwhile, as Perry lurches forward it would be good to remember how Bush’s own presidential media strategy evolved.

After Bush got his ass kicked by John McCain in the 2000 New Hampshire Republican primary, Karl Rove and the Texas insiders went into panic mode. A decision was made that Bush needed to devote his time to the hardcore Christian conservative base. Forget playing patty-cake with Texas or national media—and forget trying to convince anyone that Bush was a “compassionate conservative,” devoted to uniting, not dividing.

Bush turned his attention to “the base” in the next primary, in South Carolina. He infamously spoke at the evangelical Bob Jones University while, in the background, someone unleashed nasty anti-McCain e-mails suggesting the Arizona senator had fathered a child out of wedlock.

Bush won South Carolina and the strategy was affirmed: Preach to the social conservative choir, solidify that base, and deny the media deep access. 

That plan had its roots in master media manipulator Lee Atwater (who delivered George H.W. Bush to the White House, and who mentored Rove): Deride and ignore the media. Avoid pesky press conferences, interviews, Q&As and magazine profiles. Create base-flattering stump speeches disguised as “news events.”

So here we have Perry at Houston’s Reliant Stadium presiding over a prayer rally before 30,000 attendees and broadcast to 1,000 churches: “Father, our heart breaks for America. We see discord at home. We see fear in the marketplace. We see anger in the halls of government, and, as a nation, we have forgotten who made us, who protects us, who blesses us.”

Perry’s speechmaking skills are closer to Richard Burton than to Bush’s Elmer Fudd impression. But if Perry’s demeanor around some reporters is any clue, he seems to have every bit of Bush’s disdain for the media (a radio interviewer in West Texas said Bush called him an “asshole” in the 1970s; a national reporter said Bush cursed him as the reporter was dining with his wife and child in a Dallas restaurant in 1986; and in 2000, he called a New York Times reporter an “asshole”).

And Perry is clearly establishing the same “media” allies. Rush Limbaugh, who jump-started Bush’s campaign, is doing the same thing for Perry:

“He’s out there articulating the truth, he’s getting stupendous applause and yet, ‘Nah-nah-nah, can’t have Rick Perry. He’s from Texas. He’s too close to Bush. We don’t want anybody from Texas! Bush is from Texas … ’ This is the message from the elites, the inside-the-Beltway geniuses.”

Just as he did for Bush, Limbaugh is doing Perry’s media-bashing for him, yelling about how “the state-controlled media” is not happy with Perry.

As the campaign unfolds, watch Perry continue to avoid and dismiss the media.

Watch for him to pop up at more “news events” tied to social conservative themes—and see if the media really scrutinize who is funding and supporting those events.

Watch for Perry to continue aping Bush’s 2000 game plan.

And pray that the national media can do the reporting they should have done the last time a Texan ran for the White House.