State of the Media

Muckraking 2.0

The promise of small-staff and “citizen” journalism is coming to fruition in Texas—excellent, often unheralded, investigative sites are moving well beyond the partisan blather that defines other so-called “news venues.” There are dozens around the state. Some are incredibly hard to find. Some are surviving on bank accounts flatter than a gambler’s wallet. But though their journalists use affordable, cutting-edge technology, they haven’t lowered journalistic standards. Here are a couple examples.

Last year Patrick Brendel, 28, and Mary Tuma, 24, uncorked The Texas Independent. With backing from the nonpartisan American Independent Network, it has quickly become a vital “watchdog journalism” website. (Disclosure: Brendel was a student of mine at UT-Austin; Tuma also graduated with a degree in journalism at UT-Austin and is a former Observer intern.)

Brendel has a refreshingly old-fashioned ethos. “George Washington wrote, ‘There is but one straight course, and that is to seek truth and pursue it steadily.’ My own ‘pursuit of happiness’ is seeking after truth, and journalism happens to be my outlet,” he says.

Fox News apologists—hell-bent on finding liberal bogeymen in every closet—would probably howl that The Texas Independent has a liberal agenda. But if you spend time on the site, you can see it shines the light on uncovered and under-reported Texas stories.

The Texas Independent has been out front in examining the state’s most powerful Tea Party component, the King Street Patriots. “They are mounting a serious First Amendment challenge to Texas’ corporate campaign finance restrictions, and have lobbied the state Legislature on behalf of voter photo ID laws and special privileges for poll watchers. They’ve become arguably the premier Tea Party group in the state, nabbed Gov. Rick Perry as the keynote speaker for the grand opening of their new headquarters and hosted the first of several Tea Party-orchestrated U.S. Senate debates,” Brendel explains. “We’ve been lucky to have them on our radar.”

Meanwhile, after receiving Knight Foundation funding, Ken Martin, 71, hit the ground last year with his pinpoint examinations of local elected officials on his Austin Bulldog site. Martin, a retired Marine who served in Vietnam, put in 30 years reporting and writing for several Texas publications, and now uses part of his Social Security check to keep his publication afloat. The Bulldog site says, “We’re small. We’re scrappy. We aren’t going to change the world, but we aim to make a difference in our little corner of it.”

Martin says he is proud of his work examining the Austin City Council’s possible violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act, which the county attorney is investigating. “The overarching goal in all of this is to drag the City of Austin into the sunshine of open government, and that’s very much still an ongoing project that unfortunately the city seems to be resisting in every way possible,” Martin says.

Brendel, Tuma and Martin are not driven by the preening vanity you see in some journalism circles, that chance to hang out with people in power. Something else seems at work. “I am most proud to be part of an organization that is not beholden to major corporate interests and works to represent the public and hold those in power accountable,” says Tuma.

There are several decades of age between Tuma and Martin. But both know that public-service journalism, perhaps especially in Texas, is a labor of love, long hours, meager pay . . . and, ‘hey, how are we going to pay the electric bill?’ Not many things have changed since Willie Morris, Kaye Northcott, Molly Ivins and Ronnie Dugger ran The Texas Observer. The powers-that-be are still arrogant and dismissive—and, as always, they’d rather spend time seducing and flattering the bigger news outlets.

So… why bother? Why bother filing those open records requests? Why be the lone reporter at the droning sub-committee hearing, or poring over deliberately hidden public documents?

“I have this radical idea that government ought to be open, transparent and operate completely in the public interest,” Martin says.

Online Insiders

The Texas Tribune is wrapping up its first rodeo of legislative coverage. It now has alliances with The New York Times and several Texas publications. But is it any good? A multimillion-dollar startup instantly heralded in national outlets (including its future ally, the Times) should be the subject of a 4,000-word analysis, not a 750-word column. What political figures does it write about more often? Who does it routinely not write about? Who funds it, and are those people written about? What issues does it tackle regularly? Which does it regularly ignore?

Until someone writes that analysis, here’s what I like about it:

It provides jobs for excellent journalists. If you don’t think that is a good thing, then join the far edge of the Tea Party, denounce Thomas Paine and redact the Constitution.

It provides a look into Texas politics and state agencies, with pure numbers, statistics and intensive databases done by Matt Stiles. Emily Ramshaw takes a hard look at health care coverage. Ross Ramsey dissects the state budget.

It fills the aching gap left by wounded news outlets that can’t afford to cover state politics. It has kept everyone—The Texas Observer and the daily newspapers’ remaining political reporters—on their toes. News competition is back in play. That is a good thing for democracy.

Here’s what’s not to like:

The Times reported early on that the Tribune was going to offer “the good-for-you, Brussels sprouts journalism—education financing, lobbying, bureaucratic priorities, civics and state government … a niche site with a very narrow focus.” It has delivered on that, and it’s also been constrained by it. There are drawbacks to the demands of providing instant online journalism aimed at insiders.

What the Tribune needs is consistent, long-ball narrative and multipart investigative projects. It needs the 5,000-word drill-downs like Sy Hersh does for The New Yorker. It needs the huge packages that win Pulitzer Prizes for ProPublica, for investigative work and public service.

Sam Freedman, a New York Times writer and journalism professor, says the best stories exist on a temporal and eternal axis. You invest your stories with a legacy value—with huge context and sweep—so the stories have a longer shelf life, so the echo chamber resounds until the plutocrats really pay attention and maybe even go to prison for a long, long time. Associated Press correspondent and former Texas Observer managing editor Chris Tomlinson calls those the “WTF” stories, the ones that make readers go “What the fuck!” So far, it’s hard to point to a jaw-dropping WTF in the Tribune.

I took a very unscientific poll and called several editors, consultants, reporters and educators across the state. What startled me, and I have no precise explanation for it, was how many folks instantly went off the record when they wanted to criticize the Tribune.

They lauded the TT extensively, for sure, but their voices dipped down when they said they thought it was boring, too much inside-baseball, too busy-looking, or producing too few investigative stories. They wished the good reporters were unleashed to play to their talents. The reticence, I suspect, is partly based on jealousy and fear—that the Tribune has money, foot soldiers, and those connections to the Times. The number one criticism was that it is too insular, too focused on details and not enough on the Big Context.

Tribune co-founder Ramsey (who once hired me almost 25 years ago to write a book) defends his publication and essentially says the sum is greater than the parts: “It’s a constant balance between detail and context, for us and for everyone else who covers something that’s complex and/or insular. You can get lost in detail, but if you don’t pay attention to it, you can’t properly describe the big picture.”

The Tribune is coming of age during a particularly draconian legislative session that needs a special kind of numbers-crunching scrutiny. The question is, after the session is over and the oily agents of politics go home, will the Tribune chase them to the ends they deserve?

The Loss of Freedom

A major media player in Texas is up for grabs. Freedom Communications Inc. has been seeking bids on its assets. It owns 100 newspapers, including The Brownsville Herald, El Nuevo Herald, The McAllen Monitor, the Valley Morning Star in Harlingen and the Mid-Valley Town Crier in Weslaco. (By the time this column is published, new owners of Freedom’s assets might have emerged.) These South Texas newspapers are on the front lines of immigration, drug trafficking and border violence—not to mention chronic poverty, lingering racism, massive unemployment and environmental degradation.

In a downtrodden newspaper business, this border newspaper shift raises a thousand red flags:

Why the hell would anyone spend the money in the first place? What’s the end game? Most important, what does it mean for border residents and anyone else who looks to border papers for news from one of the most newsworthy regions in the nation?

The Freedom chain is not perfect, but I wonder what will come along to replace it. Freedom has openly advocated its libertarian principles, and it’s questionable whether the less-government-is-good-government editorials that often run in the Valley papers are wildly out of tune with a region that still has areas without running water. “They have to tow the libertarian line,” says Steve Taylor, a former Freedom reporter who runs the online Rio Grande Guardian. The Guardian has aggressively looked at the festering problems surrounding the colonias in the Valley.

Taylor, who knows the region as well as anyone, agrees it is massively difficult to cover—especially when newspapers have dwindling resources and fewer reporters. The papers do what they can, when they can. In the end, he believes the papers really don’t “do any in-depth investigations,” the kind that “force people out of office.”

Some activists in the Valley say it’s clear the papers already lack the resources to take on the hard issues. “The paper has gotten slimmer and slimmer as our social realities have gotten thicker and thicker,” says Mike Seifert, a former priest who helps lead the Equal Voice for America’s Families network, and who has been reading The Brownsville Herald for 15 years. “There are so many stories out there.”

My colleague at the University of Texas School of Journalism, professor Wanda Cash, has deep experience in Texas newspapers. She says the border papers do a good job with limited resources. “Olaf Frandsen (publisher of the Monitor) and Daniel Cavazos (publisher of the Herald), in particular, are outstanding newsmen who value good storytelling and share a deep commitment to serve their communities with truths that are not always pleasant,” she says.

As with other newspaper buyouts, it’s possible that a buyer could strip the papers to the bone. There are worrying signs. A couple of the interested buyers are private equity groups that have a history of starving newspapers, like Platinum Equity of Los Angeles, the MediaNews Group Inc., and Angelo, Gordon & Co.

Here is what the State of The News Media: An Annual Report on American Journalism (2010), produced by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, said about Gordon and Platinum: “While the private equity owners are undoubtedly in the newspaper business motivated by a chance to make money rather than for public service, they appear to be betting that these distressed properties will bounce back after several years.”

Some media analysts have said that the private equity firms might be looking to use their new newspapers to launch advanced online ventures. Perhaps that is where the Valley papers are headed.

There’s a lot at stake. This is a part of America that desperately needs watchdogs. That needs investigative reporting. That cries out for the righteous indignation that can only be summoned by powerful reporting. If new owners emerge, they’re duty bound to pursue all of that. The people who live along the border deserve nothing less.

Failing Grades

State lawmakers are weighing a proposed 2012-2013 state budget that could impose draconian cuts on the state’s already piss-poor educational system. Schools, teachers, innovative programs—they are all in danger of being cut in the name of fiscal austerity. “This bill reflects the reality of the recession on Texas,” is how Rep. Jim Pitts, a Republican from Waxahachie, put it when he uncorked the proposed budget.

The massive cutbacks were surely coming at almost every level of education—but it was almost as if reporters were surprised when they began examining the budget proposals coughed up by Pitts and others. The news reports had a breathless quality. The overarching sense was that “we didn’t know it was going to be this bad.”

Which begs a simple question: Why not?

Stripped to the bone, with fewer reporting boots on the ground, Texas news outlets made the usual mistake in the last several months before the legislative session. They concentrated on horse-race coverage of political campaigns, they focused on narrow “truth in advertising” analyses of political promises, and they were entranced by the top-of-the-ballot battle between incumbent Gov. Rick Perry and Democrat Bill White.

Editors really needed to order reporters out of the air-conditioned corridors of power in Austin and hightail it into the heart of Texas. They needed to stop schmoozing with lobbyists and kingmakers in Austin and get to South Oak Cliff High School in Dallas. They needed to get to Bowie Elementary School in Abilene and Ramiro Barrera Middle School in Rio Grande City—to put a human face on the story that educators and parents were already forecasting firsthand.

Texas school districts and administrators have been operating on a wing and a prayer for years. The gap between the rich districts and the poor districts is ever-widening. Good teachers were already being cut, arts programs were in danger, and playgrounds were increasingly pockmarked. The budget crisis—the disconnect between tax revenue and educational spending—was apparent to many teachers and principals. They knew the numbers weren’t adding up. It’s one thing to scream for property tax cuts, but another to magically find the money to buy books, computers and basketball hoops.

Back when I slaved at The Dallas Morning News office in Austin that covers state government, I listened one day as the bureau chief announced: “Only one hundred people read our stories. And it’s the same one hundred people over and over again.”

He was referring to lobbyists, other Capitol reporters, lawmakers and other insiders who love bumping into each other along a small stretch of Congress Avenue. He was admitting that there wasn’t enough deep, contextual, immersion reporting. No human-interest reporting. The stories were written and reported in a dutiful way that reflected bureaucratic realities—but not in any passionate, anecdotal way that reflected the reality of life. Where was the real Texas?

The News still sends several reporters into the state Capitol. The Texas Tribune does the same. They are two of the engines of daily state government coverage, and they are using every form of multimedia to show what is unfolding under the Big Tent. Still, the reporting on education cuts seems like desperate Monday morning quarterbacking mixed with the exploration of triage plans. Do we tap the Rainy Day Fund, is it possible to raise taxes, do we try some fiscal alchemy?

These times require media outlets to pick their battles carefully, and education is always under-reported. It has everything to do with the futures of millions of children. Maybe, if the students’ realities had been chronicled vividly, today’s education news wouldn’t be so breathless.

And maybe, if the media had held an accurate mirror to the embattled educational system in Texas, we wouldn’t be in this crisis.

News for Sale

In the next few weeks, The Dallas Morning News will begin charging for online news. It’s a daring attempt to reinvent the news business. The old formula that used to drive newspapers—85 percent of a paper’s revenue was from advertising, 15 percent was from circulation—is dead. Digital advertising is not replacing the money that newspapers have lost on print advertising and subscriptions. The News and other newspapers across the state have resorted to massive layoffs, salary freezes and pullbacks in coverage to keep driving corporate profits.

Through it all, the Dallas newspaper kept its fine investigative unit intact. It still routinely does some of the most important work in the state—whether it’s drilling down on the Texas Youth Commission or looking for malfeasance inside the Dallas Independent School District.

On Feb. 15, the Dallas paper will become one of the only large American newspapers to try to reverse what industry analysts call “the original sin”—giving away original reporting online. Here’s how publisher Jim Moroney framed the decision to charge on KRLD radio in Dallas: “I think a lot of people are waiting to see what happens with some of the early companies that go out there, like us and The New York Times. We’re going to give you more value.”

On Jan. 1, the paper raised its monthly print subscription cost to $34 from $30. In February, print subscribers will also get the digital News and so-called “subscriber content” on dallasnews.com. There are iPad and iPhone apps for the service, as well. There are tiered deals for digital-only subscribers. Here’s how the News framed “subscriber content” in its own story about the deal: “Subscriber content will include proprietary news and information produced by The News. Headlines, breaking news, most blogs, obituaries, classifieds and nonproprietary content such as syndicated wire stories will remain free.”

If the experiment in Dallas works, other dominos will fall. Jeff Cohen, editor of the Houston Chronicle, once told me that The Dallas Morning News was his gold standard. Cohen and editors around the state (hell, the nation) are watching the News try to pull off this transition. So we’re back to square one in the art-versus-commerce debate and what might be driving decisions in Dallas: corporate profits.

The plan to charge online readers might make the paper more money. There’s no doubt that the News will be limiting how many readers see the most important investigative stories. That raises the question of whether the News is playing Texas Hold ‘Em with its civic obligation—just as the state is facing massive budget cuts that will breed more poverty, racism and white-collar crime.

Now the paper wants to charge for that proprietary investigative work online. If people choose not to pay, will there be enough readers to spark the collective indignation necessary to change anything? Is the paper about to abandon its civic mission by deliberately shrinking its audience?

”We hope we are doing our job,” Moroney told the radio reporter in Dallas. A lingering argument has been that Big Media’s “job” is to make a living, a profit, by telling the truth. Now, as the last remnants of the Big Newspaper Monopoly cascade down, it’s time to re-examine the priorities of that “job.” If the News and other traditional enterprises have to reinvent themselves, then they have to examine their job description, their mission, their day-to-day checklists.

The stakes are high for the News and journalism in general. So the reporters up in Dallas must rededicate themselves to producing even more investigative journalism that serves the public’s right to know. The News has to do its edgiest, bravest work, ever, in this new pay-for-content dynamic. It has to prove that unassailable public service journalism—the kind that makes readers howl “What The Fuck!?”—will make money for Big Media’s online outlets.

Moroney says the paper will give readers “more value.” He needs to think about making civic values the driving engine for corporate profits.

Almost a century ago, the News famously took a stand against the KKK’s entrenched control of the city. Circulation initially suffered, but the paper emerged stronger than ever as the KKK’s overt influence and anti-News smear campaign eroded. That kind of editorial commitment will be more important than ever.

Leaking Credibility

A Texas journalist, someone who believes in the public’s right to know, recently told me how she perceived Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.  The journalist was so angry at Assange’s wholesale release of U.S military documents that she believed him to be worse than some dictators who prohibit a free and functioning press.

We were communicating in the wake of the second Wikileaks thunderclap. After uncorking 70,000 pages of Pentagon papers in July, Wikileaks recently released 391,832 more records outlining grisly behavior, war crimes by Iraqi security forces and the U.S. military’s tacit approval—even endorsement—of the villainy.

My friend went on: “Nothing was held back from readers, and that, I believe, is the ultimate poor news judgment.” Assange and his associates did redact some names in this latest batch of leaked papers about the Iraq War—after he had been accused of putting hundreds of people in danger by leaving their names in the documents about the Afghanistan conflict.

Journalists have been handed a gold mine of material by Wikileaks. But too many, like my friend, have attacked Wikileaks as if the organization is responsible for the atrocities it has exposed. I believe the scathing indictment-cum-profile of Assange by New York Times reporters John Burns and Ravi Somaiya has shaped this wave of condemnation.

The Times piece details a litany of accusations against Assange over the years. Perhaps the most infamous entails “being investigated in connection with accusations of rape and molestation.” Ironically, Assange has watched as the Times—the paper that, through reporting by Burns and others, still sets the news agenda for mainstream media—has produced the best Wikileaks multimedia package anywhere.

The Times package includes a telling audio interview with Burns. The reporter says he’s unhappy about people faulting him for his article on Assange. “I personally have been subjected since the publication of these documents and my own story with Ravi Samaiya, a profile of Mr. Assange, to an extraordinarily vituperative response,” says a distressed-sounding Burns in the interview. “We do, I think, probably depict him for what he really is, which is a rather eccentric, capricious, high-handed individual.”

The Times has been bombarded with reader comments. Here is one that addresses the key media dichotomy: “Assange himself, whatever his real or alleged psychopathy, proclivities or idiosyncrasies might be, is a mere player in the world stage on which large entities have assimilated enormous power at the expense of the citizenry … . Focus on his person merely takes the limelight away from the serious issues.”

Killing the messenger isn’t unusual for mainstream media. For example, you’d be hard-pressed to find many journalists who liked baseball player Jose Canseco, one of the first to blow the lid off steroid use inside America’s pastime. Now the once-reviled Canseco, charged twice for domestic violence, is coming off as a whistle-blower-Nostradamus as investigators look at possible steroid use by stars like Texas icon Roger Clemens.

Daniel Ellsberg, who has been appearing with Assange, long ago learned how the messenger can become the story. At times, his Pentagon Papers, and the messages he was conveying about the secret history of the Vietnam War, also got lost in the hunt for the messenger.

Even Burns, almost grudgingly, conceded in his audio account of the Wikileaks saga that the documents “are very important.” That, I hope we all agree, is sound news judgment.

Juan Williams, What Happened?

A look at how NPR's Juan Willaims lost his way.
Photo by Pete Wright

Juan Williams – fired by National Public Radio after saying he gets nervous when he sees folks in “Muslim garb,” and then given a $2 million contract by Fox News — once wrote an essay about what he learned from Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall:

“It is our turn to do what is right; to fight the fight, keeping our eyes on the prize,” wrote Williams many years ago.

He had come up through the ranks as a Washington Post reporter, and had done solid, well-received work at that newspaper – back in the 1980s when the Post was flush with resources, was our other “national newspaper” (apart from The New York Times) and was filled with the best writing to be found in a daily American publication.

I remember talking with him when he was on a speaking engagement for national newspaper editors in Dallas – and on another occasion when he was in Houston to speak to the Texas Library Association. I told him this: I admired his long-form journalism, I liked the stories and books that touched on The Great Racial Divide that still existed in the United States.

He had, to me, eloquently helped to pull together some of the conflicting and even tangled threads of the history of the civil rights movement in his work with the book/film “Eyes on the Prize”  (that two-headed project featured a book introduction and film narration by Julian Bond; the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had once asked Bond, and me, to write separate essays about the legacy of JFK’s assassination in Dallas).

Williams had also participated, with many other reporters, in a collection of stories about freedom fighters in America that was called “My Soul Looks Back in Wonder”  — with a foreword by David Halberstam and an afterword by Marian Wright Edelman. He had done his essays and book on the tribulations and triumphs of Marshall. He had also kicked some investigative ass along the way, taking a hard look at the very conflicted rein of DC Mayor Marion Barry.

But simmering in the background were some things that didn’t seem to match up: In 1991, he had been called on the carpet during his time at the Post, and accused of making offensive, inappropriate comments to women staffers. Several women were righteously indignant – and angry at The Post for not doing more to admonish him. “I have said so repeatedly in the last few weeks, and repeat here: some of my verbal conduct was wrong,” Williams wrote in a open letter to his colleagues.

There were, it also turns out, women who didn’t think that National Public Radio should have hired him in the first place – and tried to block him from getting the job as an NPR voice. Read about that here.

 

Now, the shit storm, as someone in Texas once framed it for me, has hit several different fans at the same time.

Williams has been slamming NPR; FOX has given him a broader forum to bash and gnash; the Glenn Beckians are out in full-force-fury, saying that free speech is dead; Williams’s boss at NPR, CEO Vivian Schiller, embarrassed herself (and later apologized) for publicly saying that Williams should actually have shared his thoughts with his psychiatrist.

A friend of mine, writing on another free speech issue, put it this way in a local Austin paper: “The press needs to side with what’s right.” 

And that ideal surely extends to Williams. And to NPR and Fox.

I know that Molly Ivins would tell everyone involved the same thing: “I should slap you all upside the head . . . just what the hell are all of you thinking? Why don’t y’all try to do the right thing – and write about the right things? ”

When the hell are you going to get back to thinking straight and clear – and using the media pulpit, the news venues to, oh say, advance grand human ideals? When the hell are you going to stop pissing on each other, wasting the increasingly precious news space in America? When will you stop indulging in the endless abuse of the airwaves, the public forums – so you can confess your paranoia, or blithely tell someone they need to see a psychiatrist.

When the hell is the media going to get its eyes back on the prize – as Juan Williams once elegantly, eloquently, wrote?

Politics Uncovered

Texas Attorney General candidate Barbara Ann Radnofsky came to the phone to tell me she is pleased The Dallas Morning News has assigned someone to cover her campaign. She is very happy The Huffington Post has given her a regular forum—one she has used repeatedly to beat up on Wall Street and her rival, Texas AG Greg Abbott. She adds that she is also aware that she is a “down–ballot candidate”—insider parlance for races that appear below the governor’s race on the ballot.

Being “down ballot” these days means, more than ever, that she and other Democratic challengers are not being covered the way they need to be. Radnofsky pauses and seems to choose words gingerly. She says she has come to believe that “the coverage varies greatly” in the Texas media—and that “I can’t speak to their motivations, because I just don’t know.”

She has decided to settle for what might seem a counterintuitive stance regarding media coverage of her race: She’s glad if, in some way, the Texas media wind up focusing on the GOP incumbent she’s battling. “Even if he gets more publicity,” she says, her campaign is able to get “extraordinary quotes out of him” and “use it to my advantage.” To wit, she alludes to the Morning News story by reporter Theodore Kim that showed—surprise—oil-and-gas interests have contributed much of the $1.7 million in campaign money Abbott has raised so far this year.

It’s not just her race being overlooked in the sharp focus on Bill White and Rick Perry. Linda Chavez-Thompson, in a bid to unseat Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, is facing many of the same problems. An obvious culprit is the ceaseless horse-race, poll-driven coverage of the governor’s race—shaped in large part by Perry’s national profile and the fact that a big city mayor like White might pull an upset.

There is also the cold reality that Texas media outlets have fewer reporters to cover lower-profile races: The Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s excellent four-person bureau, one of the best in the history of political coverage from Austin, has shrunk to one reporter. The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News once had multi-person bureaus in Austin. Hearst Corp., the parent of both papers, has combined the two bureaus and reduced staffing. Television stations from Dallas and Houston, ones that routinely covered state politics from Austin, have dropped coverage. The Morning News, which has trimmed dozens and dozens of jobs over the last decade, has kept its Austin bureau staffing mostly intact.

Some cynics might say it really doesn’t matter—the governor’s race is the only one that’s competitive this year. But the lack of media coverage for down–ballot races becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The voters don’t get to hear from challengers, front-runners’ methods and policies are left unchallenged and new ideas never see the light of day.

The candidates have to be heard from. Chavez-Thompson is advocating for labor rights, immigrant rights, and expansion of children’s health care and insurance. Radnofsky is talking about a wholesale re-examination of the state’s electrical utilities and saying she will go after abuses by Big Oil. These are serious issues, and these are serious candidates. It’s achingly clear that there aren’t as many big-market reporters covering them as there once were. The Observer, The Texas Tribune and others are doing their part—but caught in a numbers game, the big, mainstream outlets don’t have the money, space and reporting staffs they once had.

As I talked with Radnofsky, I remembered the first time I met her. It was in “the journalism ghetto building” at 10th and Congress in Austin. Brioni-adorned lobbyists for ExxonMobil and other Big Bidness entities were all shoehorned next to journalists. Radnofsky was on her quixotic campaign against Kay Bailey Hutchison for the U.S. Senate. In the real heyday, political candidates could, in one stop, visit reporters from The Washington Post, Time, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today … and the sprawling bureaus from Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio newspapers and TV stations.

Now, so many reporters are gone. The lobbyists are still there, in strong number, in expensive cologne. And the down-ballot races are covered, at times, like mere sideshows. All Radnofsky and the others can do, as she says, is “take what coverage the media gives.”

Calling George W.

I tend to conveniently ignore the fact that Bill O’Reilly went to my high school. Yes, that Bill O’Reilly. At my old school, only boys were allowed. There were zealous men in long, dark, religious robes running up and down the hallways—and, yikes, some were praying in arcane foreign languages. Some women who worked there were covered, head to toe, so that only their faces were showing. Maybe a bit like the people O’Reilly would run into at, say, a mosque (except these were priests and nuns, not imams). So now we have O’Reilly, predictably, being the most polarizing mouthpiece attacking the proposed Islamic community center near Ground Zero in Manhattan. He’s argued that the feelings of the 9/11 families should be respected. He has also deflected the larger issue of religious freedom, America’s image overseas, and how all this anti-mosque reaction will be judged through the big prism of international relations.

More cleverly, he has turned the focus of this hard news story on its head by politicizing it, by throwing attacks at “the far left” and beating up on Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Pelosi has done the right thing by suggesting that politics is in play—and suggesting that reporters stay on track, move beyond political grandstanding, and find out who is funding the mosque, as well as who is funding the anti-mosque attacks. For a second, she almost sounded like an editor with a conscience.

The instant politicization of a hard news story is nothing new in today’s digital cycle. Obama was pulled in: He said folks had a right to build a mosque in lower Manhattan if they wanted. Then he followed up the next day, saying he was not commenting on the wisdom of building the mosque, just underscoring the right to build one.

Sharon Grigsby, the deputy editorial page editor of the Dallas Morning News (disclosure: I worked at the News for 18 years, and Grigsby edited some of my stories and made them better) wrote: “The more significant issue in my opinion is that after President Obama did the wise but politically dangerous thing of commenting, he WAFFLED and stepped back from his original statement. That disappointed me greatly.” Mike Hashimoto, assistant editorial page editor at the News, told readers that Obama had “backpedaled” and that Democrats might view the president’s actions as “unwise.”

What could reporters have done instead of following the O’Reilly gambit of bleeding politics into the story? How about seeking some on-the-record comments from Dallas resident George W. Bush, under whose watch 9/11 occurred? How about posing some tough questions to the man who once stood on the rubble in lower Manhattan, a few blocks away from where the proposed Islamic Center would be?

Here’s what the Washington Post advocated on its editorial page: “As president, Mr. Bush never stopped making the distinction between Muslims and the terrorists who pervert their religion. As a politician, he understood the value to the Republican Party of reaching out to minorities, including Muslims. A word from Texas right now could offer his would-be heirs a useful lesson.”

Bush is at home in Dallas. He is in a better position than Obama, in many ways, to be pursued by journalists for an ambassadorial statement. Bush wants to have a “policy institute” at Southern Methodist University, where he and his apologists say the great issues of the day will be explored. Well, here’s a great chance for the Texas media to ask him to step forward—and like Jimmy Carter, align himself with the great issue of human freedom. He is, in many ways, the perfect person for Texas journalists to pursue for a careful story about America’s image, about this country’s legacy of religious freedom and about the real lessons of 9/11.

Painful Reminders

With some rare exceptions, the media has drifted from the story of CIA-sponsored torture during the Bush administration. But still it begs for the same righteous reporting that Seymour Hersh once applied when he unmasked the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. It remains a vital story for journalists to pursue—not just to affix blame, but to help rebuild our international image and ultimately strengthen national security.

Some media critics will say that journalists shouldn’t be responsible for rehabilitating America’s standing abroad. But that would certainly be a byproduct of reporters digging down with the same ferocity that Hersh employed. It would be proof that we have a healthy press, that we have an independent mechanism for holding an imperial presidency accountable, and that the American media still have a vital role as an investigative arm that will do the work that public agencies won’t.

In the last several weeks, two Bush administration insiders, the usually secretive former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and former Assistant Attorney General Jay Bybee, found themselves in the news and offering up leads that reporters need to chase down. Gonzales granted a rare interview to Texas Monthly; Bybee made the papers after his closed-door testimony to a House committee investigating torture was released.

The men are tied by infamous deeds: Bybee helped write two infamous “torture memos” that went from his desk at the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to the hands of then–White House counsel Gonzales. Those memos greenlit the use of waterboarding and inspired other “enhanced interrogation techniques” that Bybee now claims he never intended to happen—but that, based on his testimony, rogue elements in the CIA apparently inflicted with brutal precision.

The news accounts of the two men had a remarkable similarity: You hear them both talk about their sensitivity, their humanity … the fact that they have families. You can feel Bybee and Gonzales spinning, mightily, in order to inoculate their legacies and maybe even head off any deeper media inquiries into their role in the ill-fated U.S. torture regimens.

But reporters must not allow that to happen.

Gonzales and Bybee essentially offered investigative journalists road maps: Gonzales admitted that he didn’t know anything about the Geneva Conventions, and Bybee finally admitted that, yes, someone had gone too far when it came to waterboarding and human rights abuses.

Those two admissions alone should jump-start media investigations into the dark story of torture during the Bush administration’s muscled-up “war on terror.” They should inspire editors to work backward from Gonzales’ and Bybee’s words and unleash reporters who can determine whether the two men were inhumanely reckless or criminally negligent.

It’s not just an academic point. As the Washington Post series “Top Secret America” illustrated, since 9/11 the intelligence industry has grown so large that it now employs almost 1 million Americans. The growing demand for information on terrorists can only be satisfied with help from our well-compensated allies in the Middle East and South Asia. In other words, America may have stopped torturing people, but we’re probably still paying other people to do it for us.

Unfortunately, some in the media would like us to forget the whole nasty torture thing. The New York Times’ David Brooks once humiliated himself on PBS in a discussion about Americans torturing other human beings:

“Is this something we want to go back and criminalize?” asked Brooks. For good measure, he leaned on his preferred voice of reason: “This is what Dick Cheney is talking about.”

Well, to answer Brooks’ self-damning rhetorical:

Yes, it is something we want to criminalize.

And the media needs to wake up and hound the truth the way Sy Hersh once did and still does.

 

Read more about Gonzales in Bill Minutaglio’s unauthorized biography.

Watch Seymour Hersh speak at the Observer’s MOLLY National Journalism Prize dinner.