State of the Media

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.

Afghanistan: The Truth Leaks – Again

Some critics are more worried about how the Afghanistan war documents got out, instead of what damning news in in them.

I.F. Stone said this almost 50 years ago: “The bureaucracies put out so much that they cannot help letting the truth slip from time to time.”

Stone would be nodding his head as he watched the U.S. military denounce the fact that on Sunday, Wikileaks worked with The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Speigel to release tens of thousands of classified war documents.

Stone, more than almost any other American journalist, learned to feast on government records – ones he ferreted out from deep inside the grey buildings (the “bowels of government” as he called it), as well as ones that conscience-guided whistleblowers handed to him.

Either way they arrived on his desk, it didn’t matter – Stone believed that all governments lie and that sometimes it was only the Big Bureaucratic paper trail that led to the truth. And he believed in the public’s right to know what the hell the government is doing for them – or to them.

People familiar with many of the 92,000 documents that the still-anonymous source gave to Wikileaks are suggesting that perhaps the scariest thing that the papers reveal is a bigger pattern of civilian casualties in the Afghanistan war than was widely known.

And the head of Wikileaks has been suggesting that there is more to come, and that it might eventually lead to war crimes investigations.

It’s convenient to blame the messenger and skip the message – the cautionary lessons about the First Amendment, about the right to truth in a democracy. This is not new. There were people who wanted Stone to vanish – in any way possible.

And it was never really a long leap from past revelations like the Pentagon Papers, which revealed how the public was lied to over Vietnam, to other more contemporary government charades and lies – and other attempts to muffle the First Amendment, to muzzle the media.

There was the carefully organized, smoke-and-mirrors invitation for reporters to “embed” themselves with military units during the 2003 launch of the war in Iraq. The military couldn’t wait to slap helmets on gullible reporters whom Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove correctly assumed would love to play G.I. Joe and forget that the real stories: Why exactly was the U.S. in another war in the first place? Who said there were WMDs? What was the real prime directive?

Now, the Wikileaks episode has already reprised a lot of these regrettably redundant lessons. Some critics are more worried about how the Afghanistan war documents got out, instead of what damning news is in them.

We might not ever be privy to the full conversations that editors might have had with the military over what exact portions of the leaked documents can run – and what was held back from readers.

That’s another dilemma itself. It raises the question of whether editors should censor themselves in the name of government policies. It raises the question of how editors decide what is a matter of national security, and what is a nation’s right to know.

For now, the Wikileaks saga has proved at least one thing.

We still have an aching need for a ballsy, aggressive press — one utterly defined by a belief that governments really do lie … and really need to be held accountable to their citizens.

Controlling the Spill

For Mark Schleifstein, covering the oil tragedy in the Gulf has to be like revisiting a nightmare. In 2002, the veteran, much-honored reporter wrote a definitive series for The New Orleans Times-Picayune accurately predicting hell on earth was coming in the form of floods. No one heard him. No one answered the questions he was trying to raise. When Katrina landed in 2005, he found himself trying to stay alive in a wounded city … and having to write about exactly what he had said would happen. It was death-grip surrealism. He and his extraordinary colleagues eventually won the Pulitzer for work that revealed to many readers how a criminally inept president, his cronies, and the Louisiana state government had left one of the great cities of the world to rot.

Now Schleifstein and other reporters are covering the BP disaster and, again, it seems as if their questions are going unanswered—if they are allowed to ask questions at all.

As with Katrina, the world craves straight answers—and it needs reporters who know what the hell to ask, how to ask it, and how to determine who is lying to the American people. If folks still think the public’s right to know hard facts is best served by “citizen bloggers” thousands of miles away from the disaster area who theorize wildly about life-and-death complexities, then their brains should be used to dam up the spewing BP pipes.

We need serious journalists holding BP, the Coast Guard, President Obama and anyone else accountable. Especially now that the federal government seems blissfully intent on ceding the flow of information to a private company. “It’s a frustrating situation,” says Schleifstein. During Katrina, “there wasn’t this private entity you had to deal with … they don’t understand the media, and they don’t understand what our needs are.”

It’s not just BP or the feds. Schleifstein runs into walls with state officials. That, perhaps, is not surprising to anyone who knows how Louisiana and Texas are run by Big Oil. For years, he has been trying to get state officials to address a chronically underreported story—what the hell happened to the 8.7 million gallons of oil leaked from rigs and storage tanks during hurricanes Katrina and Rita? “You can’t get any information out of the state on those spills,” he says.

So when reporters learn there is another “press conference,” it is like a flashback to the toxic reporting environment of the Bush era. The briefings are aggressively fire-walled and 15 to 25 minutes long. You’re lucky to be one of the six or seven reporters allowed to ask one question. That’s if you are told where a conference will be.

Sandy Davis, with the Baton Rouge Advocate, had someone climb onto a fire station roof in Grand Isle, La., to examine a 7-mile stretch of coastline to find a press conference. No one would tell her where on the island the event would be held.

All the evasive dancing is designed to avoid culpability. The feds relentlessly point at BP—and BP ducks low as it becomes increasingly worried about bankruptcy. So the big questions go unanswered: Who knew when there was a problem? Exactly how many barrels of oil have been leaked? And who is really in charge—BP or the federal government?

Davis calls BP and is steered to people who offer generally useless drips of information and refuse to give their names. She routinely asks: Can I talk to anyone at all who can be quoted? The Coast Guard spin doctors are in drone mode. “They know nothing beyond how many feet of boom is being laid,” says Davis.

Then there was the deputy sheriff trying to throw Davis and a photographer off a beach. And the sheriff who told her to call BP after she tried to chase down a report about a possible offshore accident.

One day Davis felt she was getting closer to asking the Coast Guard “what they knew and how much they knew.” She was patched through to the inner circle around Adm. Thad Allen, the alleged point person for Obama’s federal response. Then a lieutenant commander told her, “You should be hearing back from BP.”

Of course there was that press conference on Grand Isle. The rooftop spotter spied national TV trucks and determined that’s where the short conference was. (That episode suggests the feds and BP are catering to the networks rather than local print reporters.)

“They are on a learning curve on how to deal with the public,” says Davis. “Their first reaction is to control.”

So she has a modest suggestion: “Don’t worry about what we’re doing. Let us have access … what can you hide in this thing? We’re watching the oil leak in.”

Covered Up in Plain Sight

The fact that British Petroleum has been one of the most clandestine corporate citizens in recent history should be as brutally evident as the scummy oil now eating away at our nation’s hem. It has aggressively skirted media scrutiny for years, and its dismal lack of transparency is especially visible in Texas City. ¶ People in hard-working Texas City know all too well what the mainstream media is only just coming to understand. They know that dead men haunt the waterfront—men who lost their lives in earlier British Petroleum disasters. So it is beyond perverse that oil the company plans to “capture” from its gushing underwater well was destined for refineries in Texas City, where BP is still untangling the consequences of its bloody past.

Texas City’s history of calamity is long. In one of the most underreported environmental stories in American history, the town was laid to waste in 1947—more than 500 people killed, thousands injured, tons of deadly petrochemicals poured into the bay and the gumbo soil. BP wasn’t in Texas City in 1947. The so-called Texas City Disaster was the product of a neglectful federal government and the secretive petrochemical industries lining the coast. It dominated headlines for a few weeks and then all but disappeared.

That’s a pattern that BP is angling to replicate as it unleashes spin doctors, ignores inquiries, refuses to set up a press room and insists on locating its “response headquarters” in the less-than-convenient small Louisiana towns of Houma and Roberts.

“They are just not forthright about what’s going on,” says Dr. Robert Thomas, the Texas native who directs the Center for Environmental Communication at Loyola University in New Orleans. “BP is not talking about what they are spraying [as a dispersant] … and what the implications are. For days we couldn’t find out what they were spraying.”

A veteran biologist and zoologist, Thomas has been deeply absorbed in both the spill and BP’s attempts to control the story. Reporters, he says, are trying to squeeze straight answers from a behemoth accustomed not just to avoiding the media, but to controlling it.

“I’ve heard a lot of people saying, ‘I can’t get the information I need.’”

In Texas City, some folks aren’t surprised. They know BP as the clever giant that years ago began pouring millions of advertising dollars down the gullets of thirsty mainstream newspapers and magazines. With the calculated callousness of a corporate Nostradamus, BP executives no doubt saw a future when Americans would wise up to the fact that Bush-Cheney Inc. was nothing but an especially willing servant of the oil industry. So British Petroleum launched an aggressive “reinvention,” working the media hard, sending corporate soothsayers into editorial boardrooms and taking out handsome ads asserting a greener BP, “Beyond Petroleum,” safe, clean and verdantly inclined.

In 2005, the charade was revealed when 15 workers died in a tragic accident at the BP facility in Texas City. A shitstorm of investigations, fines and accusations finally unmasked the company. Media accounts, including those in The New York Times, expressed a naïve sense of surprise, as if the incident had been just a singular, asymptomatic stab. BP simply waited it out.

Now, as BP oil pumps into the Gulf, Thomas sees reporters screwing up the courage to face down the energy-industry gods. Some very brave reporting is coming from New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, the saintly publication that has been fighting with one hand tied behind its back since Katrina. And Thomas knows all about the entrenched cultural reluctance trickling down from the upper links of the media food chain in this part of America: “We tend to not be as confrontational with them [the energy companies]. There tends to be, from the top, a sense of ‘let’s don’t be too harsh.’”

It’s as if a billion-dollar global volcano has been smoking in plain sight for decades, and the media responds only when it erupts, when lives are lost, when entire ecosystems are in danger.

Otherwise, “They [BP] are absent, they are not at the forefront of the discussion,” Thomas says.

So the question is this: Shouldn’t the media always keep BP front and center, based solely on the company’s haunted history? And if we don’t, what will the ghosts of Texas City’s dead think of the 2015 report that BP will inevitably issue on the still unfolding tragedy in the Gulf?

Borderline Bias

There is zero question that hellish violence is going on along the border, largely on the Mexican side. It has to be reported—and it often is, by enormously courageous reporters. But as the news has been spiking over the last few years and deeply seeping into America, it has become an increasingly easy temptation for fear-mongers to lump very distinct issues and people together. It began, perhaps, with Glenn Beck playing to the cheap seats one night: “This is al Qaeda stuff,” said Beck, a few years ago as much of the country was first becoming attuned to the border realities. He had a rotating set of pictures over his shoulder—images of unidentified bloodied men, maps with ominous arrows charting drug cartel violence, the words “BORDER CRISIS” on the screen.

The breathless “reports” simply keep escalating. Flash forward to today: An online Fox News story on border violence quotes a grand vizier from the Cato Institute saying a “worst-case scenario” will lead to a “sudden surge” of 1 million Mexicans crossing the border and Mexico becoming “the Western hemisphere’s equivalent of Somalia,” and that it all “would clearly require a military response from the United States.”

Our very own state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has been busy connecting dots through the media as he tries to raise his national profile. The radio show host posed this question to Fox News for a report on border violence: “Do you strengthen the borders so people cannot get in by the thousands every day, or do you create detention centers where people are held until their status is determined?”

Tying the drug wars to a long-lusted-for, growing web of immigrant detention centers is an insidious piece of old-style Texas political craftsmanship. It’s also part of a great tradition in our state: In the 1970s, the Texas Rangers basically occupied Crystal City. They were ostensibly there to look for drugs and corruption, but their real job was to break the back of the La Raza Unida movement. Gov. Dolph Briscoe said organizers were actually not creating farms but “establishing a little Cuba.”

Now, as then, the fear has gone mainstream. Oscar Garza, a former editor at The Los Angeles Times and Tu Ciudad, points to a story in the New York Times travel section on South Texas bird sanctuaries: “Not long ago, that story would have recommended a visit across the border for lunch or dinner. Instead, there was this: ‘The United States Border Patrol is a constant presence along the river, and in light of the recent drug-related violence on the Mexican side, a welcome, if disquieting sight.’”

Garza says, of course, that the media must respond to the breaking news: “I think the media is in a tough spot right now. … The violence can’t be ignored. There is no vacuum to escape its presence.”

But the fallout can get complicated: “Immigration and the violence … get all rolled up into one point of view,” says Meg Guerra, with the LareDOS newspaper in Laredo. She’s not blind to what’s happening: men with guns at the lunch counter, what sounds like bombs going off south of the river, thudding helicopters hovering over her ranch. But the beleaguered media aren’t reporting “the human side” of the borderlands, she says.

There is little time, money and manpower. It is triage reporting. And the reporters can’t control how the talk shows and spin doctors try to parlay drug war stories into some wicked political advantage. Worse, Guerra wonders if racists reading the border news are increasingly demonizing anyone with Mexican heritage.

Years ago, I was in The Classic Club, a cool blues haven in southern Dallas. The phone rang, and the African-American owner, Earnest Davis, answered and I saw a big weariness wash over him. The presumably Anglo caller was asking if Earnest’s club, his neighborhood, “was safe to visit.” He told the person that not everyone was bad in the southern part of town.

It’s a microcosmic parallel, but jingoistic, damning stereotypes are no doubt being reprised right now, as coverage of the drug wars in Mexico gets abducted by the screaming high priests of the reactionary right.

In the Rio Grande Valley, Alberto Salinas, a longtime faith healer in Edinburg (he channels the spirit of folk saint Niño Fidencio), asked me to relay this message to the politicians and the media: “There are only a handful of bad people ruining it for the rest of us.”

New School Journalism

I was in New York a short while ago at yet another “future of media” conference—with men in bow ties, the tang of cologne and coffee, and a shitload of glossy-looking PowerPoint presentations—that felt eerily like a conference I attended in Texas in 2009. Which was eerily like one I attended at Harvard in 2008. All of them, I suspect, will be remarkably similar to the ones in 2010 I have circled on my calendar. The conferences, filled with dutiful harrumphing, could all go by the same title: Does Anybody Here Have A Goddamned Clue What The Hell Is Going On With the Journalism Business?

At future-of-journalism confabs, you have to endure discussions with fidgety “new media people,” who are 100-percent sanctimoniously convinced that there are still some journalists who haven’t heard that old media business models are dying. It reminds me of my favorite headline, ever, from The Abilene Reporter-News: “Shooting Of Cow Depresses Pastor.” In other words: Stop preaching the obvious. Today you’d be hard-pressed to find a mogul, editor or reporter who hasn’t signed up, willingly or unwillingly, for new media changes.

We need to stop having conferences to agree on what we already agree on. Instead, we need to talk about game-changing notions for the next generation of journalists. If technology is making it possible for everyone to gather news, share news and become a citizen journalist, then we should explore some things that probably will make Rick Perry bolt awake at night and run screaming naked through groves of stinging ocotillo.

For starters, Texas should make journalism a required course in high schools and maybe even middle schools. The courses should address the good stuff: why giving voice to the voiceless is a guiding principle of the Founding Fathers. As Molly Ivins might have insisted: Oh hell, it’s no real biggie … we’re just talking about Big Time Democracy.

A year ago, I was a guest in a classroom with Magdalena Zavala and her student journalists at Taylor High School. There was the future of journalism: kids grilling me, showing some healthy skepticism about the guy with the tie in the front of the room. I had a feeling they were going to be putting Twitter, Facebook and anything else to the same use that citizen journalists have been doing in China, Iran, Haiti and other places where the press needs to be in the hands of the people.

For grins—and since my kids were required to study a certain sanitized version of Texas history—I also say that kids should be taught the evolution of journalism in Texas. All of it:

  • The Dallas Express had to exist because The Dallas Morning News was never going to write certain stories. Like the time, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, a black janitor from Dallas was castrated by a mob in Pittsburg—you’ll find the story in the “black newspaper,” but not in the “white newspaper.”
  • William Brann, who edited a controversial “journal of personal protest” called The Iconoclast, was hounded and kidnapped by irate readers—and finally shot to death in 1898 in Waco by someone no doubt offended by his investigations of the political, business and cultural powers-that-be.
  • Women who pursued journalism in Texas once were exiled to writing about high society, cooking and school lunch menus—until women like Molly Ivins and Kaye Northcott decided to blow down some doors with their work at this very magazine.

If Molly could arrange it, I think she would appear, via the Skype portal in heaven, to teach these skills to Texas students: How to find that elusive paper trail of malfeasance, maybe even at their own schools. How to use new technology to make sure that the intended audience actually receives it—including, especially, their classmates. How to examine systems of government, do public affairs reporting, deconstruct how institutions work—starting with their own educators, principals, coaches and superintendents.

We all know technological paradigms are unfolding faster than the good brisket disappears at Snow’s BBQ in Lexington. Now we need to make sure the owner’s manual to good journalism, the kind that absolutely must be practiced in a democratic society, is served up sooner … not locked in a gilded box on the top floor of those old burning structures.

No Foundation

When I was reporting years ago in Nicaragua and traveling with a squad of Sandinista soldiers, a weary woman in a village in the middle of a battle zone told me that I had “the face of a priest.” That didn’t necessarily mean that she liked me. After years of war, neglect and poverty, she had grown skeptical of newcomers, including priests coming to relay her impoverished reality to a higher power.

I told her I was a reporter, but that didn’t erase the look of aching resignation on her face. History, no doubt, constantly reaffirmed her suspicions—here was another liberal anthropologist, this one posing as a member of the media, who had hacked through the jungle to study her. Like another sanctimonious ghost, another false promise, he’d be gone in a few days.

It wasn’t hard to see that same resignation in the media moments emerging from this year’s Haitian nightmare. The parallels to Katrina and New Orleans are not to be ignored: A natural disaster hits a region that—because it has been designed by slavery and racism—is filled with people acutely aware of their place in the caste system.

And like Katrina and New Orleans, the media faced a crucial debate: how to convey the symptomatic, grisly, turmoil…and how to hover above it and give the long, contextual (and, yes, condemning) view of Haiti’s wretched evolution. How to connect the breaking news to the land grabs, exploitation and dictatorships that the United States had supported for decades. Haiti was vulnerable long before the earthquake struck, and its history is almost a perfect microcosm of the lingering ruin left in the wake of super-powers hell bent on cornering the market on…you name it…sugar, spices, cotton and human beings. It was almost a pet phrase in the media for years and years—“poorest nation in the Western hemisphere.”

A nonscientific view of the Texas media’s coverage of Haiti suggests plenty of symptomatic “first responder” coverage—the front-page images of bodies and snaking lines for food and water. And the usual scrambles to find “local” angles (Texans who perished in Haiti, Texans tied to the adoption of Haitian children, Texans doing relief work—often through church groups). The challenge, of course, was simply being able to hold a mirror to the immediate reality.

“I give reporters a pass,” says John Burnett, the veteran Texas-based correspondent for National Public Radio, who just returned from Haiti. “Logistically, just getting around the shattered capital, finding officials who knew something, and holding one’s emotions in check were a challenge every day.

“As in New Orleans after Katrina, it was the journalists that alerted the world that this is a bad one. Send help. And when the aid agencies and the U.S. government assured us that help was on the way, the journalists showed that it might be on the way, but it wasn’t getting to the squalid tent camps where it was desperately needed. The aid distribution was paralyzed by disorganization, violent crowds, lack of security and inadequate supplies. So I guess I feel like we did our job.”

The images on TV were especially ceaseless and grinding, and millions of Americans sent money to help. But could the media have done more to affix blame for the conditions in pre-earthquake Haiti?

“What’s largely missing…has been the analysis,” says veteran Texas journalist and author R.A. “Jake” Dyer, who has reported extensively in Haiti.

“The public has a voracious appetite for constant Web updates, and so the pressure on reporters to produce fresh copy has been enormous. Making the call to remove a reporter from the daily action … and instead allow that reporter to spend several days or a week on analysis—that’s a very difficult call for an editor.”

Now the story has moved on. In Houston, the erudite Gabrielle Cosgriff—who has written many crusading editorials in the Houston Chronicle—had a stinging indictment. She perused her regular daily newspapers on the first Friday in February—and found that they had confined almost all their coverage to the American missionaries accused of child trafficking.

“So, apart from the American connection,” she wrote to me, “we’re done with Haiti, knowing little more than that a terrible natural disaster occurred, God knows how many people died, and a poor country is now even poorer.”

Full-Court Cyberpress

LBJ once breezily put it this way: “The press helps me … the press is one of the best servants I have.”

Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison still would like to swear by what Big Brother LBJ preached in Texas. It’s just that they know that the mechanisms they’re using to pursue so-called servitude have changed a bit since 1965. Back then LBJ was happy to manipulate the press with tumblers of scotch or sometimes a clenched fist. Today it’s RSS feeds, Twitter blurts, carefully forwarded e-mails and Facebook leaks used by political operatives in Austin, so many of them with freshly minted public-affairs degrees and multimedia expertise. The tactics are different, but the goal is the same—control the coverage.

Sometimes the dark arts emerge in plain sight: For a good part of 2010, Hutchison’s people have been harrumphing about news accounts of “widely leaked poll results from Perry pollster Mike Baselice.” The poll, wonder of wonders, miraculously showed Perry thumping Hutchison. It has been described in almost every story as the “internal Perry campaign memo circulating on blogs and among political operatives.”

Laptop CompterBy some accounts, the poll began showing up over the holidays as an attachment to forwarded e-mails from the Perry campaign to supporters. Eager bloggers began picking up on the numbers. (One blog introduced the poll results this way: “This was sent today on the letterhead of Baselice & Associates to Texans for Rick Perry.”) Fairly quickly, political reporters with audiences beyond the blogs began publishing the numbers. In what had to be the intended cause and effect, Hutchison was on her heels—crabbing that the race was actually “dead even.”

One thing is clear: The poll numbers—forget whether they are accurate—went viral very, very quickly.

“While the professional reporter could serve as a filter for the public, now everything is out there unfiltered,” says Houston Chronicle reporter R.G. Ratcliffe.

“Some in politics would say that’s a good thing, but it makes it more difficult for the occasional political visitor to know what is true, who to trust and how to tell the difference between facts and spin. I’m pretty sure the Baselice poll was intentionally leaked. But I’m not sure that’s really any different from the days when political campaigns produced their own newspapers … . The big difference in the electronic leaks is how fast they spread.”

The Politics 2.0 world, filled with so many anonymous portals, is a perfect host—it’s like seeding news arteries with hungry cancer cells. Twitter is, according to the Austin American-Statesman‘s Jason Embry, a key part of the new methodology in Texas. He points to the Perry campaign tweeting whenever The Wall Street Journal writes yet another positive opinion piece on Perry. “The Perry people are very good at using Twitter,” says Embry.

One veteran Texas reporter recently told me political insiders are also aware of the harsh economic realties in some newsrooms. News outlets can’t afford to commission as many polls as they once did, so they’re hungry for any numbers from the digital transom. They will rush to report the “internal polling” numbers, including the ones “leaked to blogs”—and they even dutifully point out that the numbers were generated by folks on a politician’s payroll. The bottom line is that they have published what the campaigns wanted leaked.

Are Baselice’s numbers bad? He has a reputation for calling races accurately. But is that the bigger issue? Hardly. The bigger consideration is how they change the pace—and direction—of coverage: Releasing poll numbers diverts attention back to horse-race campaign coverage—and away from what the hell candidates are promising to do to help small businesses in Houston’s Fifth Ward, or to bring medical coverage to millions of uninsured Texans.

One reporter, someone supportive of the upside of the new media, told me that the reality in Texas is that there is now this ongoing, gurgling “published rumor mill that we have to pay attention to.” It takes time to follow it all; it takes time to sort out the good things.

Embry, like so many political reporters in Texas, says that he works 24/7 to keep pace. He has decided that reading blogs is useful, but only to a degree—reading them, he says, is “not reporting.”

Through it all, the spin-doctors are still figuring out how to control the new paradigm. It’s no secret that many of the ones doing the figuring are longtime, hardcore Bush operatives. Karl Rove and other soulmates in Austin, like media strategists Mark McKinnon and Dan Bartlett, were among the first to get in on the new zeitgeist. A decade ago, they began dwelling on the obvious: How the hell do you use the new media to sell George W. Bush … to sell Gingrich-meets-Wolfowitz? Rove wasn’t sure where and how to begin, except to resort to the trusty jackboot of shutting down dissent. He began snapping up “scary” domain names—bushsucks.com, bushbites.com–and then getting earnest GOP techies to link them to “friendly” Bush sites.

Today, the number of full-time, day-in, day-out reporters covering state politics is plummeting. Media strategists—disciples and even grudging admirers of Rove’s legacy in Texas—are working from the bottom up, not the top down. They don’t walk to the political news bureaus on Congress Avenue the way they used to—with bags of candy. They don’t have to. Now they send messages in a bottle, sometimes to anonymous bloggers, and assume the news will begin to spin.

Bill Minutaglio is a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and author of several books, most recently Molly Ivins: A Rebel Life, co-authored with W. Michael Smith. His column will appear monthly in the Observer.

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