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State of the Media

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.

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?