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State of the Media

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—,–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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