Muckraking 2.0

by Published on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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