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Ronnie Dugger: Godfather of Progressive Journalism in Texas

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The Austin American-Statesman published a wonderful profile of Ronnie Dugger on Sunday. If you haven’t read Brad Buchholz’s the story yet, I highly recommend it.

Ronnie, of course, is the Observer’s founding editor, the man who, back in 1954, started this publication and authored the creed we still follow today, “We will serve no group or party but will hew hard to the truth as we find it and the right as we see it. We are dedicated to the whole truth, to human values above all interests, to the rights of humankind as the foundation of democracy. We will take orders from none but our own conscience, and never will we overlook or misrepresent the truth to serve the interests of the powerful or cater to the ignoble in the human spirit.”

Buchholz writes that Ronnie, who recently returned to Austin after some years in Massachusetts, is the “godfather of progressive journalism in Texas.” That’s inarguable. 

Earlier this month, Ronnie, 81, was honored with a George Polk Career Award for his many years of outstanding journalism. The Polk Awards are among the most prestigious prizes in our field, and the lifetime achievement award is a tremendous recognition of Ronnie’s work.

He received the award at a gala dinner in New York on April 5. I’ve pasted below the speech Ronnie gave that night. True to form, his speech begins with a few words about the early days of the Observer, but then quickly moves on to a discussion about the looming dangers of nuclear weapons. If you know Ronnie, it’s not surprising that on the night he received a prestigious career achievement award, he talked not about himself but about an issue close to his heart. With Ronnie Dugger, what matters most isn’t personal fame or recognition, but making the world a better place.

 

I’m deeply honored to be present among this award’s inspiring special achievers this year.

Texas in 1954 had no big-city daily newspaper in which one could sense freedom of conscience.  A group of us decided to build The Texas Observer into an independent liberal weekly paper that would introduce freedom of conscience into the press of the state.

From the first I sought to practice journalism according to three basic standards, accuracy, fairness instead of “objectivity,” and moral seriousness.  We were a tiny group, running on a shoestring, and we lost money at once and for the next 44 years.  But we found and told a lot of stories that would have been lost, and somehow together we made a go of it.

Once I did a story establishing that the man who was chairman of the Texas state agency regulating the oil companies was also drilling wells for them for his profit.  I gave him his full say, of course.  There was not a ripple in the rest of the press.  A year or so later the Dallas Morning News of that day—it’s a much better newspaper now– reported the same story as if it was new.  In that and other ways doing the Observer was like playing a guitar, but with no sound coming out of it.

In due course our freedom attracted serious reporters and writers, Billy Lee Brammer, Bob Bray, Jim Hightower, Elroy Bode, Willie Morris, Robert Sherrill, Kaye Northcott, Geoff Rips, Molly Ivins—too many more to name.  Then there were supporters making up the deficits with money—lumber heiress Mrs. R.D. Randolph, insurance man Bernard Rapoport, oilman J.R. Parten, banker Walter Hall, and thousands more with $5 to a hundred.  And the people on the business side, two of whom, Sarah Payne and Cliff Olafson, gave their lives for it.

The unattended-to injustices overwhelmed us, as they still do the staff 57 years later.  One day in 1955, a subscriber in East Texas phoned me that he had read a two-inch story in his area daily that somebody had driven through a little country town for blacks only, shooting bullets.  I went out there and got the story.  Bullets slammed into a schoolbus and houses, landing around a woman who was kneeling at her bed saying her nightly prayers, plugging into a café, killing a boy of 16 and injuring two younger girls who had been dancing together.   The publicity led to a trial and to Southern justice for one of the two young white men who had done it, “guilty, five years suspended”; no trial at all for the other one.  But the story was told, and 50 years later is part of the memorialized history of East Texas.

Now, here I am, the old guy you see, but still a reporter trying to find stories.  I’ve been worried since the fifties about Hbombs, and I’ll wonder a little with you now if we’re doing enough, and on a long-enough timeline, on the story about the likelihood of an Hbomb holocaust that would decimate, or end, life on earth.  That possibility seems like an old story, the Cuban missile crisis–Gorbachev and Reagan solved that, didn’t they?—end of the cold war.  But no, it’s not over.  It’s worse.

The present form of the story, like that about North Korea, is the daily drumbeat that Israel well may now bomb Iran, that is, attack it, to get at its nuclear program, and the consequences for the next two or three years. Could we not be overlooking some profound truths and questions concerning this spasmodically worsening situation, the rising danger of an Hbomb holocaust?

Why are nuclear weapons called “weapons of mass destruction” when morally they are weapons of mass murder?

If we put aside the Soviet collapse, the disassembly of grotesquely surplus nukes, and cosmetics, is it not true that there has not yet been any effective nuclear disarmament?

Why is the deterrence doctrine against nuclear attack so numbly accepted?   Deterrence has to mean retaliation.  It posits retaliation with nuclear weapons.  Mass murder for mass murder.

Has deterrence “worked,” as is so commonly said, or did the skin of our teeth work, barely saving us three times from at least tens of millions dead?  An Hbomb explodes in millionths of a second with several times the heat of the core of the sun.  Tens of millions of degrees.  Heat, blast, radiation, no life.  Only one failure of deterrence can be, the experts say, a billion dead.

Unimaginable.

When in the 1960s I asked President Johnson in the White House about nuclear weapons, he flared into anger against me that I had done so and exclaimed, “I’m the one who has to mash the button.”  Richard Garwin, one of the three inventors of the Hbomb, told me in an interview in 1986 that what we’re doing with deterrence is buying time, that nuclear proliferation can’t be stopped, there will be a nuclear war, and a billion people will die.  Why are so many of us so confident this will not happen?  Are we lemmings?  Is this not the most important subject on the world, whether it will happen, or can we prevent it?  More nations keep getting the bomb.

There is still no international control of these weapons that can end life on earth.  Is Gorbachev not right in cautioning us very recently that we need enough effective international governance to keep events from becoming “dangerously unpredictable”?  Are they not already so?  As Robert Jay Lifton said to me this morning, unpredictability is all right, except on nuclear weapons.

Dr. Garwin’s prophecy is coming toward true.

How have nine nations become nine separate owners of the Hbombs that can be sent to mass murder the people of any large city, or a country?  Why are these weapons still, 67 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, none of our business, with possibly apocalyptic facts about them blocked off from us by nine separate systems of military secrecy?

For example, does Israel have five nuclear-armed submarines in the Mediterranean, as indicated in the recent well-sourced book How the End Begins?

Jonathan Schell reports in his book The Seventh Decade that 50 more nations know how to make the Hbombs.  They are secrets no more.  Why, then, are Hbombs still a national, not an international, question?

Why has the actual and prospective nuclear policy and practice of the U.S., Israel, and Britain segued away from the promised disarmament into attacking nations we don’t trust that we believe insist on getting the weapons that we keep on having?

What really is happening to and in our own nuclear arsenal of almost 5,000 Hbombs?  Last fall in Los Alamos a former director of nuclear bomb development at our lab there told me what we should be doing is making our nuclear weapons more usable.  Might that be what we’ve been doing?

President Obama calls for a nuclear-free world, but not likely in our lifetimes, he added.  Why not?  We say other nations mislead us about their nuclear plans.  Are we reporting and analyzing, with the emphasis needed, whether our own government is also guilty of hypocrisy on this?

Why does our country, after 67 years, still not have a “No further first use” policy about our nuclear weapons?

How long has it been since one of us asked the President that question?

And what is the political and ethical responsibility of the American citizen for our Hbombs?

What, if aimed, are American nuclear bombs aimed at?  If exploded on target, how many people will they kill?  If we use them either to attack or retaliate, what would that do to our standing in the history and conscience of humanity?

This subject can turn anyone into a melancholiac, but none of us knows if the Hbomb holocaust will come, and  where there’s uncertainty there’s hope.

Dr. Lifton speaks of “species consciousness,” that we are all one species, all in this together, and one senses that this consciousness is spreading, although slowly, around the world.

And of all the looming subjects of our time this is the most nonpartisan.  Killing all of them and all of us must not  be a political, an ideological, a religious, a nationalistic purpose.  Preventing Hbomb holocaust is the all-partisan story, partisan to all of us and everything else living.

I believe we journalists have a professional and ethical responsibility to penetrate this story more deeply than we have on behalf of our readers and watchers.  A story that hasn’t happened yet is hard to investigate.  Perhaps we should have a new discussion on this among us.  If the holocaust comes we are not likely to be around to report it.

May our thought, our work, and our words do what we can.

Thank you again.

 

Dave Mann has been with the Observer since 2003. Before that, he worked as a reporter in Fort Worth and Washington, D.C. He was born and raised in Philadelphia. He thinks border collies are the world’s greatest dogs, and believes in the nourishing powers of pickup basketball.