Gannett’s Man in El Paso

by Jake Bernstein

Don Flores is on the defensive. “I don’t need Kennedy, Hillary, Jesse Jackson –you name the person –I don’t need anybody as an Hispanic to tell me how to act,” he exclaims. Flores is the editor of the El Paso Times . The newspaper has a monopoly in this West Texas city. It’s the only major daily. In fact, as Flores notes, it’s pretty much the only major newspaper between Lubbock and Albuquerque.

The editor is sitting in his corner office in the Times’ down town building, adroitly parrying accusations he has heard before. For most of Flores’ decade-long tenure, the El Paso Times has been roundly criticized both locally and nationally for being out of step with its border community.

The region is home to some of the poorest people in both Mexico and the United States. El Paso itself has an overwhelmingly Latino population and its electorate traditionally votes Democratic. Consequently, El Paso ranks as a net loser from the GOP policies coming out of Austin today. Yet on major issues facing the Texas legislature from budget cuts to redistricting to raising university tuition, the Times’ editorials have consistently sided with the Republican leadership to the detriment of its own community.

Flores disagrees with this assessment. He believes that his critics have unfairly targeted him and the Times. “I think part of it is racism because they see an Hispanic getting ahead,” he argues.

But criticism of the Times in El Paso is not limited to the “white northeasterners ” singled out by Flores. Bashing the Times seems to unite Latinos and Anglos in El Paso. Dissatisfaction with the paper can be found from businessmen, labor leaders, and elected officials. In fact, in a deeply divided El Paso, complaining about the Times seems to be one of the few unifiers.

Recently, after yet another Times’ editorial trashing his party on redistricting, a clearly exasperated El Paso Democratic Rep. Paul Moreno had had enough. In a letter to the paper in August, Moreno wrote: “Once again . . . the El Paso Times’ Editorial Board distinguished itself by being out of touch with the rest of the State of Texas.”

Never has Moreno’s contention been truer than during the recently concluded legislative marathon in Austin. It began with the budget. On January 13, the Times ran an editorial titled “Tough Times in Texas “with a subhead that read, “Legislators must focus on fiscal responsibility.” In the editorial, the paper provided a cheer chorus to Gov. Rick Perry’s charge to cut spending without raising taxes.

El Paso was one of the few, if not the only, newspaper in the state that actively editorialized for increased budget cuts. Contrast the Times position with a newspaper hardly known as a hotbed of liberal radicalism, the Dallas Morning News. The day after the Times editorial, the News ran one that read: “GOP leaders say they can fix the deficit without a tax hike. They’re wrong. They should act sensibly now to avoid a larger tax bite later. “

The Times continued to editorialize against a fictitious flabby government throughout January. On the 24th, the paper ran an editorial that read in part: “Lawmakers should make focusing on cleaning up waste, mismanagement and incompetence in state agencies a priority –and before trying to stick Texans with any new taxes or sneaky expansions of taxes that are already in place.”

In the spring, the Times took up the drumbeat for tort reform, parroting Republican arguments with editorials like the one on March 20th: “Tort reform needed: Doctors are leaving Texas in alarming numbers.” But it wasn’t until congressional redistricting rolled around that Flores and the editorialists at the Times really let go.

Their opinion pieces on redistricting contradicted every major newspaper in Texas, as well as most popular opinion. The paper made its mark in editorials like “Texas-size walkout; Demos show poor judgment ” (May 13), “Pride fuels boycott; Demos hurt themselves, all Texans ” (August 5), and “Let the games stop; Texans falling victims of politics ” (August 30).

Besides the rank partisanship of the Times’ editorials, what is particularly noteworthy is their tone. Generally, major newspaper editorials try for a posture that is serious and sober, and that presents an elevated perspective –regardless of ideology. The El Paso Times cast the redistricting battle as some kind of playground fight, and the paper was happy to dive right in, tossing insults. In various editorials, it described Democrats and their actions as “reprehensible,” “frightened,” “ill-advised, ” “[a] classic sour-grapes reaction,” and “counterproductive.” Several editorials pushed the idea that Democrats were deliberately harming their own constituents.

The August 5th editorial that sent Moreno over the edge provided a taste of the editor’s schoolyard discourse:”Rather than cowering in Albuquerque, the senators should return to Austin and face up to what they were elected to do.”

The border paper’s position has proved a welcome asset for the Texas GOP. In August, the Republican Party aired a radio attack ad in Hidalgo County against the area’s Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen) for breaking quorum over redistricting. The ad featured a couple speaking in stereotypical, Speedy Gonzalez accents. It outraged Rio Grande Valley residents and embarrased local Republicans. The ad also quoted an El Paso Times editorial calling the Democrats’ flight to Albuquerque “a betrayal of constituent trust.” Eventually, the state GOP apologized for the radio spot.

Perhaps no clearer example of the Times’ slant could be found than in the editorial “Stop the tantrum; Some Texas Democrats are acting like children.” The piece described a walkout-also chronicled in the Associated Press-during a tense March 31st meeting of the House of Appropriations Committe. As many as 12 Democrats were said to have left because the committee wasn’t allocating enough money for health and human services.

“The Democrats who walked out Monday and any other legislator who might consider such a move down the line should be reminded that this isn’t kindergarten and petty little tantrums and the “I’m going to take my ball and go home’ attitude is the antithesis of progress,” sniped the Times.

The only problem is that there was no walkout, according to conservative El Paso Democrat and Appropriations Committee member Rep. Joe Pickett. The House Appropriations Chairman Talmadge Heflin (R-Houston) and several Democrats went into the backroom to hash out difficulties. A few Democrats who didn’t join them left the committee room while those discussions were underway.

Pickett decided to publish a response to the Times editorial in his own newsletter rather than deal with the hometown paper. In the short note, Pickett called on people to boycott the city ‘s only daily. He began: “Wow, It ‘s amazing how the El Paso Times can give an opinion on something they have absolutely no knowledge about.”

Times editor Don Flores is happy to explain the rationale behind all of the paper’s editorial positions. El Paso is a poor community so taxes hurt residents disproportionately. The passage of Prop. 12 (which capped medical malpractice damages) in El Paso showed that the citizenry embraced tort reform. Congressional redistricting didn’t affect El Paso. Legilsators should have returned to work in the communitys interest. It is not unreasonable in tough budget times to ask those who use public universities to pay more.

When the Times published Rep. Moreno ‘s August letter, Flores felt obligated to run a clarification to confront the perception that the editor has a conflict of interest when it comes to the Republicans in power. Moreno had bluntly concluded his missive, writing, “What a shame that in a city that is 80 percent minority, the only major newspaper does not protect minority voting rights with its power of the editorial. Responsible journalism is never in bed (or ingratiated for gubernatorial board appointments) with those in power. “

Flores added a note under the letter:”Editor Don Flores was not appointed to any position by Gov. Rick Perry. His appointment to the Texas State University System Board of Regents was made by former Gov. George W. Bush. “

Some believe Flores crossed an ethical line by accepting the appointment from the governor in 1999. Flores may have reinforced that view with his trip to Austin with prominent city civic leaders in December 2002, right before the legislative session. The group went to lobby the governor’s offi ce for more appointments to state boards and commissions for El Pasoans.

Flores rejects the notion that either case represents a conflict. He denies having any particular relationship with Gov. Perry–whom the Times endorsed earlier for Lite Guv against John Sharp and then for governor against Hispanic Democrat Tony Sanchez –beyond Perry ‘s visits to the newspaper during election season. As for the visit to Austin in December, Flores says he agreed to participate only to amplify the paper’s edtorial positions. He draws the distinction between soliciting something for the Times’ gain –which would be a job for Times’ gain –which would be a job for the newspaper ‘s lobbyists–and his lobbying for something not directly linked to the Times’ pocketbook. He insists it ‘s no different from what any major newspaper editor does, but that he is being judged by a higher standard. His many critics contend that Flores ‘ actions are indicative of a coziness with power that has nothing to do with ethnicity, and whose partisanship runs contrary to the interests of the majority of El Pasoans.

Dionicio “Don ” Flores grew up less than 100 miles north of Corpus Christi, in an impoverished fifth generation Texas family. The Floreses were removed from border sensibilities–a difference his mother described as “Tex-Mex” versus “Mex-Tex.” Flores admitted in a recent interview with the weekly business magazine, El Paso Inc. that while he can communicate in Spanish, he would embarrass himself trying to speak it in public. To support the family, his father dug ditches while his mother stayed at home. Flores began his newspaper career at the age of 12–40 years ago –writing sports articles for a small weekly paper.

He went to Texas State University, then called Southwest Texas State University, to study pre-law in the late 1960s. It was LBJ ‘s alma mater and a time of campus unrest, he remembers. He says that one day during his freshman year, the staff of the college newspaper suddenly disappeared. Flores claims not to have known of disagreements with the administration that led to the walkout. When university officials offered him the vacated job of sports editor, he leapt at it. “Most of us who were in journalism then, we didn ‘t know all this about the politics,” he says. “Had we known, most of us wouldn’t have taken jobs because of the political statements being made. “

After stints at a number of newspapers, Flores joined the Gannett Corporation in 1985. The company bounced him through its papers in Tucson, Santa Fe, California, Reno, and Iowa, and then in 1993, he landed in El Paso at the Times . It was a two-newspaper town when Flores arrived. The more than century-old El Paso Herald-Post , an afternoon paper, El Paso Herald-Post , an afternoon paper, El Paso Herald-Post had a reputation for being somewhat creative and open. The Times was more rigidly conservative and catered strongly to the Anglo community. It also managed the printing and distribution of both newspapers under a joint operating agreement. Afternoon papers were dying across the country, and in 1997, the Herald-Post folded, leaving El Paso with the Gannett-owned Times as its only newspaper.

Gannett, based in McLean, Virginia, has a reputation for dominating its markets by closing down competitors. The company has 100 daily newspapers across the nation with a circulation of 7. 7 million. Typically, once its monopoly is established, Gannett churns out a bland, lackluster, and conservative product that often fails to reflect the community it serves.

In El Paso, Gannett publishes in a community in transition seemingly fated never to arrive at its destination. El Paso’s county statistics are stark. The county’s per capita income is $13, 114. Of the estimated 700, 000 people living there, almost 159, 000 are below the poverty line, according to the U. S. Census Bureau. The population is 78. 2 percent Hispanic, fueled by a steady influx of immigrants from Mexico seeking a better life. About 27 percent of those who live in the county are foreign born and 73. 3 percent of people age 5 and older speak a language other than English at home. Adding residents of Juarez (across the border) to the equation, the area’s population grows to 2. 2 million and the number of people below the poverty level increases exponentially. Combined, the two cities create the largest population center on any international border in the world.

El Paso’s best and brightest tend to leave. From 1995 to 2000, twice as many people left the county as moved in. The city is dominated by a tiny elite that until recently was almost exclusively Anglo. While a number of Latinos have joined this group in the past five years, very few of El Paso’s upper crust engage in community philanthropy. Instead, many seem to treat the city as a plantation from which to extract riches. When it comes time to retire, their destination of choice is La Jolla, California.

While Flores won’t discuss Gannett’s profit expectations for the El Paso Times, he insists the company’s revenue demands take into account the poor economic situation of the community. Speculation in El Paso is that Gannett earns a healthy profit from the daily despite flat circulation and a less than vibrant economy. From October 2002 to March 2003, the Times’ readership was estimated at 74,418 during the week and 91,715 on Sunday. The circulation doesn’t make much of a dent in El Paso’s largely Latino, bilingual population. What clearly sustains the paper is not readership, but advertising from largely Anglo business owners.

Early in his tenure, Flores received a lesson on this dynamic. In 1996, the city’s auto dealers, who are major advertisers in the Times, initiated a boycott of the paper. Publicly, the auto dealers cited excessively high advertising prices as the motive for their actions. Privately, some expressed anger at the paper’s perceived negative coverage of the University of Texas at El Paso. After about four months, when it had become clear how difficult it would be to advertise outside of the paper, the car dealers returned. Flores acknowledges that he had heard both reasons for the boycott. He insists that the editorial side of the paper was insulated from the boycott and denies that his coverage was affected. But with a newspaper so dependent on advertisers, some wonder.

“It writes for the advertisers,” believes Alicia Chacon, a former county judge and past director of the local United Way.

Perversely, domination by its advertisers may complicate efforts to increase circulation. For example, a move toward a more bilingual, working-class product might offend Anglo advertisers. “They are caught between trying to put out a newspaper that the community at large will buy and one for those who advertise in it,” observes one prominent businessman who asked not to be named.

Repeatedly, critics fault the Times for failing to communicate with the majority of the people living in El Paso. They also complain that it ignores local news important to the community in favor of splashier, less signifi cant stories like car accidents. It doesn’t want to be a folksy, community paper but it doesn’t have the budget to have national pretensions, believes Chacon.

[A number of informative El Paso-based news websites and periodicals have tried to fill the gap left by the Times. Some of the more noteworthy
re Newspapertree. com, StantonStree
. com, the El Paso Scene, and the El Paso Inc. ] When people complain about local coverage in the Times , their talk inevitably turns to Juarez. In the past, the Times had greater circulation in Mexico and covered events there more closely. Since September 11, the number of El Pasoans crossing over to Juarez has decreased, but nearly everyone in the community still has a connection to the sister city. Yet often it’s easy to pick up the paper and not even know Mexico is literally a stone’s throw away. Flores argues that since he sells only about 500 papers in Juarez, it would be foolish to devote scarce resources there. From a staff of about 75, two reporters cover Juarez and Mexico. The editor also points to a certain ambivalence among some of his readership toward the border. “There’s a lot of sentiment among Hispanics who say ‘I came. I did it right. I’m working. You cross illegally. I don’t care go back. ‘”

Friends argue that Flores’ room to maneuver is limited. One of them, Charles Ponzio, is the founder of the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He used to write a column for the Times. The last column he penned concerned George W. Bush. Shortly thereafter, he received an e-mail listing topics that would be off-limits in the future. Ponzio decided to quit writing for the paper instead. Still, he does not blame Flores. “Is Don doing a bad job or is he doing what he has been instructed to do?” asks Ponzio. “It’s hard to criticize the guys over there since they clearly have the Gannett boot on their throat.”

Certainly Gannett’s conservative, bottom-line outlook and El Paso’s impoverished immigrant base are less than fertile soil for growing a strong and dynamic newspaper. It doesn’t help that the company man in charge does not appear sensitive to what makes El Paso both special and tragic. “People don’t see us as being the advocate for Hispanics,” Flores told El Paso Inc . “They say we don’t advocate Hispanic thought. And that attitude, I think, is disappointing. Because we’re not Hispanic. We’re just Texans who happen to be in El Paso.”

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Published at 12:00 am CST