On the eve of the 2004 election, The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart got semi-serious for a second and pleaded with his fans: “Tomorrow when you go to the polls, make my life difficult.”
It took four years, but American voters finally made Stewart’s life-or his satire, at least-considerably more challenging. Here at the Observer, we can relate. We don’t do much comedy, but for reporters who specialize in unearthing and exposing the atrocities of Texas politics, the political era of Bush, Rove, DeLay and Craddick-the Four Stooges of the Apocalypse-could hardly have been beaten with a stick. It was hog heaven for reporters. And pure slop, of course, for just about everyone else.
Except that “hog heaven” hasn’t existed for print reporters, however juicy the material on offer, for quite some time now. Texans desperately needed some major Fourth Estate vigilance during Tom Craddick’s reign as House Speaker (see story, p. 10). But since the early ’90s, the ol’ estate’s walls have been crumbling. Texas Monthly‘s Paul Burka recently calculated in a column about “The Capitol Press Corpse” (thanks for the headline) that there were 66 journalists working the 1991 legislative session. That’s more than one for every three legislators-almost enough to keep proper tabs on the slippery characters who slither those marble halls.
Nowadays you could probably squeeze the lot of us into a VW Bug with some heavy-duty lubricant. Not that I’m recommending it.
Recession Ã la W. has dealt more blows to serious media scrutiny. Just since Craddick’s last Lege finished boisterously ignoring the public good in May 2007, three more of the state’s major dailies have axed experienced legislative reporters. The one-person “bureau” that used to inform folks in the Rio Grande Valley about goings-on in Austin was shuttered. With more cuts, no doubt, to come.
If the Observer‘s job was already getting more difficult, the shrinking Capitol corps only makes it more so. “Somebody’s got to do it” is the stalest of clichÃ©s, but when it comes to telling the people what their legislators are fixing to do to them, it’s profoundest truth. Particularly when the shrinking of the Capitol press so often results in a “homogenization of news,” in the words of John Moritz, the Star-Telegram reporter who took a buyout last year, but found a safe landing at Harvey Kronberg’s online Quorum Report.
“When there were multiple, robust bureaus and newspapers in the same town competing with each other, and with others across the state, you could expect five or six takes on a story,” Moritz notes. Not now. With fewer reporters, “one paper will take the lead on a story and the wire will turn it around for the other papers. Or the wire takes the lead, and vice versa.”
Moritz, now covering his eighth Legislature, also points out that the remaining reporters “are having to wear more than one hat. You’re blogging; you’re doing multimedia. I would worry that you don’t do your strongest work if you’re having to multitask. There are still only forty hours in the work week-or fifty, or sixty.”
We cannot plead purity on that score. The six editors, reporters and interns we send to the Lege also happen to be the folks who edit and report the bulk of our news section. And we will all be doing plenty of blogging this session-more than ever, in fact, on the Observer‘s new daily Lege blog (see www.texasobserver.org).
Even with our combination of daily blasts and old-fashioned watchdogging, we cannot hope to fill in every blank. All we can promise-do promise-is to dig in and do our damndest. Somebody’s got to.