Above: Longtime friends Molly Ivins and
Carlton Carl danced at the 1971
governor's inaugural ball.
Carlton Carl is a former CEO and publisher of the Texas Observer, but he’s been a fan of the magazine since he was a kid. He met Molly Ivins in high school, and they were fast friends for 45 years. While Ivins stayed in journalism, Carl turned to Democratic politics, working on campaigns and in government offices and also for the American Association for Justice (formerly the Association of Trial Lawyers of America). He spent 24 years in Washington, D.C. Returning to Texas with the proceeds of a house sale in 2005, he promptly bought most of downtown Martindale, a 1,200-population town east of San Marcos. A longtime board member of the Texas Democracy Foundation, which publishes the Observer, he still reads proofs just before the magazine goes to press.
Editor’s Note: This interview is part of the Observer’s special 70th anniversary year coverage. Support for our 70th-anniversary interview series has been provided by KOOP Radio in Austin, which generously permitted its studios to be used for recordings.
How were you introduced to the Observer?
When I was in junior high school, our house had a wall of books and another shelf of magazines my father wanted to keep. We were standing in that little area, and he handed me two magazines. He said, “You need to be reading these.” One was the Progressive, a national publication, and the other was the Texas Observer. Many pieces of advice he gave me I didn’t follow, but I followed those, and it was a great idea. The Observer enlivened my interest in politics and journalism, and I have been a reader, subscriber, contributor, whatever, since then.
I’d already started reading the Houston Chronicle, but the Observer had civil rights stories from northeast Texas and agriculture stories from West Texas. In the Chronicle, there was nothing like that, even though racial discrimination was obvious in Houston.
You met Molly Ivins when both of your high school newspapers used the same Houston print shop. And the Chronicle also played a part in your friendship?
I was a summer intern there at the same time as Molly Ivins. We were given different beats and shadowed the reporters on those beats. One was the county courthouse, where I kept seeing all these “Whites Only” signs—this is in about ’65—over the water fountains. Same with restrooms. I go back to the paper to ask if I can write about this, but I get shuffled off. So I contacted a columnist and said something like, “What the hell is this all about? It’s ridiculous.” He agreed and put something in his column, and a week later all the signs were down. Wow.
After you left Texas for college, did you think you’d come back?
In college, I was convinced that I would live in New York forever because it was a magical place. But this was during the height of the Vietnam war, and frankly, I was looking for opportunities to avoid being drafted. I found a Ford Foundation-funded project called the Texas Legislative Internship Program, which provided an avenue for the male interns to get draft deferments. And it was back in Texas. I applied and was accepted, which was great, not just because I deferred any kind of draft that year, but because I worked around state government. I was assigned to the governor’s office, but I hung around the Legislature and met lots of people who became my good political friends for life.
Then, in part because of my journalism background, I was asked to write some speeches for the governor, which led to a job as assistant press secretary to the governor. And then the guy who was press secretary left, and I became press secretary—I think the youngest in the country. It was great experience that led to more work in politics. I ran a campaign for Price Daniel, Jr. for speaker of the House and then was his top assistant during a session that actually produced some good laws.
Did people at the capitol see Molly Ivins as synonymous with the Observer?
Over the almost 70-year life of the Observer, there are probably only two people who have been viewed as the Observer, and that’s Ronnie Dugger and Molly.
Ronnie was great. It’s amazing to me that when he became editor and publisher of the Observer, it was like two people and some of their friends said, “Let’s put out a weekly publication about Texas politics.” As anybody knows who has tried to do it, a weekly substantive project is enormously difficult. From figuring out what to do to figuring out who you can con into doing the reporting or drawing a cartoon, finding a photograph. And doing the business end of putting out a publication, making it survive. Ronnie was doing all of that.
During Molly’s tenure, she was a little bit freer of some of that, mainly because Kaye Northcott was her co-editor. The guy who handled most of the business operation literally, much of the time, slept under his desk. Where do you get people like that, who are that committed to a publication? But everybody read it back then. I mean, everybody. They didn’t necessarily subscribe, but they knew the stories.
Would you describe the Texas Observer then as a liberal publication?
I would say yes, because of the decisions about what to cover. It is, “these are things that are not being covered that we think should be covered.” Like environmental issues before anybody else was writing about them. Racial tensions before anybody in Texas and basically before most of the national press was writing about it.
And then there are things clearly labeled as commentary. There are the wonderful cartoons of our friend Ben Sargent, Pulitzer Prize winner; I would like to see us use more of his stuff. Does he have a point of view? He does.
When I was publisher, I told the staff that I think the best thing that could happen to the Observer would be to catch some prominent Democrat speedin’ and call him on it in print. We don’t care who the bad guy is, but we want to catch him. And they’re out there, crooked Democrats as well as crooked Republicans.
What was the publication like that you took over in 2008?
The Observer, from day one, has struggled financially. It’s always had to rely on the largesse of the relatively few progressives in Texas who have money. Making the trains run on time, making sure that the money came in from those regular donors, finding new donors—it was tough, but it worked. It will always be a struggle to pay the bills. And I urge anybody who’s listening to this to make a contribution.
When people found out the Observer was in danger of closing recently, it was practically a national crisis. How did that feel?
It was tremendous. Human beings tend to react to crises, but it’s still hard to go through. We are doing much better. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am that there have been three or four, five people in particular who have been even more generous than they’ve ever been before, in terms of trying to make sure that the Observer survives and thrives.
What is the Observer’s legacy?
I think it’s partly the mission statement. And I don’t think there is a newspaper in Texas today that has a book reviews section. And poetry? Is there another publication in Texas that has poetry? I think it’s good to expose people to it. Doing journalism, including cultural coverage, that nobody else does, is valuable. There are those who want to keep people from reading about slavery or same-gender relationships or transgender people. Everybody should have the opportunity to read about all of that.