There’s a story about Bob Bullock of Hillsboro who fought in the Korean War and came back to be one of the great public servants in state history. Tony Proffitt, Bullock’s legendary press secretary, once told me that when Bullock got home he literally got down, kissed the ground and promised he’d never leave Texas again.
I don’t know how apocryphal that is because Proffitt was known to spin a yarn, and I’m not on all fours yet—but almost. Texans appreciate manners so allow me to introduce myself. I’m Joe Cutbirth, the Observer’s new editor.
I left Austin 15 years ago after a good run in the capital press corps where some work I did around ethics helped close the career of a Democratic House Speaker. I also got some keen recognition for reporting on a Republican U.S. senator who had some ethical issues of her own but who survived a grand jury indictment.
After that I took time to reflect on things, which I highly recommend particularly if the scenery is nice. Teaching at Columbia University while working on a graduate degree in New York City is a great gig if you can get it. I got it, and I loved it, but it never was my terminal plan.
You see, the only job I ever wanted so bad I’d do anything legal to get it was to be a political reporter here in Austin. Before I went north I did that—first for a small bureau that the Lubbock and Amarillo papers shared in the late 80s and then for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram while Bill Clements and Ann Richards were governor.
In those days, large news organizations had big staffs that lived and worked full-time in Austin. We had six in our bureau, including Kaye Northcott and Molly Ivins, who made their names as co-editors at the Observer.
Molly once wrote: “I believe ignorance is the root of all evil. And that no one knows the truth. I believe that the people is (sic) not dumb. Ignorant, bigoted and mean-minded maybe, but not stupid. I just think it helps, anything and everything, if the people know. Know what the hell is going on. What they do about it once they know is not my problem.”
Kaye and Molly were mentors as well as friends. So, it seems I’ve come full circle, and it feels just great.
I’m not here to be the next Molly Ivins or the next Billy Brammer or the next Joe Holley or any other great editor who’s sat in this chair. I’m the first Joe Cutbirth and you can bet I’ll make a few mistakes, but one of them won’t be shying away from the truth. Truth matters.
The idea that truth can be found at some magic midpoint between two extremes if a reporter just gives them the same number of words or minutes and feigns indifference has just about destroyed American journalism. It’s what Jay Rosen has dubbed “the view from nowhere,” and you won’t get that on my watch.
I also think journalism works best as a public medium, not a mass medium. Journalism veered off course when it stopped helping people talk to each other and started talking at them. I took this job because I believe there is a progressive conversation already underway in Texas. The Observer that I edit is going to help that conversation develop and connect the people who are having it.
Jim Carey, the great media scholar I studied under at Columbia, once asked if I knew what the First Amendment really was about. Like a lot of people I had assumed it was a list of six freedoms, and that James Madison couldn’t decide which one was most important so he just lumped them all together.
Carey told me it was bigger than that.
It’s actually about one thing, he said, and it is the thing Madison thought was the most important thing for our democracy: a public sphere. If this new country was going to work, Madison knew there had to be a blueprint that guaranteed everything would start with citizens talking to each other. He put it right there in the Bill of Rights and made it No. 1.
The First Amendment tells us we have the right to get together when we want (freedom to assemble). When we do, we can talk about what we need (freedom of speech). We can write down the conversation and pass it round for those who couldn’t make the meeting (freedom of the press). Then, when everyone has participated and is fully informed we can go to our leaders and tell them what we want them to do (petition the government for redress of grievances). And no one can be barred from participating because of religion, which was the burning issue of the day (the establishment and free exercise clauses).
So, there it is. The First Amendment guaranteeing a free press for a specific reason: so people can connect and have the conversations they want to have in a marketplace of ideas. That is what the Observer is going to do on my watch.
Our first obligation will be to the truth. Our loyalty will be to our readers. We will work every day to give you the information you need to talk to each other and decide what you want our leaders to do to make this a better state.