Editor’s Note: Amid fanfare, Kathleen McElroy was named last summer to lead a new journalism program at Texas A&M University—an offer that was watered down and finally rejected after regents, who are political appointees, objected to McElroy’s credentials, which included 20 years at TheNew York Times and participation in diversity initiatives. Ensuing controversy and public debate over whether racism or sexism played a role in the university’s treatment of McElroy, a Black woman, thrust her into the news, resulting in an investigation, a legal settlement, and a widely reported formal apology. Read our full account of McElroy’s ordeal here.
Be careful what you wish for.
I am a native Houstonian who loved listening to the Astros on the radio and was inspired by watching Billie Jean King play tennis in the famed Astrodome, where she beat self-proclaimed male chauvinist Bobby Riggs in my hometown. I wanted to play, but it was a good thing I decided I wanted to be a journalist like my dad—it turns out I have zero athletic ability, especially in my beloved sport of tennis.
Journalism—and a love of sports—brought me to New York City in the late 80s. In fact, I was wrapping up the New York Times’ coverage of the U.S. Open in September 2001 and planned to spend the following Tuesday finding Pat Cash a photo of Jennifer Capriati that the Times had run, one showing the ferocity of her backhand. I never got around to it.
A couple of years after 9/11, with America at war, I decided to get a master’s degree to study journalism more deeply. My goal wasn’t to become a more skilled reporter or editor, but to better understand what journalism is, and how it affects those we cover. My professional and academic worlds overlapped. As a journalist, I was unknown to the public but privileged to sit at the table among some of the world’s most influential journalists and to help shape some of the day’s most important stories.
As a budding scholar, I compared the media coverage of Houston’s Andrea Yates and the far less known LaShaun Harris, both mentally ill mothers who drowned their children. In 2001, Yates drowned her five children in a bathtub. In 2005, Harris threw her three young boys into San Francisco Bay. Why did Yates, a white woman, become infamous and Harris, a Black woman, get forgotten? Had journalists learned to be more forgiving after Yates’ trial in Texas? Which coverage better served which woman, and the public?
Separately, I examined the obituaries to gauge how we remembered the Civil Rights Movement. What did we want to celebrate? What did we prefer to forget?
In 2016, two years after receiving a Ph.D., I returned to Texas to become a journalism professor.
But I never would have guessed that in the summer of 2023, I would inadvertently become my own case study on what is headline news.
My hiring dispute with Texas A&M University was quickly settled and I issued a statement at the time to summarize what I had experienced:
I wish I could bottle the encouragement I received from organizations, government officials, friends and strangers, and distribute that support to the rest of the world.
I remember every resolution, public statement, commentary and friendly email or text. I know others deserve similar attention—from Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, still detained in Russia, to the everyday people who quietly bear the brunt of oppressive policies and practices
I’m staying in Austin but still moving forward. I’m excited about projects I have resumed at the University of Texas at Austin, including work in ethical leadership in media as well as supporting community journalism. My career continues as does my commitment to journalism, higher education and trying to do the right thing.
The news cycle has moved on since my moment in the headlines, and so have I.
UT-Austin is now the official home of the Center for Ethical Leadership in Media, where I am co-director and helping young journalists and their managers envision newsrooms as safe and equitable workplaces.
Last spring, I joined the board of the Texas Democracy Foundation and have been part of conversations about keeping the Texas Observer alive after it nearly closed in its 69th year.
I remain committed to community journalism, working with the Texas Press Association and the Texas Center for Community Journalism, as they try to ensure that long-established rural newspapers don’t die along with their aging publishers. As well as trying to end news deserts, let’s put energy into preventing them.
I am a keen supporter of Shift/Press, which empowers Houston-area youth to cover the news through their perspective and with their own voice.
I’m actively supporting student media at three universities close to my heart, Texas Southern University in Houston, where I grew up and where my father taught journalism; UT-Austin, and Texas A&M. We need to celebrate and nurture the next generation of journalists, who often defy their parents and cultural pressure to become accurate, unbiased storytellers across platforms. It doesn’t matter which university they attend; in fact, they might not be at a four-year school.
I hope one day we can come up with a statewide program to help talented community college students (and high schoolers as well) work for their community publications, pairing their knowledge and love of community with journalism and business acumen, and becoming the next leaders in their community.
Journalism at its best is about communities—rural, urban, suburban; bound or divided by politics, economics, or even sports fandom. It is timely, significant, evidence-based information that thoroughly reports on the lives, business, and culture of people across spectrums, backgrounds, and identities and enriches the entire community.
I’m still a firm believer that journalism can be a vehicle for children who dream of covering news (or sports) and a bastion for old-timers—consumers and newsmakers—who believe justice and liberty is for all.
And I’m thinking of another powerful woman, another Houstonian, who also inspired me in the 1970’s. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan once told some college students: “Reaffirm what ought to be. Get back to the truth; that’s old, but get back to it. Get back to what’s honest; tell the government to do that. Affirm the civil liberties of the people of this country. Do that.”
Editor’s note: McElroy sits on the parent board of the Texas Observer. Because of our editorial independence policy, she has no say in our editorial decisions.
Join Kathleen McElroy in conversation with Annette Gordon-Reed, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning On Juneteenth, on October 19 at the Stateside at the Paramount Theatre. Both women are appearing as part of a fundraiser for the Texas Observer. McElroy will also be honored by the Observer with a special MOLLY First Amendment Prize for her achievements in journalism education and commitment to academic freedom. #StandWiththeObserver #TexasNeedsanObserver.