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'Austin American-Statesman' no friend of the environment
Fighting for the environment is truly a dirty job and someone truly needs to do it, but aside from the circle of activists who occasionally give one another a pat on the back—and except for the support of the Austin Chronicle—it has been a thankless task. A decade ago, most Austin environmentalists were thought of by the business community, developers, and the Austin American-Statesman as hell-bent radicals and an obstacle to economic development. The accepted dogma was that environmentalists must be contained at all cost.
How come the business community and developers have mostly embraced the green flag (many have chipped in to sponsor the Save Our Springs Alliance’s Soul of the City bash, for gawd’s sake, and the Chamber of Commerce, Real Estate Council of Austin, and the SOS Alliance have smoked the peace pipe and launched the Hill Country Conservancy together) and yet the Statesman is still fighting a rear-guard action? It reminds me of the book I once read about a deluded lone Japanese soldier who waged a one-man war for years and years after WW II ended because he never got the word. Here we are in a town that’s wired for instant communications through phones, the Internet, pagers, in a town that’s small enough so we occasionally even—gasp—bump into each other and talk face to face—and the Statesman is still out in the boonies taking pot shots at passing civilians. Read my lips: The war is over. Lay down your arms.
To refresh memories, in the last couple of decades, literally millions of dollars were poured into the electoral process in hopes of keeping green candidates out of political power. Although a friend of the environment did occasionally get elected over the years, it wasn’t until after the landmark passage of the Save Our Springs Ordinance in 1992 that the tide truly began turning.
By 1997 seven out of seven council members were endorsed by environmental groups, a historic achievement and a reflection that the community—the people that bother to go to the polls anyway—supports protection of natural resources. Okay, I’ll admit that the reality of it is reminiscent of Gil Scott-Heron singing about Ronald Reagan’s first presidential victory: “Mandate, my ass.” But while the margins of victory have often been slim and the voter participation has been abysmal, for now at least, green rules.
We know from the constant bombardment of its own advertising that the Statesman aspires to be the newspaper of Central Texas. But does the Statesman believe it needs to trash environmentalists to win readers among out-of-town suburban residents? Does the Statesman think that people in the hinterlands don’t care about the quality of their land, air, water, and wildlife?
Although some candidates endorsed by environmental groups lost in this year’s council elections, everyone who got elected voiced support for environmental protection. Dozens of environmentalists say this hardly constitutes a rejection of environmental values, despite what you may have read in the Austin American-Statesman.
Until lately, the Statesman rarely endorsed a green candidate. To this day the newspaper often vilifies those who speak for the land, air, water, and creatures. As late as mid-June 1999—a full two years after voters had put in place a unanimous green City Council—Statesman Editor Richard Oppel launched a personal crusade, tearing into two environmentalists who served as unpaid, appointed volunteers on the city’s Water and Wastewater Commission. Oppel’s impressions were formed by reading transcripts, watching video tapes, and listening to people with an ax to grind. Neither he nor his reporters had ever set foot in a Water and Wastewater Commission meeting. Yet he had the temerity to call the commission “a modern version of the old, citizen-hassling Soviet spy agency, the KGB.”
The factual atrocities committed by the daily’s top dog, if committed by any subordinate on his staff, would have been grounds for immediate firing. But Oppel blithely carried on, portraying dedicated public servants of good character as if they were a bunch of no-growth control freaks who wanted everybody to use a porta-potty instead of a flush toilet. His chief complaints were aimed at just two members of a commission which ranged in size from seven to nine members at the time—as if this duet of Lanetta Cooper and Harriet Harris was somehow controlling things.
As I repeatedly reported in the newsletter we owned, rebutting each dumb-and-dumber column, Oppel’s facts were flat wrong. Eventually the Austin Chronicle weighed in to balance the scales of public opinion. In August 1999, Lee Nichols wrote, “Just when Rich Oppel seemed to have made great strides toward reforming the paper from the days when it was not-so-jokingly called the ‘Austin American-Real-Estatesman,’ he personally has plunged the paper back into its past patterns of half-truths, distortions, and anti-environmentalist propaganda.” (Read the story, “War of Words,” at http://www.austinchronicle.com/issues/vol18/issue51/pols.media.html.)
Oppel’s misinformation campaign is just one blatant example of the Statesman’s continuing attempts to marginalize those who speak for environmental protection, to sensationalize conflicts among environmentalists, and to minimize coverage of the contributions that environmental groups have made to the quality of life.
On environmental coverage, as in so many other areas of concern for the community, the Statesman’s news machine produces a generic, Anywhere-USA, publication. For journalists with ambition for bigger things and the freedom to move on, the newspaper is but a brief stopover on a career flight that ends elsewhere. The Statesman’s front-line city beat reporters are so transient you’d think the editors were hiring them from Manpower.
For most of the nearly twenty years I have been writing for magazines and newspapers in Travis, Hays and Williamson counties, the Statesman has produced a newspaper that occasionally pays attention to the environmental conditions of its own back yard. Coverage of the local environment seems to have dropped off under Oppel’s regime. Rich Oppel came to town, via Washington, DC, from the Charlotte Observer, which won two Pulitzer Prizes on his watch. In his five years of duty in Austin, the paper has moved light-years ahead in design and presentation. It’s high-tech coverage is terrific in many respects. General business coverage grinds along with a lot of out-of-town wire copy and lags the Austin Business Journal on aggressive local coverage. I generally just glance at the sports pages but they look fantastic, especially the sports extra sections, and the Tour de France coverage was superb. Coverage of the Austin school district seems good. But when it comes to local environmental coverage, the Statesman’s still pulling a Ray Benson—asleep at the wheel.
The Statesman had a succession of good environmental reporters in Bill McCann, Max Woodfin, and Bill Collier. Now people have to scratch their heads to think of who—if anyone—is covering the beat locally. Ralph Haurwitz is generally judged by environmentalists to be competent, particularly in the scientific aspects. He’s written a lot about statewide water quantity issues and the Longhorn Pipeline that hits home in Austin. Day-to-day issues like the LCRA water deal, the Bradley Settlement, the Forum Planned Unit Development and such are usually parceled out to the City Hall reporter of the day. Of late, Statesman humor columnist John Kelso may have written more about what’s happening at Barton Springs Pool than anybody else—but only in fun, of course.
Jim Marston has been director of the Texas office of Environmental Defense (formerly the Environmental Defense Fund) since it opened here in 1990. Of the Statesman, Marston says, “The Statesman likes to overstate differences or conflicts, both within the environmental movement and the environmental movement vs. special interests. I think coverage tends to overstate the times when the environmental movement has been in opposition to specific activities, and understates when it’s in a cooperative mode. I frankly think the paper devotes considerably less resources to covering environmental issues than the Houston or Dallas papers.
“It’s a real irony that the number of folks who are members of environmental organizations in Travis County is very large compared to other parts of the state,” Marston adds, “but the amount of resources that the Austin paper devotes to environmental issues—compared to Houston Chronicle or The Dallas Morning News—is very slight.”
If this is beginning to sound like the ranting of a lunatic, it’s only over the exasperation that develops when you care about your community and have to watch the only daily newspaper with a regional reach steer the thing with all the skill of the Titanic’s crew—seemingly oblivious of the environmental iceberg that threatens to sink our quality of life.
The Statesman itself is certainly in no danger of floundering financially. With a rip-roaring economy boosting advertising by everybody from dot-coms to real estate sellers to automobile dealers, I’m getting a hernia lifting the Statesman off the front stoop every morning. Wednesday’s paper this week was as fat as Sunday papers of not long ago.
The LCRA water deal
The deal of the century was approved unanimously on Oct. 7, 1999, when the City Council authorized paying the Lower Colorado River Authority $100 million in cash to secure a fifty-year water supply, with options for another fifty years. As the City Council members were making final statements and getting ready to approve the deal, rumors were circulating in council chambers that someone might be seeking a court order to stop the city from handing over the money. As a result, just sixteen minutes after the council voted to authorize the deal, LCRA General Manager Mark Rose signed the contract, posed for a snapshot, and slipped two checks that totaled $100 million into his suit-coat pocket.
In the process of approving the contract, the council sidestepped the City Charter, which requires revenue bonds be put before voters, on grounds that state law permits it, courts have upheld it, and the city has avoided going to the voters for many things, such as in buying One Texas Center.
Months earlier, Bill Bunch, chief legal counsel for the SOS Alliance, and consumer advocate Birny Birnbaum, an economist, had each independently researched the proposal in depth at no cost to the city. They raised serious questions about the deal and sought improvements. Environmental groups, along with the city’s Environmental Board and Resource Management Commission, supported closer examination, and the LCRA’s board granted a delay. As a result, the final deal was improved considerably from the proposal that had been scheduled to close six weeks earlier, on August 26.
In the end, the deal was rammed home with the help of the Statesman’s distorted editorials and near-blackout on coverage of the issues. A week before the deal was approved, I reported that Council Member Daryl Slusher said, “I think you’re going to see, with the changes in the contract, that the council was wise to scrutinize the deal because it’s now a more favorable deal to the city. Those who told the City Council to rubber-stamp it, including the Austin American-Statesman, were clearly wrong.”
Max Woodfin, executive director of Earth Share of Texas and a former environmental reporter for the Statesman, says, “The Statesman seemed to be willing to accept the (water) deal just because it was offered by the LCRA. Even my friends who work at the LCRA knew the deal needed to be scrutinized and they expected it. They didn’t want to make compromises, but they knew that was part of the ball game.”
At the time the LCRA water deal was coming down the pike, Woodfin had been on the Council-appointed Resource Management Commission for more than twelve years. “The Statesman made it sound like a Bill Bunch crusade,” Woodfin says. “The Resource Management Commission, with Bill’s help, had some very strong questions. We were just ordinary citizens and if we were willing to ask those tough questions, why wasn’t the Statesman able to admit it was not just a crusade on Bill Bunch’s part? He was certainly the moving force, but once he began to pick up allies who are perhaps not known to be as vocal and sometimes abrasive, why not give the issue more credibility?”
At the City Council meeting of September 30, 1999, Slusher said, “There were allegations at one time that the council was endangering the future of the city by scrutinizing this deal. Now we can see how ridiculous that was.”
Council Member Bill Spelman went Slusher one better. At the same council meeting, Spelman whipped out a calculator to announce that the city had saved $17.4 million by slowing the deal down for a public education process. “That's $2.9 million a week,” he said. Perhaps “we could save $2.9 million a week for a few more weeks.”
“I think you ought to repeat that a few more times because I don't think citizens will see that in the daily paper,” Slusher quipped. He was right, as the Statesman did not report Spelman’s statement that the increased scrutiny had saved the city $17.4 million. Instead, the Statesman on Oct. 10, three days after the pact was inked, published an editorial castigating Bunch and saying, “Approving the contract was a plain-as-the-nose-on-your-face decision.”
The editorial said, “The vote was a sign that SOS chose the wrong issue to oppose.” Which gets at the heart of darkness that feeds the Statesman’s bias, and precisely shows what’s wrong with the newspaper’s approach. The monopoly daily permits no room for loyal opposition and tolerates no probing and questioning—not by its own reporters and not by dedicated citizens—even when the stakes are a whopping $100 million. The Statesman seemingly doesn’t care about democratic debate to air the issues and make the best decision. Instead, the newspaper leaps on the bandwagon and rides roughshod over anyone who raises questions.
The Statesman wrote just seven stories over the entire four months leading up to the council’s decision on Oct. 7. The newspaper editorialized four times, becoming increasingly shrill when it was obvious to anyone paying attention that the legitimate questions surrounding the proposed deal warranted further examination.
Brigid Shea, former council member and founding director of the Save Our Springs Coalition, says of the water deal, “It didn’t receive anywhere near the coverage it deserved because we’re in a dry area and growing. We need water for the future. I said from beginning within SOS, ‘This will be a hard sell, if we don’t want to secure water for our future.’”
Of course neither Bunch nor Birnbaum opposed securing water for the city’s future. Bunch’s legal analysis, assisted by outside counsel, concluded that the city had certain rights it might exert to get the water far cheaper. Birnbaum thought a pay-as-you-go approach to getting the water would be far cheaper and more equitable to ratepayers over time.
City hides negotiations, ‘Statesman’ doesn’t report it
The fact that the LCRA water deal had been negotiated in total secrecy for almost a year before the city announced the proposal on June 8, 1999, was never reported by the Statesman. Bill Bunch, through an open-records request, obtained documents that showed the law firm hired by the city to negotiate the water deal with the LCRA had not billed the city for nearly a year—in effect keeping the negotiations under wraps.
The city attorney’s office hired the law firm in the summer of 1998 for an amount not to exceed $39,000, which was the limit of the city manager’s spending authority. There’s nothing unusual about this, as legal services are routinely procured in this matter. But when the fees begin to exceed the authorized amount, the routine and proper procedure is for the city attorney’s office to obtain an estimate of the additional amount needed, and then get the matter on the City Council’s agenda for authorization in a timely matter. That did not happen in this case.
As a result, the hiring of the firm was never put on the council agenda and negotiations were kept secret. Documents Bunch obtained showed that the city attorney’s office received a single bill for $38,611 on Nov. 12, 1998. The outside law firm worked steadily on researching and negotiating the LCRA water deal for nearly an entire year—and yet somehow never bothered to bill the city. Speculation about how this could happen range from implausibly poor billing practices by a major law firm to an outright cover-up. Ask yourself: Would you let a client’s services run up a tab of nearly a quarter-million dollars and not bother to seek payment?
The mysteriously delayed billing finally appeared on the City Council agenda three weeks after the council voted to approve the water deal. On October 28, 1999, the council authorized payment of $227,065 to Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld for legal services in connection with the LCRA water supply agreement. The city manager’s spending authority clearly had been exceeded by that amount without council authorization—and that in itself may be a violation of the City Charter, which establishes the manager’s limitations.
City Attorney Andy Martin said at the time I exposed these facts in the press that there was nothing nefarious about the delayed billing. “I’m not real pleased to tell you it’s because we goofed up, but it was not to keep the fact they city was talking to the LCRA a secret,” he said. “Never accept a simple explanation if a conspiracy could be alleged,” he quipped.
Bunch and Birnbaum spent countless hours researching the proposed LCRA water deal, which was extremely complex from both an economic and legal standpoint. The city benefited greatly from their input. The deal approved by the City Council was better for it. And taxpayers were saved a boodle of money.
A cynic would say the Statesman is so wrapped up in its headlong pro-growth agenda that it would have knocked off Mother Teresa if she stood in the way of the LCRA water deal. I can almost hear the Statesman’s retort: “I know Mother Teresa, and Bill Bunch is no Mother Teresa.”
SOS Action—not SOS Alliance
Statesman reporter Laylan Copelin is a seasoned journalist who has done good work for a long time, no matter where editors might send him on a given day. The April 19, 2000, story published under his byline was headlined, “Shea resigns SOS post over snub of Watson.” Reporters don’t write headlines, but the immediate impression is the SOS Alliance was involved. As reported in the story, Shea resigned from the SOS Action Political Action Committee. Copelin’s story did not report what I had previously published elsewhere, that Shea had resigned from the Alliance seven months earlier.
Mary Arnold, who is thought of as “Queen Mary” in environmental circles for her tenacious dedication to mastering the mind-numbing details of arcane city regulations, is an SOS Alliance board ember. Of the Statesman’s article, she says, “What upset people was the headline about Brigid resigning from SOS. It was the PAC and not the Alliance, and it was misleading—and seemed deliberately designed to be misleading.”
What is SOS Action, anyway? When people see the term “SOS” in print, they probably think about a landmark ordinance passed by citizen initiative. And they probably think about the prominent organization that bears its name, the SOS Alliance, which has some 2,000 members and a full-time staff of four employees, two of which are attorneys, plus outside counsel on retainer. SOS Action is an obscure group of insider political junkies who have no staff and just do a little fund-raising to run ads in the Chronicle around election time. SOS Action was formed in April 1999 by a bunch of Young Turks who wanted to put the good-as-gold SOS brand name to political use. Old-timers in the SOS Alliance camp weren’t even invited to be in SOS Action, and some are still miffed about it.
The Statesman article went into detail about which SOS Action PAC members were political consultants for which candidates, and then explored the web of relationships among PAC members, who’s married to whom, who’s paired as significant others. Fair game. But, as Max Woodfin notes, “It’s interesting that the Statesman went to great pains to point out the interrelationships in the environmental community, but they don’t pay that kind of attention to the Chamber of Commerce or business endorsements.”
Copelin’s article reported that SOS Action did not endorse Mayor Kirk Watson for reelection because “his door has been shut to them.” The article failed to report that SOS Action also gave Watson credit: “The board chose not to endorse in the mayor’s race. The mayor was characterized as probably the most effective and visionary mayor in recent history, but his clear lack of credible opposition and the continued inaccessibility of the mayor’s office and the decision-making process to large sections of the environmental community and the general public were deciding factors in the ‘no endorsement’ recommendation.”
The Statesman article noted that Robin Rather’s earlier departure as chair of the Alliance “underscores the fractures among a tight-knit group forged in street protest, polished in legal and political battle, but cracked from the strain of defining success.”
While accurate in a sense, the sin here is one of omission: The boards of the SOS Action PAC and the SOS Alliance have not one person who sits on both. Certainly, the two organizations share a general philosophy of environmental protection, but their boards are autonomous and independent. They are not as “tight-knit” as the Statesman’s one-size-fits-all pigeon-holing would have readers believe, as anyone who has probed the inner workings of this organization knows. Shea leaving SOS Action and Rather leaving SOS Alliance are two unrelated events, two individuals leaving two organizations that have more in common than three initials but are, in fact, separate.
Rather’s departure from the SOS Alliance resulted from two main factors. First was her desire to work in other arenas (see accompanying story, “Green Power”) to achieve environmental protection in a different way. Second she was invited to leave. Though circumspect in their choice of words, some in the Alliance view Rather as nothing less than a traitor for publicly endorsing the Bradley Settlement soon after casting her vote with the rest of the board to unanimously oppose the settlement. If she hadn’t left under her own steam, Rather probably would have been tossed out on her ear. General Robert E. Lee can’t just wake up one morning and declare he’s going to join the Union Army and not expect repercussions.
In the eyes of the Bill Bunch, by then executive director of the SOS Alliance, Rather was a deal-cutter who was helping Gary Bradley to destroy the aquifer. Of her departure, Bunch says, “It was mutually agreeable. Her last-minute switch on the Bradley deal was not appreciated and that definitely caused some difficult feelings.”
Who you going to call?
Regarding the Statesman’s coverage of SOS Action’s non-endorsement of Watson, Bunch says, “It was just another example of how crazy we were. Robin Rather and Brigid Shea were the voices of reason and everyone else was off the map.”
Bunch’s statement helps get at the root of the problem for journalists trying (if they were to try) to cover the local environmental movement. Rather and Shea are both super human beings. Shea earned her spurs in the SOS Coalition and in fighting for the cause for three years on the City Council. Rather is a superstar, a high-tech company owner, a woman whose deep commitment to protecting the environment is as unequivocal as Shea’s.
Where they differ mainly is in scar tissue; Shea has been hacked and stabbed often enough in the political arena, figuratively speaking, to deserve a chest covered with Purple Hearts and a full-coverage pension to nurse her wounds. Rather needs maybe a Band-Aid. Rather’s battles have been more diplomatic, involving mostly private arm-twisting and behind-closed-door yelling—not the in-your-face debates with Gary Bradley on the air with Bob Cole and Sammy Allred that Shea endured. Rather also didn’t have to go toe-to-toe on the City Council with Eric Mitchell for two years and Ronney Reynolds for three years. Rather rarely ever spoke in public at City Council meetings.
Both Rather and Shea give great interviews. They stay on point, don’t ramble, and are easily accessible to journalists. When I was publishing a daily newsletter for insiders and something was going down, it wasn’t unusual for my phone would ring and Rather would be on the horn, calling from the Big Apple to get in her licks. For a reporter, what’s not to like?
Mike Clark-Madison of the Austin Chronicle sums up the Statesman’s coverage of the environment, saying, “They cover the environmental movement like southern papers covered civil rights in the nineteen-sixties. Robin and Brigid are ‘acceptable’ environmentalists.” By extension, many of the others are viewed more like bomb-throwers than Freedom Riders.
A footnote on the non-endorsement of Mayor Watson for reelection: The Austin Regional Group of the Sierra Club had the same kind of discussion that SOS Action did, and also considered not endorsing the mayor. Karin Ascot sits on the Sierra Club’s executive committee and political committee. She says that, ultimately, the committee decided to endorse Watson, but with qualifications. “We endorsed Watson when he ran three years ago on a Smart Growth platform. He has made some real attempts to redirect growth away from the aquifer...and he has been successful in encouraging businesses to locate downtown,” Ascot wrote in the Sierra Club’s monthly newsletter. “However, we do feel that he has not aggressively embraced the most important aspects of Smart Growth—requiring more traditional neighborhood developments, better public transportation (particularly light rail) and higher-density, mixed-use development. We are particularly disappointed in his support for (State Highway) 130, which we feel will simply redirect sprawl to the east.”
Bottom line: SOS Action PAC, which has no members save the people on its board, talked about endorsing Kirk Watson for reelection and ultimately decided not to, but added in its press release favorable remarks about Watson’s performance along with his perceived shortcomings. The result: a splashy story in the Statesman that makes SOS Action PAC members look like idiots for not backing a surefire winner. Meaning they will be banished from ever calling on Watson for anything. Though he professes religious faith, Watson is highly unlikely to turn the other cheek, for as one former aide to Watson told me, “The mayor likes to punish his enemies, and he’s good at it.” SOS Action PAC members knew that. They spoke their minds anyway and abided by their rules: disclose your interests and vote your conscience. But the mayor’s enemies are the Statesman’s enemies, and SOS Action got nailed in the press.
Contrast that treatment to what the Statesman had to say about the unkind remarks made about Hizzoner by the Sierra Club, which has about 6,000 members in the area. The Sierra Club endorsed Watson but pointed out what it thought were severe shortcomings. What did the Statesman report? Nada.
‘Statesman’ gets a report card
What do people working year in, year out in the environmental arena think of the Statesman’s environmental coverage? In a word, it sucks. Listen to what they have to say.
Max Woodfin says, “The Statesman has this irritating habit of embracing global environmental issues, yet engaging at the same time in personal attacks on the environmental movement in Austin, which is bringing those global issues to our doorsteps.”
Political consultant David Butts has run many a campaign, sometimes with the Statesman’s endorsement of his cause, like the two bond elections of 1998, and sometimes with the newspaper posing a major obstacle to his success. “They (the Statesman) are hostile to the environmental movement, probably due to the perception these people aren’t mainstream, they are disruptive, and not willing to cooperate. I’m sure they get an earful of it from the business community, who would just as soon we go away. If you believe Oppel, most of the problems of Austin are due to environmentalists—which is absolutely ludicrous.”
Former SOS Alliance Chair Kirk Mitchell says, “The Statesman has done a very dishonest job for a very long time, but it’s a monopoly and serves the hand that feeds it. What’s obvious is when there are periods of détente, it’s like a Prague spring—and then here come the tanks again. When you see those shifts you know it’s a Machiavellian thing. You know they can tell the truth, but then they don’t.
“My attitude is I don’t see an honest appraisal of our efforts in the Statesman,” Mitchell adds, “but we can survive and do our work when they vilify us every day. We did it anyway and did it in spite of them.” Alluding to the upholding of the Save Our Springs Ordinance, Mitchell says, “When the Texas Supreme Court agrees with us and the Statesman doesn’t, I’m satisfied. I don’t want a glamour shot of me in the paper or puff pieces. I want them to write that we won. I just want the accurate facts to be portrayed.”
Robin Schneider, executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment and chair of SOS Action, says, “A lot of us don’t care what the Statesman does. They’ve lost a lot. They heavily promoted (City Council candidate Rafael) Quintanilla in their coverage in the runoff. They really pigeonholed Raul (Alvarez) and didn’t give him a fair shake. But as long as the voters are backing candidates and the people elected do things good for the aquifer and watershed, that’s what matters.”
George Cofer, who recently resigned his staff position with the Save Barton Creek Association for a new gig, says, “I don’t pay much attention to the Statesman. I disagree with the Statesman editorial board on so many positions. They just take a different point of view than the environmental community. We look at that and say, ‘We’re right.’ The Chamber’s studies—showing that a clean environment keeps the economy healthy—proved we’re right, and we’re going to keep doing it regardless of what the Statesman says.”
Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen Texas, says of the Statesman, “They have continued to restrict their environmental reporters and activities in coverage of local issues, causing many of us to call them the ‘Austin Real-Estatesman.’ However, it’s worked to their disadvantage, because it’s caused us to rely on alternative papers like In Fact Daily and the Austin Chronicle for coverage of environmental matters.”
Shudde Fath, treasurer of the Save Barton Creek Association and for more than twenty-three years an appointed member of the city’s Electric Utility Commission, says of the local daily, “Remember when they supported the Nuke (South Texas Nuclear Project, which generates power from near Bay City), to get us into the Nuke and to stay in the Nuke? Now they support our issues but they gloss over and don’t give enough detail. I don’t think it’s the reporters. I think they have reporters who would do more if it would get printed. Again it’s ‘follow the money.’ They make more off advertisers than readers. What we need are some nonprofit newspapers.”
Susana Almanza, director of PODER (People Organized in Defense of the Earth and her Resources), brings a different perspective to the discussion. “In a lot of the stories that (the Statesman does) they haven’t been friendly to those mainstream environmental groups. On the flip side, the Statesman has done quite a bit of coverage on our issues of environmental justice and East Austin.”
Mark Yznaga, who for many years has been a key political guru for the environmental movement, though less active lately in council elections, says, “I have a long memory. I remember a Statesman that was much more negative toward environmental protection. I’d say coverage comes and goes. I don’t think the Statesman has weakened the environmental community. I think people have to take responsibility for their actions.”
Political consultant Dean Rindy says of the Statesman, “People have a love-hate relationship with the paper. You love it when they are reporting facts you agree with, and hate it when they editorialize against you, but I don’t think the Statesman has weakened or impeded the environmental movement at all.”
Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman’s take on the Statesman encompasses the long haul. “There were sometimes big special articles on the creeks and the aquifer, a series of five or six at a time, and that helped to generate awareness. That was helpful. I think it’s different now. It seems they’re in search of a sound bite that will convey to people the lowest common denominator for what issue they’re working on. That’s not a good way to reach people, because so little is conveyed in a sound bite. Their priorities have changed. I think the reporters are good, but the paper doesn’t have room for that sort of thing.”
Council Member Daryl Slusher, the former politics editor for the Austin Chronicle, sees it this way: “The Oppel articles helped because he’s so far out of the mainstream that it damages the Statesman’s credibility when Oppel gets out there and takes these stands against the City of Austin...So I think he’s actually helped the environmental movement. To Oppel’s credit, when he first got here he did some things that were pro environment, like taking on Freeport-McMoRan.”
Can the ‘Statesman’ be saved from itself?
Statesman Editor Rich Oppel has publicly professed big-league aspirations. In January 1998 he addressed the chamber of commerce in the city where he lives, West Lake Hills. According to Westlake Picayune Editor Ed Allen’s reportage, Oppel said, “In a couple of years the Austin American-Statesman should be the best newspaper of its size in the nation. If it isn’t, I will have failed.”
While the newspaper is leaps and bounds better in so many respects, the basic brain food of democracy—coverage of ground-zero issues like City Hall, local politics, and the environmental movement—is often brain-dead. The big-league aspirations have not materialized in these arenas, and in reality the Statesman is a bush-leaguer.
One can only wonder if the paper is being led by a hands-on coach calling the plays—and fixing the game to please moneyed interests, as some suspect—or is in reality, aw-shucks, just the journalistic equivalent of Charlie Brown’s team on the field. But you can’t but help see all the money poured into other areas of coverage and not realize that somebody up there just doesn’t care about the stuff of local democracy. Or notice a history of Statesman publishers leaping into bed with major Austin business organizations.
I have worked side-by-side with enough reporters who came through the City Hall beat in the six years I covered it myself—a year in the early nineties for the Austin Business Journal and the last five years (until mid-July) for the newsletter we owned—to know that the Statesman hires savvy journalists. These are people who can dig and hit hard when they have a mind to and are given a green light. Diana Dworin and Ben Wear had, as Tom Wolfe would say, The Right Stuff, not to mention The Write Stuff.
But I also know that the Statesman’s ham-handed management style over the years has demonstrated a tendency to drive away good people, whether they leave for a job at another paper, as Dylan Rivera recently did in heading to Portland, Oregon, or simply paddle out on an inner tube like Cuban escapees fleeing for Florida.
What the heck, all businesses suffer turnover, especially in this overheated economy. So where does the local monopoly daily go from here?
Well, from time to time the Statesman has published an article about how it has reached out to the community, has gone to a meeting with interested readers and gathered feedback on what kind of a job it’s doing and how it could improve. On the topic of environmental coverage, this article saves them the trouble. The Statesman now has a report card—totally unsolicited—from the people it covers on a topic of vast importance to the community. If the Statesman doesn’t want to take my word for it, and I’d be shocked if they did, then I’d suggest they round up the usual suspects and get an earful first-hand. I’ll even supply the Nerf balls for a friendly bombardment.
I am of the opinion that the Statesman easily has the resources to reform itself and provide local environmental coverage of which we could all be proud. I also believe that if it were to do so the environmental movement would roll out a red carpet and embrace the newspaper—not for glorifying what environmentalists are working on but for simply doing a balanced job of covering a topic that is inseparable from nearly every issue that confronts us.
If the Statesman wants to make a positive journalistic contribution to help clean up our air quality, rescue our wildlife from the brink of extinction, improve the quality of our natural waters, and in countless other ways help to make Austin a sustainable city, it must wake up from its Rip Van Winkle slumber and realize that hampering environmentalists—through direct, misguided attacks; through shoddy, unfocused reporting; or even through benign neglect—is akin to shooting the guy who’s trying to keep you from drowning. In this case, from drowning in your own waste.
This article was originally published in The Good Life magazine in September, 2000