The Trouble with the Trib (part 2)

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Sins of Omission and Commission

During the glory days of journalism at the Texas capitol in Austin, newspapers with large bureau staffs covered hearings and debates on legislation, almost every statewide campaign for office, and also held the governor and lawmakers accountable on a daily basis. TV stations from the four major cities maintained full time broadcast bureaus even when the legislature was not in session. We were expected to be on the air every evening with a new and important story. The hourly machinations of state government in the 80s and 90s were scrutinized by many sets of eyes. Big city newspapers circulated in Austin and reporters read and watched the competitions’ stories to learn what had been missed, and so did the lobbyists and legislators.

After 22 years of being a part of that capitol press corps as a TV news correspondent, I joined a startup company that tried to launch a statewide network newscast and website. The Internet was just beginning its maturation process and we were hopeful. My final year in the business, however, ended with me traveling on the George W. Bush presidential campaign for that nascent news operation and, subsequently, I left journalism to begin work in public relations. In retrospect, my timing was excellent. The slow shutdown of every TV news bureau and reduction of newspaper staff sizes indicated editors and budget writers had made a decision about what interested their readers and viewers, and government did not make the cut.

Lamenting the loss of this type of news coverage became a popular Austin parlor game. John Thornton, however, saw a problem that needed a solution. A partner at Austin Ventures, a technology investment firm, Thornton thought that an alternative model of journalism was essential to meet a public need, even if legacy outlets no longer saw a demand.

“My latest fixation is the death of newspapers and sad state and trajectory of serious print journalism,” Thornton wrote on his blog as he was launching the Tribune in 2009. “I believe that a vital press is critical to retail democracy, and I’m skeptical that market-based models alone will square that circle in the future.”

Thornton’s motives have always appeared honest but the means of ascent for the Trib have been infected by an unseemly symbiosis. I knew Thornton from my work with a few technology companies and we began a lively email exchange about the non-profit methodology of saving journalism. My argument against donations is that they require a belief in a non-profit and its missions, and that transforms the donors into partners, which means fairness is constantly at risk. The journalist can hardly be expected to focus their interests on a donor’s bad business practices when there are so many other pressing issues, right?

The commercial model of journalism requires that quality reporting and writing attracts readers and viewers and advertisers pay money to get their business information in front of that audience. This is a clean, mercenary relationship, though it doesn’t always work, either. In a reporting career that spanned three decades, I had one story killed because it was on the verge of pissing off a TV station’s major advertiser. To assert, as the Tribune’s management has from the outset, that donors will somehow not act to have their money promote their interests in a similar manner is disingenuous in the extreme. (I also worked at KPRC-TV in Houston where the news director issued an edict that no one from sales was to ever step into the newsroom.)

A partner-donor in most instances is a person who can expect to be able to put an arm around the editor’s shoulder, in theory, and suggest, “We’re all in this together so let’s work something out. You need our money and we need you.” In the traditional advertising model, either the news outlet or the advertiser blinks in any standoff. The story is killed and the money comes in the door or the advertiser takes their business to another broadcaster or publisher. The advertiser and the broadcaster do not share common goals like the donor and the publisher.

Advertisers do not write their checks for time or space with expectations of influence, but the same is not easily argued about contributors. Regardless, a few years after the Tribune had been in operation, Thornton seemed to almost champion what he referred to as “revenue promiscuity.” Although he appears to have meant getting money wherever it might be acquired, the inferences to be drawn from the use of that phrase are still not as troubling as what has actually happened in the Texas Tribune’s practice of “non-profit” journalism. The Tribune reports on lobbyists and businesses that provide it with sustaining money and politicians are turned into props for a finely tuned fundraising machine. This is also a model that has been lauded almost everywhere between the Back Bay in Boston to Santa Monica Pier in California.

Oh yeah, and there is journalism. But it’s a weird new kind and it absolutely cannot be trusted.

Whether perceived or real, there is almost no reporting done by the Texas Tribune that does not come freighted with a conflict of interest. Executive Editor and CEO Evan Smith’s idea of appropriately dealing with that conundrum is to post a disclaimer at the bottom of every story to alert readers that contributors or sponsors might have been used as sources, or even quoted. There often are also links to donor and sponsor lists, but readers have to be determined as hell and ridiculously diligent to make connections and find those conflicts. They ought to simply be disclosed within the body of the story, and they, generally, are not.

A 2013 Tribune story about a company called Fan Freedom is a perfect example of how the publisher fails at transparency and misleads readers. A lobby front group for Stub Hub, Fan Freedom was promoting a change in state law that would have removed limits on the re-selling of tickets to sports events and concerts. The Tribune failed to disclose anywhere in the story that Fan Freedom was one of its sponsors. A curious reader might find Fan Freedom listed on the corporate sponsor page but only the most determined was ever likely to learn the public relations firm handling Fan Freedom’s issue before the legislature was also a Tribune corporate sponsor. The Trib, which also serves as a kind of wire service to other media in Texas, sent the story out for republication. When the Lubbock paper ran the Fan Freedom piece on its web site, the conflict of interest disclaimer used by the Tribune was nowhere to be found and there was no mention in the body of the report about any relationships between Fan Freedom, its PR firm, and the Tribune. Not exactly the day that fairness died in Lubbock, but a piss poor excuse for honest reporting.

There are numerous instances of reportage where the Tribune required its readers to play a conflict of interest version of “Where’s Waldo.” When the Sierra Club in Texas challenged the operation of coal fired power plants by an electric utility, which was owned by a company called Energy Future Holdings, the story appeared in the New York Times Texas edition on February 9, 2013 as part of a co-publishing partnership. The fifth paragraph offered a line that Energy Future Holdings was a corporate sponsor of the Texas Tribune. However, the disclosure was excised from the story the next day when it was published on the Trib’s web site. A reader of the Times got important information about a special interest while a reader of the Trib had to play “find the conflict your own damned selves.”

The Tribune has promoted itself as a source for longer stories about the complex issues confronting Texas, and, in fact, topics like immigration and water have gotten extensive coverage; except the information contained in those pieces is often delivered unscrupulously. One April 2013 report, which examined the notion of underground reservoirs in Texas, quoted James Dwyer in the first paragraph. He is an engineer with CH2M Hill, an Austin firm that is a reservoir consultancy, and, yep, (you’ve picked up on the trend by now), a Tribune donor, which was only knowable if you had searched the Trib’s web site for that information because it was sure as hell not in the story. We might guess that he is in favor of the aforementioned reservoirs.

A water shortage is also what prompted a 2013 push for a constitutional amendment to spend $2 billion on water development projects after voters approved bonds. On the Energy and Environment page of the Tribune, a visitor would have seen ads from the Water Texas Political Action Committee, which was the baby of the Texas house speaker. The ads ran alongside news coverage of the debate on the bonds. In fact, the Tribune’s marketing materials tell customers their ads can run on pages where their issues or topics of interest are reported.

The ubiquitous Evan Smith of the Trib also hosted two video taped conversations on the water bond election and Water Texas PAC was one of the sponsors involved in both of those discussions. Unsurprisingly, Smith invited only supporters of the bonds to be interviewed. In its state ethics filing, Water Texas PAC reported paying the Texas Tribune $8500 for what is listed as a “campaign event and Internet advertising expense.” The only conclusion available after learning of that expenditure is that Evan Smith and the Texas Tribune had hosted two promotional infomercials for the bonds and tried to dress them in the garments of journalism.

Nice try, though.

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The Tribune did cover a news conference by opponents of the bonds and published a guest editorial by a critic, but the overall editorial content was overwhelmingly positive in favor of the bonds’ passage; there was also never any attention paid to the politics of Gov. Rick Perry’s choices of people to manage the water bank where the money was to be held, and Perry’s appointees have been very adept at taking advantage of their positions on state boards and commissions. The Tribune, generally, lacked any healthy skepticism on the bond project and certainly did not exhibit the scrutiny delivered by the left-leaning Texas Observer’s October 31 analysis: “Prop 6: Slush Fund or Solution to Texas’ Water Woes?”

The sinning of the Tribune has gotten so bad that it is a mathematical challenge to tally both those of omission and commission. There are, however, readers that refuse to accept the Tribune’s version of the facts. New York-based blogger Stephen Robert Morse criticized Tribune fundraising in 2012 for possible conflicts of interest between Christus Healthcare and the Tribune. CEO Smith tried a head fake on Morse and suggested he was off base because editor Emily Ramshaw had written a story critical of Christus in December 2010. In another sin of omission, Smith left out the fact that Christus, a major recipient of state Medicaid funding, had not become a Texas Tribune sponsor until 2011. There have been no critical stories of Christus since that time. Maybe there’s no real reason to write about Christus, or maybe the Trib does not want to pick on a donor. How is anyone supposed to know?

Smith’s email to Morse, which sounded like intimidation, angrily told him that he needed to compare the Tribune’s finances against for-profit news organizations. “You haven’t done the work required to rip us a new one,” Smith went on to say, “None of this ever influences the work that we do. I pointed this out to Howard Kurtz in 2009: The money we got from advertisers at the for-profit publications where I previously worked is greater than what we get at The Tribune.”

Well, if he pointed it out to Howard Kurtz, then hell, it must be true and has to matter, somehow, but it was patently untrue that the Trib’s donors and their wallets do not influence their journalism.

Kurtz might have believed Smith’s nonsense but the real truth is in the data. Between 2011 and the first half of 2013, there were 50 high net-worth individuals who donated $1 million to the Tribune operations while also giving $18.8 million in 2012 to the candidates for the 208 elected offices that the Tribune covers. During that same period, the Tribune raised at least $1.4 million from corporate sponsors, many of which also were political donors. Tribune corporate sponsors gave $20.3 million to candidates in 2012. When the legislative session began, the donors and sponsors made 698 lobby registrations valued at between $18 million and $33 million, all with an express, unspoken purpose of influencing the policy makers who provide the quotes and subject matter for Texas Tribune stories.

Smith and his Tribune team must have known they were quietly being accused of softness with regard to the powerful lobby at the Texas state house. They worked up a project entitled, Bidness as Usual, described as a series of “occasional reports” with the implied purpose of going after the people who spend millions to influence the outcome of legislation; except the Trib was careful not to provide names or give gastric distress to even one of its lobbyist benefactors. The narrative device for one of those reports was built around a party for members of the House Calendars Committee. Sixty-five unnamed lobbyists, yes, unnamed, had spent $22,000 on a party to entertain the legislators who decide what bills make it to the floor for debate. Under no circumstances is it possible to think the Tribune’s reporter Ross Ramsey, who is also the editor, did not know at least one of the donor’s names. He simply left that information out of the story.

Although none of the funders of the government gala were identified, the Tribune still had the promotional audacity to call their story “jaw dropping,” and, in a way, it truly was because Ramsey, who had to know some of the money men, failed, nonetheless, to report their names, so the public might learn who is trying to influence their hometown lawmakers with good wine, good food, and good times. Of course, if you name lobbyists picking up the tab in the story they are less likely to ever donate to your news organization, which is a simple calculus.

At least from a monetary standpoint, legislators appear to have a lower price point than the Tribune. An entire committee might be influenced, as suggested by the Tribune, with $22,000 “jaw dropping” dollars, but lobbyist Rusty Kelley donated $30,000 to the Tribune at the start of the 2013 session, and yet the site remains, according to CEO Smith, not influenced. Kelley’s firm also gave $627,152 to legislative campaigns in 2012, according to a report by Texans for Public Justice. Texas Ethics Commission records show he spent $18,678 dining lawmakers and their staffs, and another $3,385 handing out gifts on behalf of his 53 clients. The absurd inadequacies of Texas ethics laws required Kelley to report lawmakers he provided with floral arrangements but not those who received his financial largesse.

The Trib was nothing, if not observant, of the rules governing Kelley and other lobbyists. Consequently, (here comes another one of those sins of omission), in the Tribune’s ethics pieces, Bidness as Usual, there was no mention of Kelley as one of the news site’s lobby patrons. Kelley did nothing unethical or precluded by existing law but the Tribune insinuated in its special report that 65 lobbyists (did I mention they were unnamed?) could influence the Calendars Committee by spending $22,000 on a party. Perhaps, but how exactly does the Texas Tribune insist its journalism remains unsullied when it takes $30,000 from a solitary lobbyist who has 53 clients with issues in front of the legislature?

Maybe the best approach is to do stories on lobbyists and keep the focus off of the Trib. Editor Emily Ramshaw had a piece in February 2013 about lobbyists’ gifts to legislators. The story quoted Hillco Partners owner and spokesman Bill Miller who claimed the firm did not believe in giving “grand gifts” to legislators. “If you have to go to great lengths to remind someone that you’re out there, you’re probably not doing much of a job the rest of the time,” he said. The quote, dropped into a story on gift giving to legislators, amounted to nothing more than a soft kiss on the cheek for a Tribune sponsor.

Ramshaw’s work failed to point out that Miller has provided a few “grand gifts” that contradict his honorable sounding linguistics. In fact, in fairly grand fashion, Miller had once arranged for a former House speaker, a devout Catholic, to have a private audience with the Pope at the Vatican. Hillco is also a major donor to the political campaigns of Texas officials. A report by the independent third party group, Texans for Public Justice, showed Miller’s organization gave political donations totaling $972,000 in 2012. Is it not fair to call that a touch of grandness? Ramshaw must have known but did not report that Hillco Partners is a financial supporter of the Texas Tribune or that Bill Miller was the liaison between the media and the late Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, whom she did not mention gave $110,000 to the Tribune in 2012.

In any case, Miller simply was not being honest or was having semantic joust with Ramshaw. What might be grand to her is lunch money to Hillco Partners. By the time Ramshaw had published her story, one of the firm’s lobbyists already had handed out $1,518 in gifts to legislators and their staff members, and when the gavel fell on sine die to mark the end of the legislative session, Hillco’s seven lobbyists had spent $39,319 wining and dining lawmakers and had given out $3,900 in gifts during a period of 150 days. These facts were conspicuously absent from Ms. Ramshaw’s reporting, perhaps, because Miller had convinced her they simply were not “grand.”

Hillco lobbyists, of course, operating under Texas law, did not have to name a single recipient of its donations, unless they exceeded a certain dollar amount per individual, and if Ramshaw bothered to ask who they were, she failed to identify them in her report. The Tribune does not practice complete transparency, either. Consequently, we have no idea how much money the news organization received from Hillco Partners over the years or whether Hillco was an active participant in raising money for the Tribune. We do know they appear frequently as sponsors of events and in banner ads on the Trib’s web site.

The Tribune has published at least one article critical of a donor. The Bidness as Usual series reported on a pricey party for legislators put together by multi-million dollar lobbyists Andrea and Dean McWilliams. Not much was new in the Trib’s report, however, since the story had first appeared on KVUE-TV in Austin.

The donations of Rusty Kelley and Hillco Partners to the Tribune can prompt a few wistful notions to those of us looking over our shoulders at the pre Internet journalism landscape. If the legacy media had simply agreed to take money from registered lobbyists to pay the rent and utilities and maybe purchase a little equipment, we might have been able to keep our jobs and continue reporting. Of course, journalism ethicists would have written dissertations on how we were prostituting ourselves and destroying a proud craft and important public service.

But the Texas Tribune is praised for innovative financing.

 

Part 3