The Texas Tribune was supposed to be the best new idea to save journalism. Instead, it is destroying it. What believers hoped was going to be a watchdog has turned into a lapdog by taking big dollars from lobbyists and corporations.
The complications were easily avoided. Instead, when Texas gubernatorial candidate Senator Wendy Davis came to Austin to speak to the Travis County Democrats, the event was mishandled by both her campaign and the party. The anger from reporters locked out of the Davis speech also revealed a simmering disdain that exists between the state’s mainstream legacy media and the online political and government news site the Texas Tribune. The Davis event, in a microcosm, magnifies the presumptuousness of the Tribune and, in fact, the hypocrisies generally ignored by its editors in order to continue raising money from the people and institutions it purports to cover as a news agency.
Organizers of an annual fund raising dinner for Travis County Democrats barred reporters from the room for what turned out to be the most compelling and energetic speech thus far of the Davis Campaign. There was, however, one exception. Jay Root of the Texas Tribune was allowed in with camera gear to offer a “live stream” video of Davis talking to her supporters. Root, who had asked permission several weeks in advance, was not required, as would normally be the case with a pool reporter, to provide notes to his competitors on what transpired during the fund raiser.
The locked out reporters were a tad upset, and not without reason. Although the Tribune was making the live feed available, the outlet’s logo was onscreen and unavoidable. Any rebroadcast would have been a promotion of one media operation by another. When Davis Campaign spokeswoman Rebecca Acuna was asked if she would inquire about making the Tribune offer a clean feed of the speech without the logo, she had no idea what was being requested. Consequently, Davis’ appearance and quotes were disseminated far less than if the event had been opened. Further, print reporters were disinclined to write longer or analytical pieces on Davis because they were not present to get reactions or interviews with attendees. The stories were about a public relations blow up instead of Davis.
The party insisted there was no space for more people and that the fire code was being violated, but reporters suggested it was, instead, just another event where the Tribune was getting favoritism. When Root was questioned about not making an effort to see that his colleagues were accommodated, he began asking if he were supposed to not cover it because other reporters had been banned. Quickly, he turned a long Facebook discussion into a cheering section for the live streaming of political events and frequently pointed out how exciting he found the new technology.
Live streaming is little more than setting up a video camera and microphones that send a digital and electronically altered real time signal that can be plugged into the Internet to be dispersed over the web from a server. As exciting as it may be to Root and the Tribune, TV stations in Texas have been doing, essentially, the same thing for decades with the only difference being the way the signal was distributed. Audio and video were transmitted via wire to a multi-box on the outside of a room. Various outlets then were able to plug their satellites into that box and send it back to their broadcast centers before anyone’s logo had been placed on the screen. We thought that was exciting, too, and if we had tried to place our logo over the screen shot, we would have caused a riot among engineers and editors.
The Texas Tribune’s live streaming gear is the product of another one of its fundraising campaigns, which are many and manifest, and, in spite of the fact the Tribune’s management is unaware, quite controversial. The live streaming fund raiser, possibly the most innocuous and innocent of all the Trib’s money chases, was managed through Kickstarter, a web site that facilitates donations to startups and various causes in exchange for gifts or other considerations. The project was launched after the Tribune received significant national exposure by providing a feed of the Wendy Davis abortion filibuster in the Texas senate. Even this little endeavor, though, showed the flaw in the Tribune’s non-profit, donations and fundraising business model to support journalism.
While seeking contributors for their live stream technology, Tribune editors and reporters ran Twitter campaigns. The arrival of one particular gift caught the attention of editor Emily Ramshaw. Jade Chang Sheppard tweeted that she had “just backed live streaming the 2014 race for governor.” Although the amount was not mentioned, Ramshaw responded to Sheppard by saying, “Thank you for your unbelievably generous gift to our Kickstarter campaign.” The amount of Sheppard’s donation is not the only valuable information missing from their exchange, however. Neither Ramshaw nor Sheppard mentioned that the donor was a candidate in a special election for District 50 of the Texas House of Representatives. If she had won her race, Sheppard would have just given money to the news organization that would have been assigning reporters to write about her votes and policies as a state representative.
Which might have been the start of a sweet, cooperative relationship.
Ramshaw may not have known she was talking to a candidate in a district only seven miles from the Tribune’s office, or she simply did not care. Either of those possibilities, however, is not acceptable to anyone who might believe the Tribune can do meaningful reporting on Texas politics and government. One suggests incompetence; the other points toward collusion. The Trib simply cannot be unbiased because it has become a part of the institutions it told the public it intended to scrutinize and hold responsible for good government. Regardless of the organization’s intentions, there is no conclusion to reach other than the Texas Tribune has to be considered corrupted by its sources of funding.
In journalism, appearances are destiny.
The “non-profit” Tribune is the recipient of significant amounts of money from the same corporations and lobbyists that donate to legislators and other office holders to help them in their campaigns, and to influence the outcome of legislation related to those donor’s special interests. In any context, this is a classic conflict of interest, and regardless of how much the Trib’s editors might insist they are able to do their work without being affected by these funds, they have been in operation long enough to see there is no reason to take them seriously as a news organization, and the evidence to reach this conclusion is abundant.
It’s also a kind of rank hypocrisy that is so grandiose as to be entertaining.