When All Their Dollars Died in Sorrow

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The Texas Tribune is becoming more transparent, even though they have long insisted they were already completely transparent. Keep those two opposing notions in your head and consider this quote from a piece last Friday by the Trib’s Emily Ramshaw, “When you’re asking for peoples’ trust, being as transparent as possible is always the right thing to do — whether you’re an elected official or a public media organization.”

As has been demonstrably proved on these pages, the Trib has blown it with regards to the above assertion. The publication makes claims to being independent and trustworthy but until the announcement Friday of those changes it had never published amounts from corporate sponsors and givers. Only their names were posted on the site. Those interested in the totals had to wait until the Trib’s corporate friends filed their IRS returns for the year and then search those documents and federal databases.

Very simple task for your average daily newsreader.

So maybe we can trust the Tribune now? They said we could in the past and that they were releasing all the information needed to be completely transparent, which, clearly, was not the case since they just announced the posting of corporate donor amounts. But if the appearance of impropriety is as harmful as actual influence peddling, then the Tribune’s primary issue remains unresolved.

The Trib team continues to be busy soliciting donations from the big dollar givers to political campaigns, which the Trib then covers and writes about on its pages. What, for instance, are we supposed to make of the fact that El Paso businessman Paul Foster, chairman of the University of Texas board of regents, giving $100,000 to the Trib while also putting $225,000 into Greg Abbott’s campaign to stop Wendy Davis in the race for Texas governor? If you were on the Davis team, wouldn’t you be a bit wary of the kind of treatment you might receive from the Tribune? “Just trust us, we have journalistic integrity,” hardly seems a sufficient response to that question.

Generally, Democrats looking for fairness from the Tribune in statewide races have reasons to be skeptical. El Pasoan Woody Hunt, whose family foundation gave $100,000 to the Trib in 2013, has also contributed $25,000 to the campaign of Republican Lt. Gov. candidate David Dewhurst. Is the Democrat Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, who hopes to defeat the incumbent Dewhurst, supposed to ignore those numbers and believe they are without editorial influence? What choice does she have?

The problem for readers of the Texas Tribune is that they must do a lot of work searching and cross-referencing to get at the heart of various conflicts of interest. You can see on their site that Houston construction magnate James Pitcock has given $25,000 to the Trib but unless you check the Texas Ethics Commission’s site they would not know Pitcock has put $100,000 into the campaign war chests of Abbott and Dewhurst. Is this information the Tribune ought to disclose? Regardless of the answer to that question, it does seem to be relevant to the Democratic opponents of Abbott and Dewhurst and any honest assessment of coverage of their races. Pitcock has put $740,000 into numerous Texas political campaigns already this election cycle.

Isn’t it at least a little bit awkward that the Texas Tribune is in pursuit of cash from the same people who write big checks to candidates, and generally those are Republican candidates? Let’s think also about potential conflicts of interest on issues reporting regarding institutions like hospitals wanting to change laws in the legislature. Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg has given the Trib $100,000 while its Border Health PAC has put $337,500 into various campaigns in the current election cycle. One hundred thousand dollars of that money went to Republican Lt. Gov. candidate David Dewhurst and $50,000 was given to Republican Greg Abbott. If you are a Democrat carrying a bill that Border Health PAC, Abbott, and Dewhurst do not like during a legislative session, are you inclined to believe the Texas Tribune will give you fair coverage?

If you are, pay closer attention.

Lobbyist Rusty Kelley, a $30,000 friend of the Texas Tribune, is another example of why money matters in judging journalism from the Trib’s team. Already in the 2014 election cycle, he has given candidates $451,000, and remember, this is before the primaries; we have a long general election campaign yet to unfold. Why does Kelley’s money matter? Because he is registered to represent 53 different special interests before the Texas legislature and the Texas Tribune is unlikely to do work that offends him or the officeholders to whom he has donated.

Characterizing these concerns as coming from someone who doesn’t understand the Internet or generational changes in the journalism model is simply silly. If you are going to create a new paradigm for a changing business, you ought to get it right and the Tribune’s version of acquiring money is patently wrong. I am not now, nor will I ever be, comfortable with reporters going on social media, as did the Tribune’s team, to solicit donations from people and institutions they write about in order to raise money to fund the purchase of their live streaming technology.

When the Trib’s live stream of the Wendy Davis abortion filibuster attracted attention, they launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to purchase the cameras and other gear to cover campaigns with live video. A lot of the donations came from Democrats, probably inspired by Davis’ publicity, and reporters and editors from the Trib jumped on Twitter and offered themselves up as lunch guests as prizes for the best contributions. Below, captain of the Trib cheerleading team, Emily Ramshaw thanks Jay Propes for a $1000.00 donation.

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Who is Propes? He’s a lobbyist with up to more than a million dollars in retainers, according to his Ethics Commission filings with the state. His clients range from energy to health and construction companies. Does it not prompt any questions about how the Tribune might cover his clients and their issues after they’ve taken money from Propes?

Trib supporters and employees appear to not like being confronted with these questions. An anonymous commenter on this site asked why Don’t Grow Texas doesn’t post its revenue and the names of donors, which suggests a certain naïveté about private business operations. We make no claims, unlike the Tribune, to being either non-profit or to providing unbiased journalism. We have a point of view and we argue it aggressively and, we hope, with great powers of persuasion. As a private business, we are not required to reveal anything about our income or who facilitates our successes, or even failures. That makes us distinctly different from the Texas Tribune, which is being subsidized by taxpayers for spurious claims of being a non-profit. When we make money here, we will pay our taxes and not pretend we are a non-profit.

The commenter seems to know a bit about my professional background, as well, which makes it likely they are either at the Tribune or very close to someone on its staff. They question my former employment by James Leininger, a San Antonio conservative who has spent millions on Rick Perry and other Republican candidates. I never met Leininger, although I was employed in a venture he funded, which was a statewide TV news network called News of Texas. I helped start the operation and hired people and ran the Austin bureau while also traveling and reporting on the Bush presidential campaign. Any advice I offered on how to make the network succeed was utterly and completely ignored, and I was later fired when I refused to submit to a surprise urinalysis ordered by Leininger’s management. (After being told to get immediately out of my office, I went to a doctor to take a drug test simply to prove I was hiding nothing.)

There’s nothing to hide here, either, and unlike the anonymous and cowardly commenter, I put my name next to what I write.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for continuing to shine the light on the Tribune’s funding. True, there’s no way to actively, or even really passively solicit those kinds of donations and be above suspicion, especially without disclosing donors in each article that touches on their vested interests. The harder the Tribune tries to proclaim its neutrality, the louder the echoes of its compromised status become.

    You’ve managed to pull away the veil, but that doesn’t stop the Tribune from dancing faster to distract from its nakedness. In time, the Tribune’s activities will not only be considered pay-to-play but also a shakedown. And, as you’ve contended, if the Tribune’s queasiness-inducing method of funding continues, it will become a permanent and disastrous infection in the body politic, which is already on life support.

    When Ron Mullen was mayor of Austin, the Statesman exposed his shakedown of a couple of brothers who wanted favorable treatment toward a project of theirs. As they met with him in his office and told him what they were hoping for, Mullen, in the insurance business, immediately turned the conversation to insurance he’d like to sell them. They were shocked and went to the newspaper, which I think further exposed Mullen’s shakedown as a practice rather than an exception.

    Frank Cooksey, who defeated Mullen in the next mayoral race, ran an animated political TV ad against Mullen famously showing mice gnawing on some cheese. For obvious reasons, I’m seeing Evan Smith with mouse ears, whiskers, and buck teeth. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. He may be a mouse (‘some’ say), but he is above reproach. Just ask him. He’s Evan. Hear him squeak.

    • To clarify a little, I’m not saying above that the Tribune or Smith are overtly committing quid pro quo, nor am I saying they’re not. Unfortunately, the snark writes itself.

  2. At first I wasn’t going to say anything, but after reading your column this morning, I feel I must. It’s time for a little honest self-reflection at the Texas Tribune.
    Texas Tribune Editor Emily Ramshaw in outlining the new – and laudable – disclosure policies had several statements that struck me a disingenuous at best. She opened by saying the Tribune want to show how they raised money “without giving corporate sponsors, donors, foundations or members any say over what we report and how we report it. The answer, for us and for every other media organization out there, nonprofit or otherwise, is a shared belief — held by both our journalists and our business team — that if we don’t ensure our reporting is completely free of outside influence, we’ve got nothing.” http://www.texastribune.org/2014/02/28/t-squared-ethics-and-us/
    This makes it sound like there is the old newspaper Chinese Wall between the journalists and the “business team.” But how can Editor Ramshaw reconcile that with the fact that last fall she was personally offering to take anyone to lunch at a Uchi’s if they donated $5,000 to their campaign to finance live streaming of the governor’s race. Tweets indicated that people who gave $1,000 would be personally taken to lunch by herself or Executive Editor Evan Smith at Torchy’s Tacos. Then she issued tweets personally thanking for their donation an active candidate for office, a political consultant and a lobbyist, not to mention several political activists. If a $1,000 donor gets tacos, what does a $100,000 donor get? And according to the Tribune Web site, Ramshaw is the editor who oversees the daily coverage by the Tribune. By her own actions, she has made the case that there is no difference between the journalists and the business team.
    In her piece on the new disclosure policy, Ramshaw went on to say, “In May 2012, we began publishing a blanket disclosure paragraph at the bottom of stories referring readers to our disclosure pages. The idea was to keep the details of our business out of our newsroom while still providing readers a way to see for themselves whether potential conflicts might exist.”
    How can she say she’s keeping “our business out of our newsroom” when she personally linked the Tribune’s news coverage to fund-raising. And when the Tribune reporters and editors attend TribFest with parties paid for by sponsors and panels paid for by sponsors and sponsors names on the walls, how did keeping the disclosures out of the stories make the reporters any less aware of who was paying the bills?
    And even in their disclosure of the specific dollars given by corporate sponsors, what does “digital revenue” mean. They show in 2011 they received $144,923 in “digital revenue” from America’s Natural Gas Alliance, but watch this video and you will learn the definition of “digital revenue” from ANGA’s own spokesman: http://youtu.be/JPmssHsbbiQ

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