Friday, March 11, 2016

SEN. JANE NELSON: PERSONALLY IRRESPONSIBLE

Personally Irresponsible
Texas State Senator Jane Nelson (R-District 12) has championed the virtue of personal responsibility - for others. But how does she fare when it comes to being personally responsible - and accountable - for legislation she's backed?  

I raised this question in 2013 when I testified against SB1, the infamous anti-women's health legislation now before the Supreme Court. I wondered about her claims that the anti-abortion legislation was going to improve women's health. 

What was she willing to pledge if these claims proved untrue? My question went unanswered.  

Well, it now seems that the medical profession is quantifying the results from earlier legislation championed by Sen. Nelson attacking Planned Parenthood in 2011. Sen. Nelson's response? Rather than accept what The New England Journal of Medicine has to say, she's gone after their study. What does she think - that this is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change? Check this take-down of her critique here.

In any case, this seems an apt opportunity to remind Sen. Nelson of the question I asked her - and what it means that she failed to take personal responsibility for her actions.  

***
July 8, 2013

Madam Chair Nelson, Vice Chair Deuell, members of the Senate committee on
Health & Human Services, my name is Carl Lindemann and I live here in Austin. 

Thank you for this opportunity to speak.

Last week marked 150 years since the battle of Gettysburg. Today we have our
own Civil War brewing. What I offer now is intended to keep things more civil
than war.

I am against SB 1 because there is no element of personal responsibility.

Legislators supporting this do so against the strong opposition of mainstream
medical professionals. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Texas Medical Association denounce it.

Proponents say the legislative intent is to improve health for women. Medical
professionals say this will harm them. The bill needs benchmarks built into it to
see which is true.

Legislators have professional responsibility. Harm the public and hopefully you
don't get reelected. But legislators need to take personal responsibility for a bill so important and so far out of the medical mainstream. This will reassure those on both sides that the stated legislative intent is, in fact, the true intent. How to take personal responsibility here?

Before voting to support the bill, show your commitment by pledging that:

If things do not turn out as you say, you will resign from this committee. Those
with a greater commitment to personal integrity will also pledge not to seek
reelection.

Those with the greatest personal integrity will pledge to resign from office altogether if women are harmed, not helped, by this bill.

And if you're not willing to take any personal responsibility? What does that say
about the true legislative intent of this bill - of the personal integrity of those that support it?

Again, thank you Madam Chair for this opportunity to speak.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

WHO IS THIS RANDOM DUDE? TEN CLIPS & THREE PHOTOS

Wendy meets Leticia: some of my photos may be familiar
Till recently, I've done my best to steer clear of local politics. So I'm largely unknown in ATX political circles. After someone referred to me as "some random dude," it seems I should try to bring order to such chaos. So I'd like to take a moment to introduce myself. 

You may have run across some of my work covering the Wendy Davis phenomena, say the image of Wendy embracing Leticia Van de Putte just after she officially launched her campaign for Lt. Governor.  

Like many, that adventure began for me at Wendy's filibuster in 2013. In its wake, the Austin American Statesman's editorial staff was inundated with editorials. They selected mine for publication. You can find the full text of it here, along with the story behind it.  
Rep. Jessica Farrar won't back down!
For those who made it to Wendy's launch outside of Fort Worth, you might have gotten one of the bumper stickers I created. I wanted to get in on this, was hoping to get the campaign to adopt the slogan and some other marketing concepts.

Unfortunately, by the time I was finally introduced to the campaign, it was a closed shop. They knew what they wanted to do and who they wanted to do it with. Though there is much I could say, there's no need to say anything more. The results speak eloquently.  

So I contented myself with posting a column thrice-weekly - Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. My personal goal was to see if I could manage the output of a typical newspaper columnist. During my time at bat, I managed to get base hits regularly. My first score was embarrassing then-Attorney General Abbott, the state's top lawman, for giving the odious Michael Quinn Sullivan a platform

Sadly, much of the Davis campaign was a rear-guard action. So I often focused on confronting the various attacks hurled her way. I exposed the Koch brother connection behind a specious complaint leveled against her at the Texas Ethics Commission. Likewise, I published a celebrated take-down of the Abbott supporter behind a brutal abortion stunt. What I'm most proud of is my response to the catastrophe that mortally wounded the Davis campaign nine months before the voting even began. As doubts swirled about the veracity of her personal story, I answered with "Doubts About Abbott's Biography" a critique of the Texas Monthly's puff-piece profile of the man who would be Governor.  

Occasionally, I took a break from blogging to publish in the Texas Observer. This feature about Millennial Hispanics remains pertinent to understanding the demographic changes underway. Oh I also cut my teeth as a radio reporter. Now and again, I like to prove to myself I can still produce a decent audio feature like this one on the "Greening the Tea Party" for public radio.  

As the election day debacle unfolded, I was horrified at how Democrats simply surrendered without a whimper. Allow the Texas GOP to claim an unqualified mandate? No questions about how the Abbott victory was fueled by voter suppression - in an election that had the lowest voter turnout in more than a generation? As I explained to those covering the race professionally, any account that did not include voter suppression was fundamentally flawed. In "Gov.-Elect Abbott: The Lance Armstrong of Texas Politics" I provided a framework for understanding what happened. This, it seemed to me, was not only more accurate reporting. Acknowledging this reality would also embolden Democrats.   

After, wanting to get deep behind the scenes for a fuller understanding, I switched hats and did my professional writer thing to spend hours interviewing Abbott's team. My feature "Big Data Remakes Texas Campaign Ad Spend" for a media trade pub revealed other reasons why Republican claims for a mandate are problematic.
    
Peace, Love & Occupy
I am a writer by trade and keep a camera at-the-ready wherever I go. Progressive politics is something like a hobby that has occupied me long before the Wendy Davis adventure. I was in the thick of Occupy Austin from its inception and helped organize its media effort. I wrote the piece in the Austin American Statesman introducing the movement to the city

My photo of a protester amidst the APD went viral. I received many wonderful messages from people who felt touched to their heart by this image of Occupy. Sadly, the vision of a non-hostile relationship with the authorities soon faded.

Of course, I could go on and on here. I've been at this for some time. If you're diligent, you might find me quoted in the Boston Globe at a protest calling for Leonard Peltier's release some 25 years ago. 

Oh, I should close with something for my critics who feel I'm slanted, unfair, dishonest - yes, I do manage to get under some people's skin! Yes, I can be wrong at times. But I am quick to own my errors and to correct them, following the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.  

E.B. White observed that "all writers have an angle - and some are even upright!' So here's to keeping a good posture. If you catch me slouching, I'm sure you'll let me know.  
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Saturday, October 24, 2015

WHAT'S NOT TO LIKE ABOUT THE TEXAS TRIBUNE - PART II - MORE ON MOORE & MITCHELL

"Truthiness" trademarked. Image courtesy of PoliticusUSA
The tyranny of trying to be even-handed! It may be more insidious than being in-the-pocket of some corrupting funder.

Case in point: my previous post, the initial installment of this series.

In my desire to allow the reader to weigh the evidence for themselves, I fell into an old trap. Of necessity, I reiterated the allegations against the Trib, giving them legitimacy. Balanced - but is that fair? I'm afraid I've violated Issac Asimov's maxim "never let your sense of morals keep you from doing what is right."

The reality is that, despite James Moore's legendary reporting back-in-the-day confronting George W. Bush and his enablers, he is simply off-the-mark in his attack on the Texas Tribune. He is most definitely wrong in his allegations and insinuations against the Cynthia and George P. Mitchell Foundation (CGMF).

Since, Moore has sent me a message raising numerous objections, most for my

failure to mention in the first installment things that are slated for forthcoming ones. He did not, however, take issue with the focus of Part I - that he's wrong about CGMF. I have issued him this challenge:

So, just to confirm, you do not take issue with the problems with your accusations against the Mitchell Foundation.


Thus far, no reply.

If he cannot make good on proving his accusations, then he should issue a public retraction/apology.

Meanwhile, I have run across others who have looked into CGMF's funding patterns. Their findings? According to Greenpeace researcher Jesse Coleman, "While the Mitchell family's finances are tied to the success of the gas industry in general, the Foundations funding of efforts to limit pollution from fracking appears genuine."

Let's unpack this a bit.

Way more reputable than I am

Last April, Inside Climate News and Greenpeace's Coleman expressed confusion
over the revelation about CGMF's hiring David Blackmon, an energy industry flack, in 2012. "(Blackmon's) career has been dedicated to obstructing and delaying regulation on the oil and gas industry, especially in regards to fracking. While working for Mitchell, he led industry-funded groups that opposed the very methane regulations he was hired by Mitchell to promote," says Coleman. 

Not a lot of mystery here when you think about it. According to Coleman, Blackmon was hired "to start a dialogue between fossil fuel concerns and environmentalists around natural gas." 

Why would an organization interested in promoting environmental/sustainability issues hire such a partisan player? The truism's dated, yet timeless: "Only Nixon could go to China."

Also, be sure to check the ICN piece. The reporters tracked down CGMF's Marilu Hastings for comment, much as I did. They give her the last word to point to the awkward place she finds herself in:

"We have a really tough time being the Mitchell Foundation," she said. "We've been thrown out of meetings with environmentalists, and shut down by industry. The last thing I would do is do anything to doubt my integrity or the foundation's integrity."

In any case, it's worthwhile putting Moore's portrait of a corrupt, corrupting charity connecting with a corrupt news organization alongside these pieces. When you find yourself far out in left field, left of Greenpeace, you may be in foul ball territory.

Interesting note: I ran into these pieces AFTER the last posting while digging into Blackmon's activities to fill in some follow-up research around my interview with Evan Smith. As it happens, a piece Blackmon published in TribTalk to "balance" another by noted climate scientist/evangelical Christian Katherine Hayhoe was a matter of some consternation both inside and outside the Trib. 

More on that in my forthcoming interview with Smith, providing insights to the possibilities for evolution in the Trib's ethics. 

Oh, speaking of evolution, Moore also noted my failure to attribute credit to him for the Trib's enhanced disclosure policy last year. Yes, it came in the wake of his accusations. When I asked Emily Ramshaw and Ross Ramsey about this, they didn't credit him - said this was already in the works beforehand. I leave it to you, gentle reader, to sort this out. One thing seems sure. Moore wasn't out to provide constructive criticism, to improve the Trib. Let's see if we can do better.  
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Thursday, October 15, 2015

WHAT'S NOT TO LIKE ABOUT THE TEXAS TRIBUNE - PART I

A Tribfest promo on Facebook
It's the eve of the Texas Tribune's 5th "Tribfest" - "the SXSW of Politics" as they call it, and time - long overdue -to take care of some unfinished business here.

It's been over 18 months since James Moore's broadside in a blog posting also published in the Huffington Post that seeks to demonstrate that the Trib's business practices are fundamentally corrupt. 


As I wrote back in March last year:

Moore seems to have hit a nerve with it. His criticism has been widely read. I've chatted about it on background with several people in the news business while reaching out for on-the-record comments. At the very least, this raises fundamental issues about the Trib's business model - and practices.

(Editorial note: I made numerous postings here last year on this issue in February and March, and some followup in April looking more generally at non-profit news)


Since, Bill Minutaglio addressed the fracas in The Texas Observer. Minutaglio's point is that if it looks sketchy, that's problem enough:

Moore makes the case for guilt by association...He might not have proved that the Tribune’s reporting is sullied by the money it receives, but he sure suggests that readers can’t be faulted for noticing a perception problem.

Unlike Moore, Minutaglio's upshot is cautionary, not condemnatory. "...how fine a line the brave new world of nonprofit journalism has to tread in the search for viable business models,” he observes.

But Moore says that the "Trouble with the Trib" isn't just bad optics. So what about his allegations? In my conversations with journalists across the state - many off-the-record - several pointed to one specific constellation of claims about the Trib's relationship with the Cynthia and George P. Mitchell Foundation (CGMF). I was repeatedly encouraged to see what I could find out. So I started digging. 


CONNECTION = CORRUPTION?

Moore sketches a portrait of a corrupt, corrupting charity connecting with a corrupt news organization. His core claim has two aspects. First, that there is "a connection between the non-profit's giving and the family's business interests," and second, that CGMF is an instrument for furthering those business interests.

To be sure, the Mitchell family fortune comes from the energy sector, and the foundation is interested in energy/environment/sustainability issues. That's not altogether different than, say, the Kaiser Family Foundation's focus on healthcare. Despite the connection to Kaiser Permanente, the non-profit's funding of healthcare reporting and policy analysis is accepted a legit. In fact, the world of philanthropy is full of such "connections" as well as profound ironies like the Nobel Peace prize paid for by munitions money.

So exposing a "connection" between the business interests and those of the non-profit is hardly a revelation. It is a far cry from demonstrating the second point - the intimation that the non-profit is just a cynical ploy, a bogus charity that is little more than a marketing communications vehicle for a for-profit enterprise.

Take the specific business ventures Moore cites. It seems that if profitability alone were the goal, Todd Mitchell could have done better than to invest his time and effort in solar energy. Is it possible that something other than money motives him? What comes to mind is Rick's business savvy in Casablanca:

Captain Renault: In 1935, you ran guns to Ethiopia. In 1936, you fought in Spain, on the Loyalist side.

Rick: I got well paid for it on both occasions.

Captain Renault: The winning side would have paid you much better.


GETTING AN INSIDE LOOK

Still, this is all supposition. If the Trib was a willing partner to such a fraud, one "tell" would be the internal documents that, in fact, define the relationship between the foundation and grant recipient. So I asked the Trib's Ross Ramsey for them. Till then, he'd been forthcoming in my inquiries. This time, he paused at the request and promised to come back with an answer. Then, a few days later, he turned me down. Of course, that just piqued my curiosity. How could I get those internal documents?

Some time after, I did a story about an event sponsored by CGMF (see the written version here, and radio version here) and the solution to my quandary was obvious. I sidestepped Ramsey and reached out to Marilu Hastings, CGMF's vice president, sustainability programs. She leads all of the strategic grantmaking programs. This was the first she'd heard of Moore's accusations. She handed over all the internal docs I requested without protest. What do they show? I've crafted such documents for another not-for-profit news organization and these appear to be as they should be. In fact, I found the reporting from the Trib on what was done to fulfill its commitments rather bland. Grant recipients often try to butter up grantors. This isn't even greased with margarine.


TROUBLES WITH THE TRIBFEST TRACK

As far as Moore's specific allegations, the strongest is about the undisclosed relationships on a panel sponsored by CGMF at the 2013 TribFest. First, CGMF funded the entire energy track - the problematic panel was just a part of it. Still, the panel was moderated by the Trib's reporter funded by the CGMF grant, and featured former state senator Kip Averitt of the Texas Clean Energy Coalition, another CGMF grant recipient. No doubt, these relationships could have been stated clearly for the audience. The optics for not doing so are sketchy. Though the funding was not secret, you'd have to make a significant effort, as Moore has, to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Of course, that effort is really just a few clicks on the Internet. Still, this information should be explicit.

But does this make the case that this was an underhanded public relations coup? Is "The Road to Energy Efficiency" panel the road to ruin for the Trib's integrity? Check the full panel here. Is Averitt, former Chairman of the state Senate's Committee on Natural Resources, out of place? Check his credentials here. Also, listen to how Jim Malewitz, the Trib's CGMF-funded reporter, directed the proceedings (see track #3 here) and judge for yourself.

I encourage those interested to listen through then make their own judgment. It seems to me that if there was manipulation, it wasn't very skillful. As Hastings observed about Moore's claim that they've been pulling strings, "if we had that much power, things would be a lot different!"

Stepping back, the question is - is Averitt on-the-scene because he is funded by CGMF, or is he funded by CGMF because he's on-the-scene? The situation here seems quite different from Evan Feinberg's appearance on PBS' Newshour. Feinberg is the front man for a front group with no real experience or authority on his "expertise." It would seem that the only real qualification he has is a willingness to promote his backer's agenda.  


(Side note: Averitt, too, was a participant at the CGMF event I reported on. I'd forgotten his funding as I wrote & produced by coverage. I'm not sure it would have made the final edit if I had. But then, I wasn't funded by CGMF. If I had been, I hope that I would have been more - not less - inclined to do so.)

WHAT THE INTERNAL DOCS SAY

So how much influence did CGMF exert over who was selected to participate in the panel or how it was conducted? The internal reports give some clue. Typically, there's three documents. The first is the grant proposal that makes specific requests; the second is the acceptance document from CGMF detailing what's expected; finally, the Trib reports back on what was actually delivered.

Here's the pitch for the panel - actually for the larger energy track - included in the larger grant proposal dated March 11, 2013:

Texas Tribune Festival: Energy Track Sponsorship

As an extension of our mission to improve civic engagement in Texas, we created The Texas Tribune Festival to bring together the state’s most prominent thinkers, politicians and public servants for a weekend of debate, discussion and dialogue on the subjects that matter most to all Texans. The Texas Tribune Festival helps citizens can gain an understanding of the issues that the leaders in our state are grappling with and an appreciation for the stakes involved.

The 2013 Festival will be held on September 28 and 29 at the University of Texas at Austin. It will include 9 tracks: public education, higher education, immigration, transportation, health care, criminal justice, energy, environment and keynotes. The energy track will include major addresses and panel discussions by a wide range of experts (link to last year’s program: http://www.texastribune.org/festival/2012/tracks/energy-environment/.) Nearly 2,000 people from Austin and across the state attended the 2012 festival, a 66% increase over 2011. We expect the growth to continue in 2013.


The "executed grant award letter" of May 21, 2013 is more general:

The grant is to be used exclusively by Texas Tribune Inc. of Austin, Texas for Energy and Water Coverage, Texas Tribune Festival, 'In the Flow' newsletter.

Finally, the grant award stipulates that a report on deliverables will be due within a year. there's the report after-the-fact dated May 22, 2014:

Texas Tribune Festival – Energy Track

Held on September 27-29 at UT-Austin, the 2013 Texas Tribune Festival was by far our most successful. In year three, the three-day public policy festival drew 2,500 registrants (50 percent more than last year) and generated nearly $135,000 in ticket sales (60 percent more) and nearly $590,000 (50 percent) from 58 corporate and foundation sponsors (35 percent), not counting inkind contributions.

There were four sessions on Saturday in each of the eight program tracks, leaving two time slots dark in each one, so that attendees had greater flexibility in mixing and matching their sessions across the tracks. The festival opened with an interview with U.S. senator Ted Cruz and closed with state senator Wendy Davis. Energy programming at the festival included the fours panels: Regulating Energy, The Shale Boom: What Now?, The Road to Energy Efficiency and The Fight Over Electricity. This full weekend of civic engagement, spirited discussion and lively exchange elicited many positive comments from attendees such as: “The Texas Tribune Festival is the most exciting and engaging political activity I’ve ever attended. Truly democracy in action.”

Of course, the report came out after Moore's accusations. So if there were even a whiff of malfeasance, it seems unlikely they would document it. However, this report is quite similar to previous ones. There's no attempt to butter up the charity by underlining how their presumed interests are being served.

MORE THAN JUST THE TRIB IN TROUBLE?

There's a few more things for the conspiracy-minded to consider in making a reasoned judgment here.

That Hastings hadn't heard about any of these accusations before I reached out to her is telling. If she was in cahoots with the Trib, it stands to reason that they'd have connected to get their PR act together.

Still another problem with Moore's portrait of purported corruption is how it would reach beyond the Trib. According to Hastings:

We help fund other journalistic outlets as well - Texas Climate News run by Bill Dawson, the former environmental reporter at Houston Chronicle. We certainly don't have anything to do with his reporting. I can tell you one thing - If I tried to, he and Evan (Smith) both would tell me to go straight to Hell. Even if I lacked integrity, they don't.

So the charges that Moore levels against Evan Smith and the Trib should apply equally to Bill Dawson and Texas Climate News since they both draw from the same (purportedly) poisoned well. But as far as I know, no one has leveled such accusations against Dawson.

This does point to another issue with Moore's accusations. They look narrowly at the Trib, and so miss the fact that this has a larger context. Moore is not alone in his extraordinary dislike that many professional journalists feel towards the Trib and like "Digital News" upstarts elsewhere. I've suggested before that this could well be just a generational thing. Is this simply a matter of taste? Or is there something more substantive?

As it happens, the Society of Professional Journalists wrestled with the core issues here in updating its ethics code last year. Let's look at that next, and then close out with my interview with Evan Smith.

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Saturday, June 27, 2015

REBEL YELL IN TEXAS: CRUZ, ABBOTT CALL FOR SECESSION

Sen. Cruz, Gov. Abbott with AG Paxton, Lt. Gov. Patrick
Conservative outcry over the past week's Supreme Court rulings ensuring the survival of Obamacare and enshrining Marriage Equality as a fundamental right reached a fever pitch in Texas today as Governor Greg Abbott let out what state Attorney General Ken Paxton described as a "Rebel Yell" calling for secession from the United States. 

"Aside from dragging our feet, Ken here says we've run out of legal options," said Abbott. "What I am suggesting here is really not new, but is a time-honored approach that honors our heritage. We are calling for other Republican-led states who share this heritage to join Texas. This new nation will not just be free from Obamacare. It will be free from any healthcare coverage whatsoever for poor or middle class people. However, we will provide universal coverage for Reparative Therapy. That will resolve the so-called 'Marriage Equality' issue."

At the press conference in Austin, Ted Cruz resigned from the United States Senate and withdrew his candidacy for the Republican nomination for the President of the United States. Instead, he offered to serve as the President of the new nation, what he termed the "Neo-Co
n." He called for his former rivals for the Republican nomination including Rick Perry, Mike Huckabee and "Bobbie" Jindal and Jeb! to join what he said was "the ultimate destiny of the Republican Party." 

"It's really what you might call the ultimate 'Southern Strategy'," said Cruz. "No more fooling around with code words and dog-whistles." 

When asked about whether GOP Presidential hopefuls Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, too, would be invited to participate, Cruz pointed to other contrasts setting the Neo-Con apart from the United States.

"I'm not sure whether women and African Americans will be allowed to vote much less hold public office," Cruz said. "I'm sure there are those that will misconstrue this, but what we're about is heritage, not hate." 

Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said that he, too, wished to take a leadership role. 

"I'm not sure about a title for what I have in mind, something Old Testament to be sure. You know - 'Protector of the Faith' - that sort of thing," Patrick said. 

Patrick added that the Supreme Court's rulings simply precipitated what seemed to him to be an inevitable showdown following the coming Presidential election.

"Hillary is going to win anyway, and so we may as well secede now."


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Monday, January 19, 2015

NEW YEAR, NEW HORIZONS

New Horizons here, too.
Just a few loose ends to tie together here. I won't be posting regularly anymore in that I am about to pursue another project that will be consuming much of my time. 

What's left? 

Well, the long-awaited deep-dive into the Texas Tribune's ethics - that is long overdue. I've done significant, original research to fulfill my promise to numerous members of the community to get to the bottom here. I believe I've come to a comprehensive understanding that puts this in a context lacking in what I've seen elsewhere.

I'll also likely check in on occasion to chronicle the turn in the Texas economy. Is my thesis about the oil crash triggering a failure in the state's population-Ponzi scheme right? We will see.

Meanwhile, I've trimmed my archives here since the details of the past political season are like clouds passing in the sky. What's more substantive for me and my ongoing work is media criticism. I've kept those postings, as well as a few other chestnuts.

So, this isn't quite goodbye. Still, thanks to all that helped with this little project, and to the gentle readers that gleaned some small value from it.   

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