This post was written by Karl-Thomas Musselman, Publisher, and Katherine Haenschen, Editor
Last week, Burnt Orange Report was on the receiving end of a surprising broadside from Mayoral candidate Brigid Shea, which was expanded on by Nick Barbaro, publisher of The Austin Chronicle in the print edition currently on stands. The ad hominem attacks came after Karl-Thomas Musselman published his post, Brigid Shea Received $500,000+ in City of Austin Contracts, Bid on Water Treatment Plant. Neither Shea nor Barbaro dispute any of the facts in Musselman's post; both chose instead to attack the BOR masthead and blog itself in response.
While perhaps not surprising for Shea, who has shown a predilection to attack on the campaign trail, it was unexpected to see Barbaro take up the charge in his paper. BOR has long enjoyed a positive relationship with The Austin Chronicle's news staff, gay place writers, and even the beer critic.
A cursory search through The Austin Chronicle's online archives reveals a treasure trove of praise for Burnt Orange Report. The alt weekly's reporters have described us as “a force for Democratic activism in the Lone Star State” and noted that “the professionalism with which BOR conducts itself is a rarity.” In a post about the Netroots writ large, news editor Michael King noted that “increasingly bloggers are doing original reporting.” The alt-weekly credits us with breaking a number of news stories, including our our “biggest scoop” of publishing videos of Kinky Friedman's racist comedy routines. We are “brave and bold enough” to stay to the bitter end of endorsement forums, so readers can find out ASAP which candidates get the nod.
Here at BOR, we have great respect for most Austin Chronicle writers past and present, and we won't let Barbaro's attacks on KT, Katherine, or the site change that.
However, in the interest of setting the record straight, below the jump we have republished Barbaro and Shea's attacks in full, and responded point-by-point. Barbaro's broadside is available here. Shea posted a modified version of hers on her website here; however, we are responding to the initial version that she sent to the press.
Our full response is below the jump. We promise that you want to read it. Response to Nick Barbaro, Publisher of The Austin Chronicle
Readers will make their own judgments, of course, about the Brigid Shea/WTP4 issue, detailed above, but it's worth noting that the Burnt Orange Report – the political consultancy masquerading as a news source that “broke” the story shortly after Mayor Lee Leffingwell used it in a campaign appearance at the Real Estate Council of Austin – has both an ongoing feud with the local enviro/progressive community and direct ties to the Leffingwell campaign. Editor-in-Chief Katherine Haenschen was hired on directly from being campaign manager for Randi Shade in the very bitter race against Kathie Tovo, Publisher Karl-Thomas Musselman, who wrote the blog post about Shea, has worked for a number of political campaigns while holding his position at BOR, and this year's BOR company holiday party was sponsored by Mike Martinez, Chris Riley, and, oh, oops, Leffingwell.
In the press release announcing that party, Musselman promised that BOR was looking at “a number of changes” to their Community Guidelines “dealing with disclosure and transparency. We intend to make these guidelines official on December 15.” As of press time, there are no such guidelines, and that section of the site remains dated Jan. 24, 2008.
Barbaro did not respond to a single fact in KT's post. Instead, he tries to invalidate the source by calling into question our past employers, professional livelihoods, and event sponsors. Barbaro's addendum belongs less in Austin's beloved alt weekly and more as an exhibit in the wikipedia entry for ad hominem. Let's go line by line through Barbaro's attempt to smear us.
“Burnt Orange Report – the political consultancy masquerading as a news source”
Since its inception in 2003, BOR writers have always worked on campaigns. So while this is a legitimate point in basic scheme of things — yes, many of our writers have made their living working on campaigns — it is driven by the fact that BOR has never been able to support our writers with full time wages, let alone part-time pay. This is no one's full time job, and if BOR is going to exist, writers must have another way to make their living. We're working hard to change that, but as Barbaro well knows, now is not a great time to be in the media business.
That said, Barbaro's insinuation that we're all ethically compromised consultants is incorrect — on BOR, writers disclose who they are working for if it is relevant to the post, and writers traditionally do not write posts about races in which they are conflicted out. Additionally, writers do not vote in endorsements if they have a material or familial interest in any part of a given campaign.
BOR “has both an ongoing feud with the local enviro/progressive community and direct ties to the Leffingwell campaign.”
So, evidently, do all of the Democratic clubs here in Austin — the vast majority of which have endorsed Leffingwell, as KT's follow-up post on endorsements makes clear.
Barbaro is instead citing a small yet vocal niche of enviro-progressives who are united by a common, if narrow, goal of opposing growth and change here in Austin. The fact is, over the last two decades, the environmental community here in Austin has become increasingly diversified, and often has trouble speaking with one voice. There are many differing opinions from leading environmental organizations over how to prioritize battles. Here on BOR, we're happy engage with these conversations, rather than just prop up the few people who claim to speak for the entire “environmental” and / or “progressive” community when it suits their political needs.
“Editor-in-Chief Katherine Haenschen was hired on directly from being campaign manager for Randi Shade in the very bitter race against Kathie Tovo”
Katherine has been a staff member on BOR since Nov. 2008, and was a widely respected writer on local and national political blogs for years beforehand. She took on the Editor position when it was clear that no on else was willing to revitalize Burnt Orange Report, and has led our new crop of writers and organized our ongoing community events series. We hate to break it to all of the people who can't get past their all-consuming dislike of Randi Shade, but Katherine has done other things in her life — she led an all-volunteer army that registered 30,000 voters in 2008; organized her UT graduate department for a 50% pay increase; managed Chris Riley's successful 2009 effort; and ran the 2010 coordinated campaign that re-elected Lloyd Doggett, Susan Steeg, and Donna Howard despite the Republican wave, among other things. That last one? Katherine helped eke out Howard's win by a mere handful votes.
“Karl-Thomas Musselman, who wrote the blog post about Shea, has worked for a number of political campaigns while holding his position at BOR”
Correct! We do not dispute this allegation. If working for political campaigns disqualified a person from writing for BOR, we never would have lasted 9 years. That being said, our staff has always had a deep involvement with political process, which is a tremendous strength for our publication. We know the players and the power relationships, and are in a position to tell our readers what's really going on.
Burnt Orange Report is a valuable partisan political news outlet that fills a crucial niche for progressives and Democrats in Texas, rallies the Democratic base, and doesn't shy away from fact that we pro-actively push for change.
“BOR company holiday party was sponsored by Mike Martinez, Chris Riley, and, oh, oops, Leffingwell.”
Actually, it was a community party open to all, advertised widely on Facebook, and attended by over 150 readers and fans of the site — by all accounts it was a great event. We filled an entire car full of donated food for Capital Area Food Bank. Many candidates and former elected officials came to hang out with our crowd, which scarfed down four trays of quesadillas. One of our honorees that evening was Michael Li of Texas Redistricting, whom The Austin Chronicle has described as “indispensable” in his coverage of the process. Li writes guest posts for Burnt Orange Report on a regular basis. So let's be clear — while your paper quotes him, we publish his original writing.
We asked Leffingwell, Martinez, and Riley to sponsor the event since they were the three votes in favor of moving our Council elections to November, which was a defining issue for this site. The bulk of the costs for the event were actually paid for by the Central Labor Council — are you now going to accuse us of being unfairly pro-labor? Ok, we accept the charge.
“Musselman promised that BOR was looking at “a number of changes” to their Community Guidelines “dealing with disclosure and transparency. We intend to make these guidelines official on December 15.” As of press time, there are no such guidelines, and that section of the site remains dated Jan. 24, 2008.”
In case anyone is unfamiliar with the mechanics of our site's platform, our Community Guidelines were originally published as a post (with a creation date), not a static page — hence the date. The guidelines have changed many times — we view it as a living document that can be adjusted as the needs of the community change. You can view our discussion regarding increased disclosure from campaign workers here.
Later, Barbaro commented on the online version of his Chronicle addendum with the following:
AND, follow the money: I see nothing wrong with my supporting a candidate or political position both in real life and in print; I would be hypocritical to refrain from doing so. I've even donated money TO political candidates (only after Chron endorsements are published); that's a matter of public record. But I wouldn't accept a sponsorship FROM a candidate, and then expect to cover their race. (Disclaimer warranted here: The Chronicle does accept political advertising, but: We run ads for any candidate on the same basis and rates. And, those ads are never discussed to or among the politics staff. Anyway, I think we get about the same amount of advertising from folks we don't endorse, as from those we do.) Big differences.
Barbaro and his wife Susan Moffatt maxed out to Kathie Tovo in 2011, mere days after The Austin Chronicle endorsed Tovo over Shade. If we're really taking about transparency, why doesn't his publication disclose his $700 donation to Tovo every time you mention her? Also, what's the in-kind value of delivering the Chronicle's endorsement to your wife's best friend?
Put simply, Barbaro is accusing us of being on the take because we ask candidates, officeholders, and allied organizations to sponsor our events. We routinely have offered sponsorship opportunities to every candidate in every race on the primary ballot — we've done it 2-3 times now, as their beleaguered campaign staff can attest.
We know most of the candidates personally (and have known them for years, due to our shared level of civic engagement) and where they stand on fundamental issues. We know who their supporters and staffers are. And frankly, there's not a person on this staff who's so weak-willed or ill-informed that a $50 donation used towards chips and queso could buy their vote. Additionally, we're not even using these events to fund our staff: we have used our sponsors' money to throw parties for our readers — they cover food, room fees, emails to our user list, and sometimes even Facebook ads. We the sponsorships in creating great events for our reader community.
We're also not the only news source that is actively raising money. Is Barbaro going to levy this same criticism at The Austin Bulldog, which is constantly shilling for donations? What about The Texas Observer and their Rabble-Rouser Round-Up? Or The Texas Tribune, which has collected enough corporate donations-cum-tax deductions to fill Noah's Ark? What about perpetual beggars KUT and KOOP?
BOR is proud to be run by activists who are deeply involved in the process. This activism gives us the insight to write about what's going on in our communities and in our state. And now, Barbaro wants to fault us for it.
Nick Barbaro Legitimizes Burnt Orange Report by Attacking Us
In politics, you don't want to attack those beneath you; you want to attack up the ladder of power. Barbaro taking a shot at BOR gives us free press, publicity, and demonstrates that we're a valuable news source — as does the lengthy piece by Mike Kanin in the same issue that explores KT's report on Shea's contracts in even greater depth. We're flattered that the alt-weekly views us as a worthy adversary!
Response to Brigid Shea's Press Statement Responding to KT's Post
We will take Shea's response bullet point by bullet point.
KT Musselman has seriously misrepresented the facts on WTP-4, to the point of deliberate distortion…the 2002 contract proposal he lists was a preliminary engineering site assessment and engineering feasibility study, NOT the enormously expensive contract for the final version of the plant that is being built now.
How is KT distorting what was listed in public documents from 2002, in which Shea was part of a bid to build a 4th Water Treatment Plant? KT never said it was the 2010 contract — he clearly cites documents from 2002. In 2002, Shea participated in a bid for what would have been Austin's 4th operational water treatment plant. Pivoting to 2010 is what amounts to distortion. (Furthermore, last night she denied knowledge of participating in the 2002 bid… But more on that later.)
Musselman's boss, Katherine Haenschen, appears to be acting as an agent of the Lee Leffingwell campaign. She is listed as a public supporter and has a record of doing this sort of thing in previous Austin political campaigns–acting as a partisan supporter of one side, while posing as a “journalist”. See the attached email from Katherine Haenschen actively shopping this story to endorsing groups.
Katherine is not, nor has she ever been, a member of the Leffingwell campaign staff.
Additionally, Katherine is not KT's boss — the publisher outranks the editor, the same as it is for the Chronicle. As for the rest of Shea's allegations, it's a well-known fact that BOR has never been neutral. Writers are allowed to have and express opinions, as long as they disclose any financial or consanguinity conflicts. On our staff, we have writers who express wildly divergent opinions, and we publish it all.
Case in point: the Trail of Lights.
When Mayor Leffingwell announced his plan to allow a local non-profit take over operation of The Trail of Lights, Katherine supported the move, and KT opposed it — in posts published within three hours of each other. When KT's post went up, Brigid tweeted it and shared it on her campaign's Facebook page. She liked KT's ideas then, but now she's trashing us in a press release.
I did not apply for any contract in 2010 when the WTP-4 project was put out for bid. In fact, I publicly opposed it (see attached letter sent to council, dated Feb. 2010). Musselman may have known this, but deliberately omits it from his “report”.
True! We don't dispute this, and we didn't in our “report,” either.
I have publicly opposed the site location of WTP-4 for years, and I have been on record for some time opposing the final scale of the project. By 2009/2010 it had become apparent that Austin's water use had flattened out and we did not need an immediate huge investment in another plant. I said so in public, and it's all on the record. (see attached letter Feb. 2010 that I urged former elected officials to sign.)
In an InFactDaily story exploring her WTP4 contracting past in more detail, Shea makes clear that she wanted to stick the plant it in East Austin, where it would have taken up valuable park land and put yet another industrial project east of I-35. There's a long history of industrial projects ending up in East Austin: Pure Castings and the Holly Street Power Plant are two that come to mind.
Additionally, if Austin was so bad at conservation in 2002, why was she bidding on building a plant rather than focusing her efforts 100% on conservation and repairing our leaky pipes?
As for the salary I've earned over 11 years of working on city projects, the city has gotten a good rate of return. On the ACWP project, I was chiefly responsible for securing $3.7M in federal grants for the water utility that they would not have gotten otherwise.
We are glad Shea did a good job and was paid well for her work. Ironically, Shea made more in one year from city contracts than BOR has generated in our entire 9 years of “reporting.” Clearly we are in the wrong line of “consulting.”
Burnt Orange Report is On The Way Up
On a publisher-to-publisher level, KT recognizes the position where Barbaro is coming from. We too are facing the challenges of the modern media environment. While we have never had a print edition, we too are affected by digital trends, the impact of social media, and the current undervaluation of online advertising despite the growing audience share for digital editions. These changes are only accelerating, and it takes money, time, and creativity to stay at the front of the curve.
On the upside, digital media allows more information to get out into the public sphere and influence public debate — and the more information that's available, the more clear our debate can be. That's why Burnt Orange Report published the post — the information had been known to reporters for years — since 2002, as a matter of fact — and yet it wasn't out there reframed for this election cycle, and there was no debate about the relevance of Shea's 2002 WTP4 contract bids to her 2010 opposition to the plant.
We're excited to have broken a story that made its way into InFactDaily, The Austin Chronicle, and now KVUE. And Barbaro, we can understand why you might be mad that we published it first — as you are losing staff and ad revenue, it must suck to see your paper getting scooped by a bunch of underpaid kid blogger “journalists.”
(By the way, did we mention that we're launching our first statewide poll this week?)
No matter how you slice it, it's an exciting time for Burnt Orange Report. We're adding writers, expanding our coverage, and increasing our original content, such as the launch of our weekly political cartoon yesterday. We've been partnering with NewsTaco to bring our readers their weekly round-up of news that matters to Latinos. We've found new distribution channels with Politics in Stereo and MustReadTexas. We started a Pinterest and a Tumblr to go with our Facebook and Twitter, because that's what the kids are into these days.
We are excited that we've been able to maintain the highest traffic of any state-level progressive blog in the US, and humbled to be the one state-level blog on the DailyKos blogroll.
But it's not just other bloggers that like us — clearly Nick Barbaro's readers like us too, since we've won 6 “Best of Austin” Reader Poll awards from The Austin Chronicle, including the last 4 years in a row.
Burnt Orange Report remains committed to letting our users register accounts and post any comment or diary that they so choose. As a publisher, KT is particularly hands-off in terms of letting all ideas flow forth for public discussion. Meanwhile, coverage in The Chronicle may perhaps be slanted by the publisher's whims. Would the paper have published a story about Shea's WTP4 past if we hadn't broken it first? Who knows. But we don't deserve to be faulted for transparency and having opinions when anyone can put any idea on our very website.
To that end, Burnt Orange Report has a right to respond policy. If there is anything in this post to which Shea, Barbaro, or any other material participant feels the need to respond to, they are welcome to create a user account, post a response, and we will promote it in accordance with our policy.
In the meantime we're going to keep our eyes on Texas politics, and keep “reporting.”