Dear Texas Tribune: You Call It a ‘Spectacle’. We Call It History

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Over the past three years, I’ve stayed relatively quiet about my view of what happened in the Texas Capitol in June 2013 and the way it was covered–and continues to be covered–by the media. It’s been a strange self-imposed censorship. I deeply respect and value the work that professional journalists do reporting on Texas politics. Our state, which is precariously governed by a second generation of conservatives who truly believe they’re on a mission from God, needs them and the publications they work for desperately. So I’ve held my tongue.

But this afternoon, I have to say ‪#‎enough‬.

After reading Ross Ramsey’s column comparing the filibuster to the Democrats’ sit-in on floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, I have to speak up. Yes, the technology that brought Wendy Davis’s 13 hour stand to computer screen across the world was central to the impact the Stand With Texas Women/People’s Filibuster/Unruly Mob actions had at that time and continue to have. However, technological change in the distribution of information *always* has an impact on who has access to that information, allowing increasing levels of awareness and agency in both events and the ideas that surround them (as well as increasing secrecy, in many cases). That’s the history of information, in a nutshell.

But to write a column about the medium being the message without taking a critical eye to one’s own biases and interests in that analysis, well, that’s what I can no longer swallow. Especially when the “fun” in the article is snark about the woman who stood for 13 hours and MADE THE TEXAS TRIBUNE ESSENTIAL.

Ramsey takes an easy potshot at Wendy Davis: “She was a political Billy Ray Cyrus — a one-hit wonder.” That insult is not only dumb–as one friend put it, “If Wendy fucking Davis is a band, she’s not fucking Billy Ray Cyrus. She’s the mother-fucking Velvet Underground and everyone who saw her decided to start their own rock and roll band”— more a quick foray into click-bait than an astute observation. Unfortunately, it also illustrates a problem with the Texas Tribune’s unexamined self-promotion that makes many of us who rely on its reporting deeply concerned.

Enough with the facile recounting of the filibuster, which was the culmination of MONTHS of organizing that has never been properly reported. Enough with the focus on titillating details. Enough of taking credit for getting people to the Capitol on June 25th, or focusing attention on the event. There was a team of organizers who began work to stop the abortion restriction bills BEFORE Perry put abortion on the call on June 11th. To read this column, it all happened spontaneously, as a “spectacle.” Its meaning and worth are essentially nil since the bills were quickly passed in the second special session and Texas Republicans swept the 2014 statewide elections, other than as an attention-grabber. In Ramsey’s view, Wendy Davis has faded into the past, her role finished, her accomplishment minimal even though he notes that the law she fought is currently before Supreme Court. (Ramsey does mention that the court is set to rule on Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt this coming Monday, albeit in what amounts to an aside.)

Who benefitted most from Wendy Davis’s June 25th filibuster? Looking at the list of players, I have to give it to The Texas Tribune. Over the past three years, they’ve essentially taken credit for it. They’ve used the lightning-in-a-jar moment they seized– and very appropriately became the medium for making it a global event – as a calling card for relevance and fundraising. To treat it, and Wendy Davis specifically, like a punching bag, even though it put you on the map, is having your cake and eating it, too. (And then saying you never really liked cake, even though sharing the cake was what got you all your friends.)

Especially when your initial reporting on Perry’s move to expand the *first* special session to include abortion begins with this sentence:

“A new order of business for lawmakers has kicked the special session into a slightly higher gear.”

Slightly. Higher. Gear.

Apparently, the reporters at The Trib had no idea what was coming. They had no idea that a team of political professionals–led by a woman legislator and comprised almost entirely of women–kicked into a gear the Texas Capitol had never seen before and that literally SHOOK THE BUILDING on June 25th. So, yeah, maybe we should treat what The Trib publishes about the filibuster, the organizing that made it possible and the ramifications of the event with a slightly larger grain of salt.

I admire Ross Ramsey tremendously. His grasp of Texas politics is the gold standard in the Texas media. But this morning, as his approach to setting the stage for the Supreme Court’s decision on HB2, he chose a direction that disrespects the impact of June 25, 2013 on the people who were there, and on our nation. When the executive editor of the leading political news source in Texas takes the easy laugh over the complex thought, we all lose.

I believe there is a way for The Texas Tribune to begin to address the ethical questions that its work so often raises. The Trib could appoint a public editor or ombudsman to consider questions like these publicly. I think this addition would be a true benefit to both its readers and the publication overall. It would allow The Trib to consider the ethical questions raised by the changes we are now witnessing in journalism and news publication, the ones hovering just below the surface of this particular column. Or does that not grab enough attention?

Below is a video of organizers taking action, wearing orange, on April 6, 2013. That’s over TWO MONTHS before Rick Perry added abortion to the first special session call (which means the issues the Texas Legislature can take up during a special session).

Meanwhile, in its reporting on the April 9, 2013 hearing that this video was created to raise awareness, The Trib mentions nothing about the crowd of activists in orange t-shirts. Clearly, groups of advocates often wear matching t-shirts when participating in legislative affairs, but organizing was already happening, in plain sight. To be surprised that there was such immediate and widespread awareness of the abortion bills during the special session is to have missed what was going on right in front of you. Here’s an account of the same hearing from pro-choice advocate (and now BOR staff writer) Andrea Greer:
Top Twelve Most Outrageous Moments from the HB 2364 Testimony in Texas


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