How much is money mixing — and interfering — with news at the Texas Tribune? A political activist voices grave concerns

February 22, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Feb. 22, 2014

On Wednesday, a tweet by a conservative Texas political activist caught my eye.

“In which Huffington Post attacks @TexasTribune for assorted bad behavior,” Michael Quinn Sullivan wrote. “For whom do I cheer? #GetPopcorn[.]” Shortly afterward, Sullivan tweeted, “Is this best described as ‘pay-to-play’ journalism? It seems to waddle and quack, so…”

Both messages linked to this article by Jim Moore, a former Texas television reporter who now runs a liberal-leaning political action committee called Progress Texas. He’s also the co-author, with Wayne Slater, of Bush’s Brain. The 2004 book profiles Karl Rove, the political consultant who helped make George W. Bush the nation’s 43rd president.

Moore’s 9,800-word post, which originated on his personal blog, is a comprehensive critique of the Texas Tribune. An Austin-based nonprofit founded in 2009, the Tribune employs 41 people, including two dozen reporters. It teams with various Texas public radio stations, state newspapers and The New York Times to sponsor and distribute news reports. The new media outfit had 2012 revenues of $4 million against expenses of about $4.2 million, according to this public filing.

Visit the Tribune’s home page and you’ll find a wide variety of stories. “Amarillo Struggles to Handle Influx of Refugees,” “Rove Connections Turn Into Political Ammunition” and “Unusually Cold Winter Takes a Toll on Homeless” all appeared there Friday afternoon.

The site also had a story about the state’s Department of Family and Protective Services effort to use data analysis to prevent child deaths. Another article, written by a public radio reporter, examines the safety of chemicals used in drilling oil and gas wells. There was also one about whether a liberal activist group called Battleground Texas violated the law by collecting the phone numbers written on voter registration forms that it handled.

(County registration officials are barred from copying those numbers; the issue is whether Battleground Texas’s “volunteer deputy registrars” qualify as such. The group, incidentally, is backing Democrat Wendy Davis’ gubernatorial run.)

But Moore’s problem with the Tribune is not so much what’s on the site; rather, it’s what isn’t there. The organization is funded in part by donations. But the money doesn’t just come from potential readers; they come from active participants in Texas politics and policy who are covered by the Tribune.

Early in his story, Moore cites a tweet from Tribune editor Emily Ramshaw thanking Jade Chang Sheppard for helping to underwrite the news organization’s video coverage of the 2014 Texas governor’s race. At the time, Sheppard was campaigning to be elected tot he state legislature.

Writes Moore:

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.

The Tribune’s major donors are a matter of public record; the organization lists what’s billed as a complete roster of them on this page. Corporate donors, it turns out, actually appear on this separate page — although the amounts donated don’t seem to be provided, as is the case for individuals and charities.

(Incidentally, dozens of contributors, most of whom gave less than $100 apiece, are labeled only as anonymous. Sheppard, for the record, was listed as giving $1,050.)

Moore characterizes this donor roster as a fig leaf — an insufficient substitute for disclosing the Tribune’s various conflicts of interest. “[R]eaders have to be determined as hell and ridiculously diligent to make connections and find those conflicts,” he writes. “They ought to simply be disclosed within the body of the story, and they, generally, are not.”

Moore’s critique includes countless examples of conflicts or possible conflicts of interest at the Tribune. I’ll simply highlight a handful:

• The late George P. Mitchell and his foundation, which positions itself as a clean-energy champion, have contributed more than half a million dollars to the Tribune. Mitchell’s foundation fully underwrites the Tribune’s environmental reporting. One public Tribune panel discussion was moderated by the Tribune’s energy and environment reporter; his salary and those of one of the speakers essentially came out of the same pockets.

• Tribune board member Jeff Eller is the chairman of Public Strategies, a large communications consulting firm that boasts in promotional materials of having “been given the opportunity to develop strong relationships with both the media and decision-makers.” In other words, Eller’s clients can potentially benefit significantly from his influence at the Tribune.

• The Texas Land Title Association, a lobbying organization, has paid to sponsor Tribune events out of its political campaign fund — the same account out of which it simultaneously directed money toward Texas legislative candidates.

• Writer and activist Sharon Wilson was disinvited from a 2011 Tribune discussion on hydraulic fracking after she asserted that the panel was clearly biased toward industry. The Tribune has received several large donations from the American Natural Gas Alliance; one of the alliance’s members, Devon Energy, is a prolific fracker in North Texas.

How much does this sponsorship really affect the Tribune’s journalism? It’s impossible to know. Presumably, neither the Mitchell foundation nor any other donor has direct editorial control over the organization’s reporting and editing process. One would also hope that the Tribune’s event sponsors have little sway over what does and does not get reported.

But credibility is hard-earned, and the public’s trust easy to lose. I don’t think it’s precisely right when Moore writes, “In journalism, appearances are destiny.” But many times, the suspicion that mischief might be afoot soon leads to the conviction that misdeeds have actually been committed. In short, the copious potential for editorial conflicts of interest will inevitably make the Tribune look bad.

Does this mean that none of the Tribune’s stories can be trusted? Of course not; I suspect that most of them are beyond reproach. But it’s hard to draw a bright line between trustworthy articles and questionable ones, especially when the Tribune’s disclosure policies are rather murky.

I think Moore is right when he implicitly argues that Tribune contributor aren’t so much buying favorable coverage as they are the organization’s reluctance to cover difficult or potentially embarrassing stories, or to give them less scrutiny than otherwise might be the case.

Moore believes that the Tribune didn’t exhibit the proper level of skepticism toward a proposed $2 billion referendum on water development projects. The Tribune was paid advertising money by the Water Texas Political Action Committee, and Tribune CEO and executive editor Evan Smith conducted two WTPAC–underwritten video interviews with bond backers that Moore characterizes as promotional infomercials for the referendum.

Moore also notes that the Tribune hasn’t run a critical story about Christus Healthcare, which receives significant state Medicaid money, since December 2010. Christus became a corporate supporter in 2011. “Maybe there’s no real reason to write about Christus, or maybe the Trib does not want to pick on a donor,” Moore writes. “How is anyone supposed to know?”

The topic of journalism ethics is an important one to me. I worked full-time in the newspaper industry for seven years and freelanced for newspapers for some time prior to that. Potential conflicts of interest are particularly close to my heart; I once fell on my sword because of the issue.

So maybe I’m being too sensitive about this; maybe I am, and always have been, overly cautious. As a reporter, I was continually wary of growing too friendly with sources, especially public officials, because I knew that my job might require me to enter into an adversarial relationship with them.

One thing that I find depressing about Moore’s critique of the Tribune, entirely aside from the extensive number of conflicts or potential conflicts that he documents, is that the Tribune has been widely hailed as pioneering a new model for sponsoring journalism. But if this new media venture is at all representative, accepting sizable contributions from individuals and organizations may provide even less of a buffer between journalist and subject than the traditional model, wherein advertising provides most of the the revenue that fuels journalistic businesses.

(The key word in that last sentence: May. The answer is not yet clear.)

Can the Tribune be salvaged? More importantly, can this or any other reliable journalism business model be found?

Frankly, I don’t know. (I’ve always been better at asking questions than answering them.) But it’s something everyone in the journalism business should be thinking long and hard about. It’s also a subject that anyone who values life in a democratic society — which, ideally, would be all of us — should contemplate.

But I can’t claim to be very optimistic on this front. In 2000, about 53 percent of American households had paid subscriptions to American daily newspapers, which were and still are the primary engines of journalism. Now, that figure is roughly 33 percent. Public trust in journalists, never that high to begin with, has fluctuated over the years; in 2013, according to Gallup, only 21 percent of Americans thought newspaper reporters had high honesty and ethical standards. (TV reporters came in one notch lower, earning the trust of 20 percent of the public.)

These are certainly interesting times in the journalism industry. Unfortunately, even though the field has been grappling with a changing environment for more than a decade, it’s yet to become clear who — if anyone — is well served by the developing circumstances.

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