Coddling George

by Lee Nichols


illustration by Doug Potter

As this election seasondraws to a close, one theme has dominated the governor's race: Nobody except Garry Mauro seems to be able to say anything negative about George W. Bush. Unfortunately, that includes the mainstream news media -- organizations which we count on to deliver critical analyses of the candidates. And there really are negatives to be found with our incumbent governor, if the media were only willing to look.

It's easy to understand why the media thinks Shrub is so peachy. Unlike his father, Bush is not the Prince of Darkness. He has never been director of the world's most efficient terrorist organization like his dad (who was director of the CIA) or engaged in race-baiting like his dad (i.e., the Willie Horton ads of 1988). In fact, he has worked hard to lure Hispanic voters by refusing calls for English-only legislation and other immigrant-bashing politics. It's a refreshing change from the rabid right wing that has come to dominate Republican politics.

But that doesn't mean Bush is the great governor he is portrayed to be. If one looks outside the mainstream media, dirt can indeed be found on Bush. As an Oct. 23 Texas Observer headline stated: "The Bush Files: The Truth Is Out There."

But the mainstream press just doesn't seem to want to dig for it. One of the most probing stories to be seen so far was in The New York Times Magazine on Sept. 13. It scratched at some of Bush's problems, but not too deeply. More so, however, than our local media. Our television stations ... well, forget about television. Frankly, if TV newscasts mention the name of Bush or any other politician at all, we should hold a minor celebration. (Of course, anyone who remembers K-EYE's fawning/boring/senseless "George and George" interview may dispute that; see "Media Clips," March 13, 1998.) About the best we see from TV is KVUE's "Truth Tests," which are badly needed examinations of the political propaganda contained in candidates' commercials. But even KVUE has its failings -- on Wednesday, Oct. 21, the station had no election news at all, which is simply inexcusable this close to the polling, floods or not. There are just too many issues to be discussed. And if any other station has done any deep digging, it hasn't been noticeable.

That leaves us with the Austin American-Statesman. The most noticeable thing about our local daily is that it seems to be unwilling, in most cases, to connect Bush with important issues in which Bush plays a key role -- most noticeably the proposed nuclear waste dump at Sierra Blanca (which, thankfully, was rejected last week by the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission) and the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test.

The Statesman has shown good judgement by editorializing against both the dump (albeit tepidly) and TAAS. But in editorials on Sept. 6 and Oct. 3, there was no mention of Bush's name. An Oct. 17 editorial on the gubernatorial debate did criticize that, "Viewers saw Bush evade tough questions about the Sierra Blanca nuclear waste dump," but one must ask why the Statesman isn't pressing him with such questions.

This lack of connection applies to news stories as well. An example is Statesman environmental reporter Ralph K.M. Haurwitz's Sept. 24 story on a poll showing that Texans favor moving to cleaner energy sources. Nowhere is the story tied to the current elections, to Bush, or to any other candidate. And Bush would seem to be especially deserving of examination in such a story, being an oil man.

This makes the Statesman's Oct. 4 endorsement of Bush mystifying. The editorial board wrote, "If we do not maintain the state's natural wonders and work on repairing environmental damage dealt by modern life -- particularly on the border with Mexico -- then we will have shortchanged Texas and future Texans." And this is especially baffling: "Bush also is to be commended for widening and deepening the state's relations with Mexico for both practical and altruistic reasons. Mexico is now a significant trading partner thanks to NAFTA, but the accord also presents some traffic and environmental problems. Working on them in an atmosphere of respect is a sure way to produce results." Supporting a nuclear waste dump less than 20 miles from the border is "respect"?

The TAAS issue is similar. A Sept. 25 editorial titled "TAAS shouldn't be only arbiter of success"rightly pointed out the central problem with the test -- "TAAS has grown into the alpha and omega for every student in Texas. And because it is fraught with such gravity, teachers are tempted to teach the TAAS test rather than basic skills."

But again, no mention is made of their endorsee Bush, who injected much of that gravity by demanding that students not be promoted if they fail the test in grades 3, 5, and 8. Bush is also left out of a Sept. 11 news story by A. Phillips Brooks in which Texas Education Commissioner Mike Moses defends the use of the test. Why is this?

Activists and other people involved in these issues know enough to name Bush, because they recognize the leadership role he plays in these issues. Bush's name has always been prominently displayed on Sierra Blanca protesters' signs, and an editorial by Sanchez Elementary third-grade teacher Sarah Silver focused specifically on "Gov. Bush's plan to end social promotion."

In other areas, Bush just isn't examined with enough scrutiny. A Sept. 29 article reported that Bush was endorsed by the Texas Association of School Administrators, but it didn't examine the central reason the group might prefer Bush's plan to send budget surplus money directly to school districts over Mauro's plan, which would put the money toward a $6,000 per teacher pay raise -- Texas school districts are notorious for putting teacher pay last on their lists of priorities, and Bush's plan would give them the liberty to send that money into other projects rather than addressing the pathetic pay that is sending teachers out of the state and the profession.

On Sept. 26, the Statesman noted that Bush's campaign is so loaded with money that it plans to spend huge amounts on TV ads aimed at Hispanics. The article focused entirely on the monetary disparity between the Bush and Mauro campaigns, but missed the real issue -- are Bush's ads merely lip service to Hispanics? Is he really dealing with Hispanic issues, or is he just showing off his fluency in Spanish? The day before the Statesman article, The Texas Observer printed a story suggesting that it's the latter, quoting several Hispanic leaders in Texas critical of Bush's handling of the Sierra Blanca issue, other border pollution issues, the Hopwood decision, and how less money seems to flow to the border region than to other parts of the state. Bush himself admitted that while he is tailoring his campaign to reach Hispanic voters, "I've never been one to tailor my message to one group of people versus another group of people." In other words, vote for me, but don't expect more of my attention after I'm elected.

And there really hasn't been a hard examination of where Bush gets his money. What is the average contribution to Bush? Such information would let us know if his campaign is being driven by grassroots support, or by Big Money.

Again, we turn to the Observer: In the "Bush Files" article, author Michael King points to Bush's connections in the energy industry -- an industry that, we must mention again, is responsible for an enormous amount of this state's pollution. King also details how Mr. Self-Responsibility leaned on Arlington taxpayers to finance the Texas Rangers' new baseball stadium (at the time, Bush was an owner of the team), has been bailed out of a bad business deal by Harken Energy, and suspiciously sold his Harken stock just before its value plummeted.

An Oct. 11 Statesman cover story by capitol reporter Ken Herman touched on these controversies, but again, just scratching -- no real digging. Herman allowed Bush to pretty much say, "No, really, I'm a nice guy" and left it at that. The story spent almost as much time detailing Bush's juvenile pranks as a frat boy as with these issues.

Lastly, why has there not been better exploration of how Bush uses his family connections? First off, as we said, Bush Sr. was at one time head of the ruthless terrorist organization known as the CIA. His dad is a dark character whose role in his sons' careers deserves some examination, rather than simply accepting his claim that he is staying out of Shrub's affairs. Bush Sr. has also accepted speaking fees from the Unification Church (better known as "the Moonies"), whose wealthy leader, Rev. Sun Yung Moon, has described the United States as "the Kingdom of Satan" (read the reporting of The Nation's Robert Parry, in his The Consortium newsletter). And according to the Observer article, an Argentine political official claims that Bush Jr. requested special consideration for Enron Corporation's proposed oil pipeline, and used Sr.'s presidential-candidate status as a tool to push the project (Bush denies the allegations). Shouldn't these connections be examined?

Instead, we get Statesman editor Rich Oppel fawning over Bush Sr. as "the gentleman from Houston" (editorial, Sept. 6) and a downright embarrassing (and for Bush, fortuitously timed) front page story on Oct. 25 about the Bush family's "political dynasty," featuring the Bushes all paying each other glowing compliments.

Indeed, this is Bush's year. When it comes to the mainstream press, he's above scrutiny.

Journalism 101

Perhaps the most basic lesson any journalist must learn is that if you are going to smear someone's good name in public, you should at least call them and offer them the opportunity to defend themselves. This opportunity certainly would have been appreciated before I personally was smeared as a homophobe in the pages of The Texas Triangle.

The Triangle, the state's leading source of news on gay issues, printed a story on Sept. 10 reporting that Paul Odekirk, a central figure in the recent KOOP radio controversies, was resigning from his show because of alleged anti-gay harrassment he had received. Odekirk was quoted as saying, "Too many lies have been spread about me already with the help of Lee Nichols and the Chronicle."

That Odekirk would say this doesn't bother me. As has been thoroughly documented in this column and elsewhere, Odekirk and his allies are either delusional or unrepentant liars who use accusations of homophobia as a divisive tactic to vilify their enemies and divert attention from KOOP's real issues. I would expect nothing less from him.

But I do expect better from the Triangle. Had somebody from that paper (the story has no byline) bothered to call me, I could have given them a different take on Odekirk -- I could have pointed out how many of his opponents are themselves gay or how Odekirk has repeatedly made these accusations against me without providing one shred of evidence of homophobia on my part.

I also could have defended myself as an ardent supporter of gay rights. Forgive me if this sounds like a cliché, but some of my best friends are gay -- and rarely a day goes by that I don't worry that one of them will have their children taken away, be denied housing or a job, or worst of all, become the next Matthew Shepard.

(When I called Triangle publisher Todd Cunningham to ask why I wasn't offered the opportunity to respond, he said that he couldn't remember the article in question, nor could he remember who authored it "off the top of my head." I requested that he ask the author to give me a call. At press time, I had not received one.)