Fightin' Words

Rich Oppel and Mike Levy Spar on Paper:

illustration by Doug Potter
Often the most delightful reading is found in personal correspondence. Take, for example, a recent exchange between two public journalism figures: Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy and Austin American-Statesman editor Rich Oppel. No love letters these. The wordsmiths disagreed sharply on a number of points, even exhibiting a sharp claw or two in their duel.

The letters were widely distributed among about-town locals (many by Levy himself, as is his custom), creating as much intrigue as a steamy novel. By the end of the holidays, copies of the letters had passed through many more hands. Overall, the letters won high marks from readers for their entertainment value, wit and insight. They are reprinted, with permission from Levy and Oppel, in their entirety below. Keep in mind that Levy, a prolific and provocative letter writer, is among Austin's most frequent commentators on local government, violent crime, Police Chief Elizabeth Watson, Austin Emergency Medical Services, and the Statesman's coverage of like events. And Oppel is a frequent recipient of Levy's ongoing critiques. -- Amy Smith

Levy: The Opening Salvo

December 2, 1996
Dear Rich,
With all of the attention currently focused on the so-called "ethics" of public officials at all levels, national and local, I thought you and your colleagues would be interested in the enclosed copy of an article entitled "They Who Serve and Suffer" that I came across in the December issue of (believe it or not!) Vanity Fair.

The article addresses what I worry is an increasing amount of the "crusader rabbit" syndrome that afflicts both government officials and the media whereby the least little thing becomes the proverbial federal case, regardless of its true impact on the democratic process.

Ambitious politicians and prosecutors and reporters too often go nuts over trivialities because it's relatively easy and often produces great headlines. There is lots of noise, and "gotcha' journalism," but I fear the price is distraction from the harder jobs of ferreting out real and meaningful and significant corruption that is indeed a malignancy in the democratic process.

It's just too easy to go after the nickel and dime stuff like personal phone calls on government phones that I believe the folks out in voter land could not care less about and that can usually be corrected with a stern "fix it" charge, while the bad guys continue to do really evil things of the worst magnitude.

As I wrote in my November 25 letter to [Statesman reporter] Ben Wear, I think it's critical that the new regime at the American-Statesman shine the paper's light on what's really going on in a city and county that I believe is one of the most corrupt political environments in Texas. It's a real "feed trough" mentality that rules here, and I think it would be just lovely and grand if you and your colleagues decided that a good place to start would be who gets the contracts, and, more importantly, who gets the sub-contracts that I suspect really are the "juice" on the primary awards, and what do the recipients really do other than too often only be well-connected and appropriately supportive while compounding the inefficiency and cost of government. This is best seen not only with City of Austin, Travis County and Capitol Metro deals, but most especially at the new airport, where lots of dollars are on the ground and where very lucrative franchises for parking, food, retail concessions will, in my opinion, probably not go to the bidders who can best serve the needs and interests of the traveling public.

Best regards,
Michael R. Levy

cc: Kathy Warbelow, Jerry White, Tim Lott, Ben Wear, Arnold Garcia, Tom Barry, David Lowery, Susan Smith Richardson [of the Statesman staff]

Oppel Responds

December 11, 1996

Dear Mike:

Reference your Dec. 2 letter: You will not get an argument here that the press should dig deeper, and avoid being "crusader rabbits." And I will concede that we have engaged in "`gotcha' journalism" from time to time.

However, if you can put up with friendly criticism going the other way for a change, let me suggest some of the biggest purveyors of what you call "noise and `gotcha journalism'" are not on the staff of this newspaper, but others in this very noisy community who make all sorts of unsubstantiated charges about police departments, mayors, city managers, chambers of commerce and other people and institutions. These charges are often widely-distributed (as is this letter) and, ultimately, hollow and baseless. At the least, the charge is unproved at the time it is circulated.

Secondly, I think some people want it both ways, urging us to stop picking on some people (e.g., their friends at agencies they adore), yet urging the American-Statesman to dig deeper for corruption.

As for Judy Bachrach's article in Vanity Fair, which you sent along, I was moved less than you by all of those stricken faces (Stephanopoulos, Williams, Gearan, etc.). In fact, I nearly fell on my dagger in laughter. I commend Bachrach and her editors for her creatively counter-intuitive thesis.

However, let me reassure you that George, Maggie, Mark and the rest will come out of this just fine. Their endowed chairs, book deals and consultant's jobs will pay off in big ways from the time they leave the White House until they are as old as George Christian. Among those next in line to be hurt, troubled and harassed is Erskine Bowles, who is giving up approximately $500,000 a year in Charlotte to pull out his plain cloth coat and return to a paltry $125,000 White House job and get beat up by ugly reporters for the next four years.

Such sacrifice! How will he ever recover? (Hint: In a few years, ask him about his income from IPOs, mergers and acquisitions and other business dealings that will need approval from the lifelong friends that he is now accumulating in the bureaucracies of the SEC, IRS, FCC and on the Hill.)

Mike, the Clinton White House may not go down as history's most corrupt, as several observers have suggested recently, but because of Bill and Hillary Clinton's history in Arkansas politics, because of the White House's expertise in overseas jockeying of campaign money, and because of the president's incompetence in managing his staff, the Clinton White House bears close watching.

Save your tears for the Dickensian victims of the welfare act passed by Congress and signed by Clinton.

You patronizingly implore the "new regime" at the American-Statesman to "shine the paper's little light on what's really going on" in what you believe is one of the most corrupt political environments in Texas.

First, if our candle-power is insufficient to your high standards, you may want to require that your agenda be adopted by your powerful magazine's talented editors, who seem uninformed by all of those tips that you put in your letters to me. Or maybe they just choose to ignore you.

Second, your comment suggests that we do not monitor the performance of local and state government, in which case I refer you to our reports this year on:
Airport/Pelzel-Phelps contract
Austin Community College
Austin Housing Authority
Cap Metro
City-owned utility
State Nursing Home Board
Texas Militia
Vita-Pro contract and the prison system
GTECH and the lottery

I have a passing acquaintance with two Pulitzers for public service journalism (1981, 1988), and currently serve as a Pulitzer judge, so I have some exposure to the reporting of corruption by the nation's newspapers. You know so much more about Austin than I, but it is my humble opinion that Austin is not "one of the most corrupt political environments." It has more than its share of smart, honest, well-intentioned people who are merely trying to do a good job. Yes, there is also self-dealing, incompetence and (mostly) people who we elected and are now carrying out policies that can be wrongheaded.

Fine for you to suggest that it would be "just lovely and grand" if the American-Statesman decided "to start" looking at who gets crooked contracts and so on. But we have editors and reporters here who have forgotten more about investigative journalism than you know, and they will tell you there's a country mile between an unsubstantiated charge of corruption and a published story by a reporter who has worked his or her butt off to actually establish facts.

We can't run down every "crusader rabbit trail" to which you point with alarm. And I might suggest that we can actually find stories on our own, some of which may involve (since we're into zoology) your sacred cows, like EMS.

Finally, I've thought about your earlier comments on how the Chamber is so screwed up. I don't know about that. From what I've seen, Glenn West, Kerry Tate, Pete Winstead and others do pretty well. The Chamber was a voluntary organization the last time I checked, not a public agency, and so it warrants a different level of scrutiny.

You might want to join the chamber if you've got a beef. Them who pay get to play.

Following your custom, I'm copying in a few of your editors, and including your incoming, so that they, too, can benefit from your story tips. Here at the American-Statesman, we are indeed grateful for your suggestions and critiques.

Happy holidays.
Richard Oppel

cc: Kathy Warbelow, Jerry White, Tim Lott, Ben Wear, Diana Dworin, Arnold Garcia, Tom Barry, David Lowery, Susan Smith Richardson, Mary Alice Davis, Diane Ollis, Gregory Curtis, Paul Burka, Evan Smith, Gary Cartwright, Anne Dingus, Robert Draper, Skip Hollandsworth, Joe Nick Patoski, Patria Sharpe, Mimi Wartz, Jane Dure, Jesus Garza, Bruce Todd, Elizabeth Watson, Kerry Tate, Glenn West, Ron Kessler, Pope John.

The Last Word?

Dear Rich,

This letter is being written as a follow-up to our telephone conversation last week regarding your December 11 letter to me (copy attached).

First, you refer to my "...unsubstantiated charges about police departments, mayors, city managers, chambers of commerce..." I don't recall anything negative I've said or written directly about mayor Bruce Todd or city manager Jesus Garza. Tell me whenever and wherever I'm wrong on the facts, and I'll retract with enthusiasm.

Rich, I have done my homework on the police department: Austin's crime rate's up in double digits while other large cities (including New York and Houston) are enjoying significantly reduced crime rates. (See attached copy of article from the December 20 New York Times.) The Austin police department is in fact understaffed in comparison to other cities, and the morale of its troops is in the cellar. (Gus Garcia might argue that the department is adequately staffed and that the chief is doing a great job, even though Gus' East Austin constituency lives in such fear that many are forced to have bars on the windows of their homes.) In our telephone conversation you even acknowledged that your early enthusiastic support for the current chief is now proving to have been unfounded and inappropriate. (Your report that the chief is rumored to be soon pursuing other career opportunities is encouraging). We're all looking forward to seeing the City Auditor's report on the police department that, for some mysterious reason, has been delayed from October to November and now to sometime in January, although the paper has chosen not to question the reason for the delays.

As for my criticism of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, I still believe that the Chamber is too much of an Old Boy (and Girl) Club where the leaders are primarily focused not on the greater good of the community but on networking to support their own economic interests and/or that of their clients. In my opinion the Chamber is symptomatic of an even greater problem: Austin simply does not enjoy the vision and leadership and energy other cities receive from their business communities. The Chamber is quick to claim credit for attracting companies to Austin that probably would have found their way here on their own. But what else has the Chamber done of merit and worth to enhance the community besides have lots of meaningless meetings? One reason: A "don't rock the boat" mentality from the Chamber's leadership because the interests of their firms and/or their clients would be compromised if the chamber took aggressive positions that angered the politicians. A trough-feeding mentality that seems to control the way decisions are made in Austin politics also controls the Chamber, in my opinion. Example: Observers besides Mike Levy point out that Kerry Tate's reign as the most recent Chamber president was highlighted by lots of meetings, recruiting/anointing Kirk Watson to run for mayor as the leadership's water carrier, and her firm's getting the Samsung account (where it joined the Capitol Metro account!). I suggested to Kerry that Austin's crime rate affected the safety of the Chamber's members, and their businesses and families, and thus merited the resources and energy of the Chamber. Kerry's response: a lecture on my "style," a defense of the chief, an accusation that I have a problem with "strong women," and some more Chamber meetings. Kerry did not mention that the Chamber's questioning the Council's commitment to public safety would possibly have compromised the leadership's relationships with some friendly council members such as Gus.

Rich, look at the facts: the Chamber's membership has declined significantly over the years, despite phenomenal growth in the local business community, because too many business executives in Austin increasingly see the chamber as weak and ineffective. Try and find something of substance to show as proof that Austin is indeed a better place because of the Chamber's efforts. And factor in what a strong Chamber could do to help the community focus on the future and to confront its challenges in a positive and meaningful way. The Chamber could and should be playing an important role in helping this community confront and deal with critical issues. It doesn't. 'Tis a pity. Hopefully new Chamber president Gary Valdez (who got by the nominating committee on a 5-4 vote despite the best efforts of the business-as-usual crowd) will make a difference and be able to turn things around. [Ed. Note: Valdez is 1998 chair-elect; Pete Winstead is current chair]

You say that the Austin EMS program is a sacred cow of mine. Wow!!! Obviously you are angry at my letters of November 21 and November 22 (copies attached) in response to Ben Wear's piece on EMS director Sue Edwards. (A surprising number of people commented that Wear's story on Edwards appeared to them to be a mean-spirited hatchet job without substance or merit or foundation.) And obviously you are still relatively new in town, explaining why you are unfamiliar with some history that shows that Austin EMS is certainly no "sacred cow" of mine. Check your own paper's clips re: my involvement with EMS since the inception of the program in 1976. Even better, talk to [City Manager] Jesus Garza or to members of the paper's Old Guard like Tom Barry and Arnold Garcia, all of whom will tell you that my criticism of Austin EMS over the years has been mean and nasty. More than one EMS director has been removed because I was on their case with facts and figures. You'll probably also learn that one of the reasons that Austin EMS is today one of the best programs in the country, with lots of citizens still alive who would otherwise be real dead, is because I refused to be neutralized by people who were too comfortable with mediocrity or found me to be just too abrasive and arrogant and abrupt and impolite. My letters in response to Wear's piece on Edwards were written only because I thought they were wrong and unfair and damaging to a good and decent person who has served our community well. I'd bet you would have done the same if you were in my position.

Re: your self-proclaimed "passing acquaintances with two Pulitzers..." I believe that Texas Monthly's eight National Magazine Awards (our industry's equivalent of the Pulitzers) have you beat. (The only magazines receiving more National Magazine Awards are The New Yorker, Atlantic, Harper's, Life and Esquire, and they've been publishing a lot longer than we have.)

One self-proclaimed sage says that the Austin American-Statesman is not as bad as people say it is, but it's really not much better. I happen to disagree with that view. I believe that the paper has improved significantly since you got off the stagecoach that brought you to town. But Austin is facing what Lyndon Johnson called big and dangerous lions that too few see. For the lions to be turned back so the city can survive and prosper, it's critical that the paper make the folks out in voter land aware of issues affecting their future. Since Cox bought the American-Statesman, many publishers and editors have come... and departed. (I think you're either editor #4 or #5.) Hopefully, Michael Laosa and you plan on sticking around for a long time, and thus have a significant personal stake in the future here.

The reason we study history is to learn from it, and when we look at Washington, D.C., we see that forty years ago it was much like Austin... a lovely, civilized and very pleasant city in which to live. Austin is on a fast track to becoming just like Washington, a high-crime war zone. The trend lines have us there in 5 to 7 years unless public safety becomes a much higher priority than it is right now.

Again, the facts: Not enough cops. Abysmal police management and leadership. Fuzzy public policy in the criminal justice arena here. Three fire fighters on engines and ladders instead of the necessary four or five. Poor funding for libraries that could serve as community centers and magnets for our youth. Yet we flush away millions on silliness like the energy rebate program (also known as The Full Employment Program for Friends of the Council).

The idea currently before the Council to convert Southwest Parkway from a relatively safe 6 lanes to a very dangerous 3 lanes gives all of us a clear and remarkable reminder that human life and safety quite simply are just not a priority here. If this brainstorm passes (thus promising Austin trial lawyers many new and very lucrative opportunities to sue the city on behalf of people killed and injured on a roadway intentionally made much less safe by the City), I will send to the members of the Council voting aye on this one a copy of the obituary for each and every person killed on the new road.

I believe we can smoke the peace pipe when I take you to Taylor on Friday, January 3, for barbecue at Louie Mueller's. (With his copy of this letter I'm inviting Michael Laosa to join us.) Regardless of what else you think about me, my character, my ethics, my intelligence, my wit, my charm, and my good looks, you'll probably wind up writing me a thank you note for introducing you to Louie Mueller's. I'll pick you up outside the paper at 11:15 am that day.

Finally, I hope that you and your colleagues will accept my very best wishes for a joyous and meaningful holiday season.

Best regards,
Michael R. Levy

cc: Everybody on the cc: list for your December 11 to me, along with (naturally) a few others.

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