News Boss

Reading the Austin American-Statesman used to be such a painful experience. In a community that is known for being so well-read and politically involved, the local daily could be nothing less than downright insulting. Every morning, one could pick up a copy of the Statesman and marvel over what fresh atrocity it had committed against the high-minded ideals of journalism. Actually, though, the assaults were more against simple common sense and the intelligence of its readers than anything else. There was the series of stories that supposedly exposed how environmentalists had nefariously achieved disproportionate control over Austin's politics, as if the majority of voters weren't supposed to actually be in control. There were the "investigative" reports on Freeport-McMoRan by environmental reporter Bill Collier -- later to become a Freeport spokesman -- that were clearly promotional puff pieces for the company. There was the spineless editorial page, the editorials of which seemed to be written on a first-grade reading level and which rarely said anything stronger than "action needs to be taken," without adequately stating why, what kind, or who should do it. Perhaps worst of all, there were the fluffy human interest stories that dominated the front page with an endless stream of cute kids and cuddly animals, pushing real news to the back pages -- or out of the paper altogether. Then there were the biases of publisher Roger Kintzel, which showed up in news content regularly, even as he maintained that the paper was committed to objective journalism.

It continually got worse. The paper reached its nadir two years ago -- on Independence Day, 1995 -- with a banner story across page one that screamed: "Coyote Cafe too hot for Austin to handle," penned by food editor Kitty Crider. At that point, it seemed like the wheels had completely come off. Whatever pretenses the Statesman had to being a news vehicle were gone. Previously, the Statesman had merely elicited anger from its readers, but now, one could almost muster pity for the paper.

A few days later, Richard Oppel officially took over the helm of the sinking ship. As the new editor, he had a daunting task ahead of him.

Coach Oppel Scores

Richard "Rich" Oppel would make a good sports coach. Coaches don't play the game; they give direction. They come up with a game plan, and watch from the sidelines as the team executes the plays. They give guidance and leadership; if the plan isn't working, they point out what's wrong. Most of all, they aren't the ones with the talent, but they have a knack for molding the talents of others.

"I don't know that I was all that great of a reporter," admits Oppel, 54, who toiled as a scribe for about a decade with the Tampa Tribune and the Associated Press. But he does have a game plan. Talk with him about his chosen profession, and you will quickly get a sense that Oppel has a very clear concept of what a newspaper should be. He may not have been a great reporter, but as an editor, he knows what to expect from one. Give him a great reporter, and he'll have specific ideas on how to use that person's talent. Clearly, Oppel is an editor who enjoys a challenge.

When Oppel came to Austin after a brief stint as a Knight-Ridder Washington bureau chief -- and more notably, a 15-year stint as editor of the Knight-Ridder's Pulitzer Prize-winning Charlotte Observer -- he had a challenge: Turn the Statesman around. He says he applied for the job, contrary to popular belief that he was "brought in" by Cox Enterprises, the daily's parent company, to shake up the place. Even so, he was certainly charged with that task by the readers, who were desperate for a daily that would meet Austin's intellectual level and skeptical that a corporate giant like Cox could produce one.

What the paper clearly lacked was leadership. His predecessor, Maggie Balough, was a complete non-presence in both the community and the paper. When readers pondered the paper's leadership, Kintzel's name was much more likely to come to mind.

And now, as the billboards around town blare these days, the daily is "not your same old Statesman." From day one of his tenure, Oppel has left no doubt as to who runs the Statesman, especially since Kintzel departed to become publisher of the Cox flagship Atlanta Constitution-Journal (Michael Laosa is now the Statesman publisher). Oppel immediately began authoring a regular column on the Sunday editorial page, one which met city issues head-on. His first column outlined his newspaper philosophy, and soon thereafter, he began making good on his assertion that "If my decisions seldom irritate anyone, I've failed as an editor." The most infamous column of his tenure came early on, when he said he was having a hard time generating "appropriate Austin angst for the Barton Springs Salamander" and derisively suggested converting Robert Mueller Airport into a theme park called Salamanderland. Predictably, and deservedly, he was excoriated for it by readers.

"I stand by my columns about as long as they last at the bottom of the bird cage," Oppel says, over lunch at Schlotzsky's Deli. "I've probably contradicted myself scores of times over the years, and probably written lots of dumb columns. That one I wouldn't write today, but I don't regret writing it at the time. I tend to leave a little bit of my elbows out on columns. I learned by writing, in a sense, and what I was doing then was reflecting what I felt as a newcomer coming to town, and I suspect the reaction is similar for lots of people coming to this crazy town and seeing the intensity of interest in Barton Springs and the salamander and this issue and that issue. I think I understand it better now."

"What I love about this community, among many things, is that it does have a fierce devotion to the environment. It looks like we're going to have a city council coming up that is more strongly aligned with environmental issues than ever before. I think that's a pretty good thing to be for. I think the real devil is in the details. It comes in such issues as reconciling the environmental fervor with other needs of the community -- affordable housing, housing for people coming in and starting families, transportation, the siting of schools. I don't pretend to have ultimate knowledge on those things. I think with everybody else I struggle to get to the right decision, although I think some people don't struggle very much at all. Their minds are made up."

Ain't Afraid of Bullies

Before those columns could get Oppel written off as simply another pro-development stooge, however, Statesman readers were surprised to see front-page stories taking a critical look at Freeport-McMoRan's environmental practices, and at University of Texas Chancellor William Cunningham's questionable connections to that company; they were probably even more surprised when, after Freeport threatened several UT professors and journalists (including the Chronicle's Robert Bryce) with libel lawsuits, Oppel stood up to the bullying tactics and demanded the threats be withdrawn. At long last, the fluff stories were gone, and news of issues that really mattered to the community began surfacing with the kind of front-page play that they deserved. It had long been rumored that the Statesman had some talented reporters who, for one reason or another, were being stifled. Now, Coach Oppel seemed to be telling them to take the ball and run with it.

This isn't the first time that he has done so. At the Charlotte Observer, he guided that paper to two gold medal Pulitzer Prizes for meritorious public service. The first came in 1981, when the Observer exposed the "brown lung" disease that afflicted Carolina textile workers subjected to hazardous working conditions. The second and more widely recognized prize came in 1988, after the paper uncovered the scandal at Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's Praise the Lord/People That Love (PTL) ministry.

Each day's American-Statesman gets marked for errors and displayed.

photograph by Jana Birchum

The latter project took some courage, as the television ministry held considerable sway in the conservative Charlotte community. The PTL organization continually berated the Observer as having a Satan-inspired vendetta against the ministry. PTL leaders complained directly to Observer Publisher Rolfe Neill and to the paper's parent company, Knight-Ridder, to try and head off the investigation. According to Charles E. Shepard, a Washington Post investigative reporter and, at the time, the Observer's lead reporter on the scandal, Neill began to cave under PTL pressure and came down on Oppel for being so critical of the ministry. In his 1989 book, Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry, Shepard praises Oppel for standing firm behind him, and quotes from a memo that Oppel wrote to Neill to defend the coverage.

Oppel made statements to Neill that are all too rare in today's world of corporate media:

"With the staff, there is a long-gathering belief that top management does not support the rank-and-file reporter.... There is also a feeling that top management doesn't support sensitive work.... [Your] support is seen as one of tolerance and not one of priority. The tough-nosed reporting is supported (but don't dare make a mistake), but it is not a priority, not one of the things that you believe is necessary for achieving greatness."

photograph by Jana Birchum

Plaudits From Charlotte

It isn't hard to get Oppel's Charlotte colleagues to praise him.

"In my 22 years of reporting, Rich Oppel is the neatest person I've worked for," says Ken Garfield, the Observer's current religion reporter, who describes Oppel as a mentor. "He's passionate about journalism, the hard-charging, old-style, front-page journalism. American journalism is so politically correct now. It doesn't uncover the crooks. He represents the other style -- telling great stories. He stands for a simple, noble style of journalism." Garfield adds that while Oppel understood the importance of religion coverage in Charlotte, he wasn't afraid to "knock sacred cows, too."

Jim Walser, the Observer's assistant managing editor, also holds Oppel in high standing. "Rich was always a go-getter," he says. "He sets an impossible standard for himself. He loves it. He has to -- it's a hard business. [Charlotte] was a tough job -- it's a conservative community, one that elects Jesse Helms. He was able to produce a paper that both sides respected. He constantly fought for open records. The North Carolina legislature always tries to lock up records, and he was a major opponent of that."

Here in Austin, Oppel has found a fan among one notable and longtime critic of the Statesman, Texas Monthly publisher Michael Levy. "Oppel is a genuinely good guy who wants to put out a great paper," says Levy, "and he's surrounded himself with some great people -- Kathy Warbelow is a fantastic managing editor, and Osler McCarthy is a good state editor.... I used to say, `The Statesman isn't as bad as people think, but it's not much better.' Now I think the Statesman isn't as bad as people think, it's much better. The paper has improved, but I don't know that the community gets it. Compare the Statesman to the Dallas Morning News or the Houston Chronicle; it's not as good as they are, but it's not so embarrassingly far behind as it was before."

As Levy implies, Austin is a town full of cynics, and Oppel is certainly not without his critics. One of the most notable problems he has had of late is the loss of some good Latino writers. This is of no minor consequence at a Southwestern newspaper in the capital of a state that is so central to U.S.-Mexican relations. Ironically, it may be that his biggest strength -- his vision of good journalism -- is also his downfall in this area.

Oppel's game plan is deceptively simple, and unlike most coaches, he's completely willing to share it. "I like a good reporter who will go in a place and find out for herself what the hell is going on, and dig and dig and dig," Oppel says, "because the best stories are those that surprise; they run against the conventional wisdom or even logic. Great reporters are those who see that; they're really the visionaries, and good editors, I think, guide, steer, give them some context or kind of companion to say `That's what you gotta focus on, not that over there, this is the story.' A good reporter always gets too close to the big story; too much involvement, and you can't see the context and perspective very well.

"What I believe in for a community like this, with a well-educated readership, is a comprehensive mix ... all of the key areas. I don't think I do anything special that good editors don't try to do. A daily newspaper is a complex institution with lots of different responsibilities. I believe that the base of a newspaper is the reporter, not the editor. I tend to start drawing talent in the reporting ranks and expanding the freedom of the reporters that are already in the newspaper. I let them know that serious work is taken seriously, their freedom is respected, that I may be easy to work with... but the difficulty in working with me would be receiving the challenge to do better and to reach higher."

This stated vision would seem to be at odds with what happened between Oppel and reporters Juan R. Palomo and James Garcia. Both writers felt that their best talents were not being utilized properly, and their clashes eventually led to their leaving the Statesman. And certainly, they are talented.

Palomo was hired on by Oppel to be the Statesman's religion reporter, a move which was quite a coup. Palomo was a respected columnist with the Houston Post, a bold writer who caused a stir when he tried to reveal his homosexuality in his column and got dismissed by that paper. After being briefly reinstated (and never getting to come out in the Post's pages), he ended up in Austin in 1995 when the Post folded, first writing for The Texas Triangle and then for the Statesman. There, another firestorm was touched off when conservative Christian radio host Wyatt Roberts began a campaign to have Palomo fired, to which Oppel's printed response was, "I pray that you quit picking on gays and, if you don't, I pray that you get out of town." Despite such unflinching support, Palomo resigned at the end of February.

Palomo says he believed his true talent was as an op-ed writer, but "I saw no hope that I would become a columnist. I came to the Statesman because there was that hope. That's what I was led to believe. I would have been willing to wait longer if I had been told that with a little more time we would work on it, but it was made clear that it wasn't going to happen. I became bitter about it, and I didn't want to work where I'm bitter all the time."

Overall, Palomo says that Oppel has done a notable job, that he has brought in good people and properly used some veteran staffers who had been underused. However, Latino issues leave a major gap among the Statesman columnists.

"Some people have suggested that the Statesman has a problem with Hispanic males, but I don't know," Palomo says. Noting that Arnold Garcia, Jr., is the editorial page editor, Palomo says, "I think that's one of the unfortunate things about situations like this where you have one member of a group in a high-profile job. In the minds of people who run things, they seem to think that's enough. Arnold's a nice guy, but he rarely writes columns, and when he does write columns they're hardly ever about issues affecting the Eastside Hispanic community, although he does once in a while," he says. "So there's really no one speaking there for anybody other than middle-class white males. That's what really bothers me about the paper is the only three people who are writing columns on a regular basis are three white males [Don McLeese, state politics columnist Dave McNeely, and humorist John Kelso]. It just didn't seem to bother [Oppel]. I pointed that out, and he said, `Well, we don't have any females either.' Am I supposed to feel better about that?"

James Garcia (no relation to Arnold) was a carry-over from the pre-Oppel days, and his regular column on Latino issues was a rare example of something that the Kintzel/Balough regime did well. But, according to Garcia, "apparently [Oppel] disagreed." Garcia, who finally resigned, went on to write a column for the Triangle, although he severed ties with that paper last month over a monetary dispute.

"I literally have a love/hate relationship with Oppel," says Garcia. "In certain aspects -- I only know him as an editor -- there are many things I admire about him. He is a solid journalist. He understands the nuts and bolts as well as anybody in the country. He could run the Washington Post. He's very competent.

"On the other hand, perhaps because of his longevity and how he was trained, he has specific attitudes about newsrooms that developed long ago. It has served him well, but it's rigid.... My journalism training has been more guerilla, from a minority angle in an Anglo world, covering overlooked issues -- I'm a bit of an antagonist. On the surface, he says, `Challenge me,' but when it comes down to it, he has preconceived notions about what should be in a newspaper and who should do it. He blinds himself.... He decides coverage on basic fundamentals, without understanding that there is a basic cultural foundation that must be addressed.

"A good example of that is my column," Garcia says. "Oppel suggested that he didn't meet people who read my column; that was his gauge. I said, `Maybe we don't meet the same people.' I talk to the poor... he doesn't. I think I've been vindicated since. People ask me, `Why is the column gone?' "

Asked if any such problems existed at the Observer -- black/white relations are always contentious issues in North Carolina -- Walser says, "Everybody has problems with race. It depends on the person. Rich gets more excited about news than columns; he likes investigations." Another source, who asked not to be identified, contended that minority representation at the Observer increased under Oppel.

Oppel, for his part, says, "I prefer not to comment on specific personnel.... We have a diverse staff, and it will be increasingly diverse."

Going Soft on Freeport?

Another easy criticism can be thrown at an obvious slackening of the hard-edged examinations of Freeport-McMoRan. After the flurry of Freeport stories from late 1995 and early 1996, coverage of the company seemed to drop off. And after Oppel's harsh criticism of Cunningham's connections to Freeport, the Statesman now can only muster adjectives like "unfortunate." It's easy to speculate why -- perhaps Oppel has gone as far as he can. Corporate interference in the newsroom is nothing new, and it's entirely conceivable that Cox decided to rein Oppel in -- especially after he attended the Save Our Springs Coalition's 1995/96 New Year's Eve bash.

"He started out really well," says Save Our Springs attorney Bill Bunch, who describes the early Freeport stories as "hard-hitting and aggressive." "But then, in my view, he got intimidated by Freeport and the people upstairs. The coverage on Freeport and the environment generally reverted to the Kintzel style of painting environmentalists as radicals with no brains, only emotions. We've seen that continue to the present. One thing he's done well is report generally on the problems of growth and the costs involved.... But when it comes down to specific battles, it's still very pro-developer and biased against the environmental community."

Responding to observations that the Statesman had slacked off on its environmental coverage, Oppel had his database editor send me an impressively thick stack of environmental stories that the Statesman has covered in the last year. Nonetheless, the tone towards Freeport has scaled down noticeably, not as biting as before.

As for Cox laying down the law, Oppel says, "Cox has been fully supportive of me and this newspaper in every single way imaginable. I never had the first bit of interference with news judgements or stories about Jim Bob [Moffett, Freeport CEO] or anyone else. I'll tell you this -- it's been a better company in that respect than Knight-Ridder, which is an awfully good company. Cox has revealed no twitchiness."

Sources inside the Statesman report that after the Chronicle featured a November 10, 1995, cover story report by Robert Bryce on the cancellation of Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold's political risk insurance policy by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, Oppel walked into a news department meeting, slammed down a copy of the Chronicle on the desk, and demanded, "Why aren't we covering these stories?" Not long after that, the Statesman began taking a critical look at Freeport.

"I don't remember specifically on that [incident], but it's probably true," Oppel says. "I find Bryce to be a good journalist, and I'm just competitive. It's my style [in meetings with my news staff] to demand to know why we didn't have a certain story. This morning it was a Dallas Morning News story; the only black admitted to the Texas Law School decided to go to Cornell instead. We didn't have that." It should be noted, too, that Oppel's son, Richard Oppel Jr., is a formidable competitor as a reporter in the Austin bureau of the Dallas Morning News.

"I'll use the Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, or The Austin Chronicle where it serves my purposes to intensify the hustle and competitive spirit and the breadth of looking at what is news. I did find the [Statesman] a little defensive about the Chronicle when I got [here]," he says. "I said, `Look at them as a gift. It's local competition, and a lot of people doing good stories, and that helps improve the state of the art when you've got competition and somebody breathing down your neck, maybe kicking your ass once in a while. Same for The Daily Texan, which is a little more ragged but has some smart young people getting inside that university quite often."

Rich Oppel gets the lowdown on upcoming stories during the daily editorial meeting.

photograph by Jana Birchum

At the same time, Oppel certainly isn't cowed into duplicating the Chronicle, which is both good news and bad. The Statesman could probably stand to apply more scrutiny to city hall. Although Oppel listed several reporters who have covered city politics, Ben Wear is clearly bearing the overwhelming brunt of the city council beat. Wear does a solid job, but it seems a lot for one man on a paper with the Statesman's resources. Oppel shrugs off the critique, and chalks this up to a difference in philosophies.

"We probably don't cover city council quite like the Chronicle, taking counts of the nose hairs of each councilmember every day," Oppel says. "I think the customer is the reader who is the citizen who is the taxpayer, and I feel no compelling need to go to a member of council and say, `Please ma'am, what is the news today?' I think you find the news about city government where the taxes are paid, where the services are delivered. I would prefer to do what we're doing more and more but not yet to my satisfaction, and that is setting the agenda for council rather than reading the agenda."

As an example, he cites the Statesman's coverage of the BFI Recyclery in East Austin, and of the beleaguered Cap Metro. "There's a problem with BFI and noise and filth and rubbish around their plant. Report that, and then watch with some pleasure as council reacts. It's digging deep into Cap Metro when nobody else was doing it and staying with it amid charges of racism to find out how money was being wasted, how contract policies were being violated, how management operated with arrogance, how the board operated without supervision, and then watching what happens, rather than going to a Cap Metro meeting and being good little stenographers."

Is that what the Chronicle does? "No comment. But you do it very well," he says, laughing.

But whatever criticisms one may still have of the Austin American-Statesman, only the most cynical of observers would deny that the paper has improved. If the Statesman is still less than perfect, it is at least approaching the calibre that its readership deserves. One must wonder: When Oppel took the reins, what did he see before him? Who created such a mess? Oppel responds in his typical fashion, politic but not disingenuous, and brushes blame aside.

"Every newspaper has problems. But this newspaper had lots of strengths, too. I think my predecessor was a very skilled editor in many respects. The XL section, which is her creation and not mine, is one of the best of its kind in the nation. [The Statesman] has a strong entertainment staff, a strong state desk staff, and many other very talented people in which she was involved in bringing here. But I believed it could be better and I could help to make it better."

What was wrong?

"I'll let others say that," Oppel says. "I'll talk about what I've tried to do. I don't want to revisit the past."

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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