McLeese's Pieces

Statesman Columnist Vents Spleen on Greens

Is it just our imagination, or is the Austin American-Statesman back on the anti-environmental/leftist warpath again? While the local daily has improved its news coverage in the last couple of years, no longer serving as a mere policy arm of Austin's development industry, the editorial and column writers still bear the markings of the same old Statesman.

Actually, the most glaring examples of this haven't come from the usual suspects. Rather than suburb-loving Senior Editor Tom Barry or Eric Mitchell-booster editorial writer Susan Smith-Richardson, it is now the daily's former Music Man, Don McLeese, who is taking the most frequent potshots at progressives in his Metro & State section column.

The saddest of McLeese's columns was a poorly thought-out harangue on July 27, titled "Mitchell was right about bias in Austin." Throughout the column, McLeese desperately tries, but fails, to foist blame for the racist policies that created and damaged East Austin upon white Greens. In this, he is notably impaired by lack of historical knowledge. (McLeese, a corn-fed Midwesterner, has been in Austin only since the early Nineties.) To read his column -- a sort of journalistic Seinfeld, often about nothing in particular -- one gathers that his research apparently doesn't go beyond reading yesterday's paper:

"As last week's series on East Austin in this newspaper made plain," McLeese wrote, "Mitchell was merely the messenger for a particularly unpleasant message -- that a city priding itself on its good-hearted liberalism has been developed according to a racist blueprint, one that has allowed a privileged majority to use the neighborhoods of poorer minorities as a dumping ground for conditions it never would tolerate in its own back yard."

Uh-uh. Sorry, Don, but it wasn't Austin's liberals who created those racist policies. Those policies were drawn up about 50 years ago, back when Austin bore a much closer resemblance to the rest of conservative, racist Texas. Most of Austin's Green activist community wasn't even born then, and once they came on the scene, a good number of them fought against that racism from the Sixties onward -- most merely with their ballots, but many others on the front lines.

McLeese looks down from the safety of his lofty moral perch and casts judgments upon white enviros for not solving all of Austin's problems: "...every time Austin gets all frothy about protecting a salamander or preventing a supermarket in the city's central core while mutely allowing toxic inequities on the other side of town, it's easy to see that the more things change, the more they stay the same."

"Mutely allowing"? Westside activists get "frothy" about salamanders and supermarkets for a rather obvious reason -- those threats are occurring in their own neighborhoods. It's right there in front of them, so it's natural to go after those issues first. Meanwhile, the people best able to champion the Eastside's problems are Eastsiders themselves -- and they are doing so, in the form of organizations such as People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER) and others. And once issues like the tank farm and the recycling plant are raised, Eastsiders have usually received solid Westside enviro support for their struggles.

McLeese would do well to remember that many of the same people who get frothy over salamanders have also gotten frothy in support of single-member districts in past elections. McLeese should keep in mind that problems like segregation weren't solved by benevolent white liberals, but by people of color who refused to continue sitting at the back of the bus. Attention to this fact could have kept him from making the rash assertion that our newly green council's "calling for zoning reform" will paradoxically make "these neighborhoods ripe for gentrification." Wrong again -- it was Eastsiders who called for this reform, not the council; it will also be those same minority activists who can and probably will protect their neighborhoods from gentrification.

The columnist had a similarly harsh attack on Councilmember Gus Garcia, calling him "Council Member Weathervane." In an August 17 tirade about Garcia's shifting position on the homeless campus titled "As the wind blows, so goes Garcia," he compares Garcia to Bill Clinton and says "there's a big difference between standing your ground and letting your principles blow in the wind."

The comparison is flawed. Although Clinton frequently gets accused of "waffling," it is more accurate to say he just backs down in the face of controversy. The second somebody makes a stink, our national leader does his best to sweep it under the rug before too many voters notice, and thereby avoids threats to his approval rating.

Garcia, on the other hand, actually seems to be listening to the public and trying to find out what we want. He doesn't avoid difficult decisions like Clinton does, but rather, tries to make sure he's fulfilling the will of the people. One of the defining moments of Garcia's career came after the council rejected a proposed settlement with FM Properties in 1995. Shortly after casting the swing vote that killed the settlement, Garcia said, "I was not sure which way to go until just a few minutes ago because I felt very strongly that this community had not made up its mind to fight for their rights." McLeese criticizes this approach, saying, "While we're waiting for some leadership to emerge on the [homeless campus] issue, at least one council member continues to demonstrate excellent followership." It's too bad more councilmembers haven't shown such followership of the public will -- perhaps we could have avoided a lot of past boondoggles, and the Southwest quadrant of town would not be teetering on the brink of overdevelopment.

On August 1, the paper took on another favorite target -- Capital Metro -- with a feature that may have derived more from transit naïveté than antagonism, although the paranoid might see it as part of the daily's long-standing hatred of the transport authority. Titled "Bus Stop and go: For a day, Statesman staffers leave the driving to Cap Metro," the daily loaded up a bunch of first-timers onto the bus and asked them to relate their experiences. The flaw in this pursuit will be obvious to anyone who rides the bus: First-timers always screw up. Taking public transport requires a little bit of planning, and usually takes a few trips to get it right, but it can be mastered.

Rather than conveying this, the Statesman staffers' essays were mostly grumblings of how time-consuming the bus trips were, how they missed connections, etc. Features writer Patrick Beach, who lives in Hyde Park, was almost an hour late to his destination because of a botched plan to take his bike on the bus, which merely prompts the question: Why would somebody who lives in Hyde Park and has a bike bother to ride the bus? A bike ride from Hyde Park to downtown takes less than half an hour. At least Beach was brave enough to admit: "Feel like an idiot. Feel like a tourist. Vow to do better research next time." Entertainment writer Chris Riemenschneider apparently missed his bus because he wasn't paying attention when the bus came, which was somehow Cap Metro's fault.

Apparently, assistant features editor Dale Rice was the only one bright enough to figure out the obvious: CapMetro's hub-and-spoke system delivers almost every bus downtown, and from there, it's a quick walk across the Congress Avenue bridge to the Statesman offices.

On another front, one has to wonder about the choice of words in a Dylan Rivera article on the Cedar Park-US183 bypass. Under a headline that smirks, "Bugs may throw Lakeline road project a curve," Rivera describes the endangered species in question as "critters no larger than the eraser on a pencil." Gee, why don't you just come right and say "insignificant"?

Not to be overlooked in this critique is the editorial board. Although the board hasn't been quite as blistering as usual lately, the editorial writers still continued on August 11 and 13 to defend the Austin Independent School District's selection of a school site over the Edwards Aquifer. "Environmentalists won't like it, but placing Southwest Austin off limits for school construction makes no sense," and, "Many AISD students are not in the preferred growth corridor in the eastern half of the district, so not every school should be either." Funny how the Statesman's news staff has devoted so much space to the problems of growth, but the editorial board still has a head-in-the-sand refusal to admit that the placement of infrastructure can help guide this growth in the right direction. But that's probably a whole other column unto itself.

On other Statesman coverage, the daily deserves both some kudos and some darts over the Labor Day and Princess Diana weekend.

Why is it that the mainstream media -- the Statesman is hardly alone here -- almost never give Labor Day the type of treatment it deserves? During Christmas, we constantly hear complaints that "the holiday has lost its meaning," and the media often responds with numerous items, even special sections or reports, on the message of Christ.

Labor Day deserves something similar. Papers, television, and magazines have plenty of time to produce features detailing the struggles of working people to organize and raise their lot. Many people died in this struggle, and many still are dying -- there could be examinations of the history of unions, the current deadly fights in places like Latin America and Indonesia, and a hard look at why the richest 1% of humanity owns 40% of the wealth. The recent UPS strike provided enormous fodder for discussion.

But the Statesman only had three articles on labor: An editorial (which, to the board's credit, quoted Jeremy Rifkin, one of the left's best labor researchers), an interesting article on how unions are beginning to look good to young Texans, and a brief piece on Labor Secretary Alexis Herman. Granted, nothing could have pushed Princess Diana's death off the top of the page -- the royal family gets way too much coverage, but the impact of such an internationally known figure is undeniable -- but still, this holiday deserves better. Labor Day should be about more than hot dogs and a day at the lake. Of course, no media outlet gives it proper treatment, so this isn't necessarily singling out the Statesman for abuse.

In a related note, congratulations to the daily for beating the Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle in getting away from the huge, screaming Diana headlines. By Tuesday, the Statesman's news editors realized that, while Diana's death was significant to Central Texans, there was also important news here at home to report, too.

One news story that is finally getting some minor notice in the wake of Diana's death is the movement to ban land mines, one of the princesses' pet projects. However, has any major news outlet pointed out that the United States -- by demanding a continuation of mine use in Korea -- is a major obstacle in getting a truly comprehensive ban treaty ratified?

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