More Fightin' Words

Oppel and Levy Spar in Round Two

illustration by Doug Potter

The running tiff between Austin American-Statesman editor Richard Oppel and Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy is reaching ugly proportions. This will require some background: A few months ago, Texas Monthly wanted to interview San Antonio author Sandra Cisneros about her bright purple house, the color of which was causing consternation among some of her neighbors. Cisneros did not grant the interview, protesting the fact that Texas Monthly has never had a Latino staff writer in its 24 years. (Texas Monthly printed a story sans interview).

Subsequently, the Statesman printed an anti-TM letter from reader Sterling Price-McKinney which read, "One wonders if Cisneros had been rich, white and Jewish, if Levy would have championed her right to paint her house however she desired instead of questioning her motives." The letter was boxed and above the fold on the letters page.

This deeply offended Levy, who -- in a letter to Oppel and Statesman publisher Michael Laosa -- charged that the publication of the letter was "the most overt incidence of anti-Semitism that I've experienced." The daily printed a letter of similar sentiments from Barry Silverberg, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Austin.

In Oppel's weekly column of November 2, he printed a small note near the end titled "A word about Mike Levy" in which he offered a rather half-hearted apology, explaining that he had seen "the reference to Jewishness as cultural" instead of a religious slur.

"On reflection," Oppel wrote, "I give Levy the benefit of doubt. It is my doubt, not his, since he is never in doubt."

Levy responded in another personal letter, "Rich! Your own colleagues and so many people in the community will tell you that you could have just as easily written `Oppel' instead of `Levy.' Please, please, please give me a buck for everybody, including so many of your own staffers, who have said that they see you as an arrogant and rigid ex-Marine who never, ever considers the possibility of letting the facts get in the way of your own pre-conceived notions."

Levy asserts that someone in the Statesman hierarchy made Oppel write the apology. Oppel flatly denies this with a simple "no."

Crowning all this was a call that Levy made to Oppel's home to discuss the printing of Price-McKinney's letter. Oppel wasn't home, and Levy talked with Oppel's wife Carol. The Oppels apparently didn't appreciate Levy calling their home to discuss business; after Levy realized he had crossed an unwritten boundary, he wrote to apologize.

Levy says the thing that angers him the most about this whole incident is the "arrogance and base insensitivity. I've called Oppel on this and he was very arrogant and just argued with me." Levy was then quick to admit that he himself can be, in his own words, "abrasive." However, he says, "In talking to people [around Austin], it's not just Mike Levy carrying this flag. The [publication of the] letter offended a lot of people."

"As far as I'm concerned, the exchange is over," Oppel says. "I've nothing more to say than what was in my column. He's a person of some importance in the community, so we have to cover his business in a way this is fair and accurate, and he's free to comment."

Chronicle readers will remember that this isn't the first such heated exchange between Oppel and Levy, as covered earlier this year in "Fightin' Words" (January 17).

Can we please stop already with the pseudo-statistic that Austin is the nation's 22nd largest city? Several news sources in the city have made much hay over U.S. Census Bureau population estimates which showed that Austin had surpassed Seattle for the #22 spot. The American-Statesman even played it up with a huge, and rather silly, front-page feature comparing the two cities.

The misleading figures, of course, only count population within the city limits proper of the respective burgs, and not the suburbs which ring most large American cities, and thus prevent further growth of the city proper. As the recent annexation fights have pointed out, Austin has relatively few such incorporated suburbs. And viewed through a more realistic lens, Austin is still pretty far down the list on city size: According to 1995 census estimates, Greater Austin -- even accepting the Census Bureau's generous description of the Austin metropolitan area, which stretches from Georgetown to San Marcos -- ranked a mere 55th, with just under a million people. Even given the explosive growth over the last year (which has pushed us over the million mark), it's still unlikely that we've cracked the top 50.

No one with a calculator truly believes that Greater Austin is larger than Greater Kansas City (1.7 million) or Greater New Orleans (1.3 million) -- and certainly not Greater Seattle (2.2 million). Which cities make for a more accurate population comparison? Try less cosmopolitan-sounding burgs like Grand Rapids, Michigan, Louisville, Kentucky, or Oklahoma City.

A few weeks ago, this col- umn criticized the absurd devotion of valuable 10pm news time on KXAN to the promotion of the live episode of NBC's ER, noting that too often, so-called "news" programs are reduced to simply being advertising vehicles for the network's prime-time shows. KTBC ("Fox-7"), always striving to stay on the cutting edge of bad television and not wanting to get left behind by a rival station, followed suit just a few days later with a behind-the-scenes look at Fox's X-Files series and, more recently, a segment about King of the Hill. Oh well, at least in the case of King of the Hill, there was a local angle to it (creator Mike Judge is an Austinite), and Judge seemed to take a perverse pleasure in the superficiality of it all.

You'd like to think that maybe the problem is just a slow news day -- the King segment ran on a Sunday -- but the next day, Fox-7 treated us to a hard-hitting investigative report on people who hide tiny cameras on their shoes to look up women's dresses. No, seriously. We couldn't make up stuff that good.

On a note of TV doing some- thing right, KXAN has begun translating its 6pm and 10pm news broadcasts into Spanish over the Secondary Audio Program channel that can be found on most TVs and VCRs. Other stations would do well to follow suit. Of course, unless Austin's TV news shows improve the actual content of their coverage, they won't really be doing any favors for the Spanish-speaking community.

The leadership crisis at The Daily Texan, UT's student newspaper, has worked itself to a resolution of sorts: The governing board of Texas Student Publications, the oversight entity for the Texan, reprimanded editor Colby Black on Nov. 7. The conservative Black and his editorial board had come under fire for printing cartoons that portrayed a Hispanic campus activist as a bandido, and editorials that engaged in personal attacks, especially against minorities. This led Black's staff to issue a 17-1 vote of "no confidence" against Black, which in turn led to the reprimand meeting.

In related news, on Nov. 6 campus activists Oscar de la Torre and Toni Nelson Herrera filed racial harassment complaints with the Office of the Dean of Students against the Texan editorial board. No action has been taken thus far.

Speaking of the Texan, long-time editorial manager Ron Gibson is departing. Gibson, one of the nicest guys in the whole world, has been something of a father figure to several generations of Daily Texan staffers, saving many of their butts from libel lawsuits without ever casting judgment on the content of the paper. All current and former Texan staffers are invited to a farewell party at the paper's editorial offices (still in the TSP basement) on Tuesday, Dec. 9, at 3pm.

As has often been the case, Waco businessman Bernard Rapoport -- one of the nation's leading financial contributors to liberal causes -- is again offering to bail out The Texas Observer. But this time, he's asking readers of the nonprofit magazine to help him foot the bill.

The Observer has said it needs $40,000, and Rapoport has promised that if readers will come up with $20,000, he'll pony up the other half. The Observer is most worthy of your support: Since 1954, it has been one of the few -- and at times, the only -- voice to speak up in favor of working people, women, and racial minorities, and against corporate corruption and crooked politicians. If you're not already a subscriber, you should give them a call right now at 477-0746.

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A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 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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