Not Your Same Old News
Politico Taps Into Latino Affairs With Critical Eye
Occasionally, an organization runs off someone who seemed integral to its success, and it just makes you scratch your head in wonderment. The Dallas Cowboys drove Jimmy Johnson away. Apple threw out Steve Jobs. In the case of the Austin American-Statesman, Latino affairs reporter James Garcia was one of the few shining lights that the Roger Kintzel years produced. In his stories and in frequent columns, Garcia dealt with important topics head-on -- including some of the only honest commentary to be found in the mainstream press on the ongoing events in Chiapas. Garcia's columns could have been a vital contribution to editor Richard Oppel's revitalization of the daily. Instead, the column was eliminated in 1996 and the only choice offered to Garcia was a standard reporting job. Garcia said no thanks, and left.
The Statesman's loss may yet turn out to be a gain for Garcia, if his new entrepreneurial venture pans out. Last September, Garcia, 38, launched Politico, a weekly newsletter devoted to Latino politics. While starting out solely as an e-mail publication, the effort has since branched out into print with an 81/2"x11" newsletter. Each issue has news from all over America (and often Latin America) and features the talents of some of this country's finest Hispanic journalists and commentators, including Louis Aguilar, Juan R. Palomo (who ran into a similar dead end at the Statesman), and former Latino USA producer Franc Contreras. The publication has been quick to gain notice, including landing a reprint of a Garcia editorial in the Dallas Morning News.
"There were a couple of options for me when I decided to start Politico," says Garcia, who also contributes occasionally to The Austin Chronicle and formerly wrote a weekly column for The Texas Triangle. "One of them was just to focus on being a magazine writer, which is something I had been enjoying since leaving the dailies, and the other was try to go into some kind of publishing. I had thought of it for some time, kind of like actors who want to direct." He considered launching a general news Hispanic publication but then decided to concentrate on a single focus. "I decided that [Latino politics] was a better niche, a more needed type of publication," says Garcia, who grew up "all over the map," from the Midwest to South Texas; from Manhattan to Orange County, California.
That settled, he turned next to getting the project off the ground. "I found what I thought was a relatively inexpensive way to launch the thing. I'd done some of the math and thought about what it would cost me to put out either a weekly or monthly publication on paper, and the costs would be immense if you want to do it well."
The solution was in that great leveler, the Internet. Garcia realized he could produce an online product "with a few thousand dollars of computer equipment and my sources and the telephone. And also, I assumed that many of the people that I really want to hit -- middle-class, upper middle-class Latinos with at least some college or a very active kind of interest in the political process -- are probably online. I didn't do massive market research, I just used some common sense and experience... and it's played itself out. They are there, and these are college professors, leaders of Hispanic organizations, a couple of congressmen."
A news outlet such as Politico is necessary, Garcia says, because "most of the Latino publications that have been around to date -- a lot of them have come and gone, particularly in the last decade -- were unfocused in what it was they were trying to achieve, and a lot of them had a kind of cheerleading quality to them, which is not uncommon in the minority press, and is not uncommon in advocacy journalism, if you want to describe this as such. Somehow, the idea of providing a voice to those communities is interpreted by publishers as not providing just a voice, but a positive voice.
"In part because of my training as a journalist and my sense of what kind of information should be provided to the general community as well as to my own community, I told myself that I wasn't going to take that approach," Garcia says. "I'm going to write about the ugly side of Henry Cisneros, and the positive side of Henry Cisneros, whatever happens to be appropriate. He's making enough money these days that he can hire his own PR firm, and a lot of Latinos are, and I don't need to do that job for them. To me, it hurts them if I take that sort of role on. So far, what I found, amazingly enough, is that I'm one of the very few people in the country who has taken that kind of approach to covering this community, and people within the community appreciate that. The leadership, the politicians, appreciate the critical eye that my publication has started to put on them."
Garcia's commitment to hard-hitting journalism has not gone unnoticed. It was his Cisneros commentary that the Morning News picked up for publication, and the Pacifica Network News ran a radio version of the piece on January 8. Rather than having to hunt for stringers, Garcia says, "many have called me." Additionally, Garcia says he and a Phoenix-based venture capitalist are discussing the possible expansion of Politico, or the formation of a monthly magazine.
For the time being, Politico will stick to its current offering of pithy content. "What I've done is give people a quick hit of stuff with a little bit of analysis, something they can take with them on Monday morning and carry with them through the week. That really appeals to them. None of the issues have been more than 3,000 words total, but you can cover a lot of ground quickly."
Hopefully, a few mainstream reporters and editors will carry it around as well to pick up on story angles they may have missed. Despite their attempts at diversification, Garcia says, the mainstream folks still manage to overlook significant nuances. "Not because they're racist," Garcia says, "but because certain important stories just don't occur to them. Before Tony Garza dropped out of the land commissioner race, I ran a story that noted that he probably would have faced Richard Raymond in what would have been the first ever Latino vs. Latino race for a major statewide office. Most mainstream papers never clicked on that; the significance didn't occur to them. But that's big to the Latino community. Many Latino reporters say they have to hand-feed this stuff to their editors."
Getting that message across to editors can be equally daunting when covering foreign affairs. "There were reports for months that paramilitary forces were being armed in Chiapas by nefarious forces and slaughtering people," Garcia says, "but the problem for most bureaus was that it wasn't a war. You can't just count the bodies. You have to wander through the villages and investigate. They missed it until the massacre. Oddly enough, the journalists who do cover this are often seen as overly sympathetic."
As the demographics of America change, so must its news coverage. The mainstream is trying to reach out, but until that process is complete, Hispanics and others interested in Latino issues need a news source ahead of the curve. James Garcia is making that happen with Politico.
For subscription and other info on Politico, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 478-9341.
KVET (1300AM) has canceled Reporter's Roundtable, which had occupied its weekday 9-10am slot. This is unfortunate, as the show had great, if unrealized, potential. It featured a panel of usually four journalists discussing a variety of topics -- with KVET city council reporter Eric Blumberg and/or the Chronicle's Kayte VanScoy always holding at least one of the seats, and often an Austin Review reporter to offer a conservative view.
Roundtable often suffered from a lack of direction; many shows featured Blumberg randomly picking a topic from the newswire and offering it up for conversation, regardless of how irrelevant or trivial it may have been to Austin listeners. But whenever the panel focused on topics of local interest -- particularly on council issues -- interesting and informed debates often ensued, with local political figures occasionally joining the fray. (The arguments over annexation were particularly lively.)
Had KVET chosen to give the show more direction, perhaps it could have turned into something of a local Meet the Press. Instead, the slot is now occupied by a syndicated show hosted by fitness guru Susan Powter, whose screechy voice and ranting, manic style are completely unlistenable. KVET's new owners, Capstar Broadcasting Partners -- an Austin-based megacorporation -- would do well to bring back the Roundtable and give it some editorial focus.
Wag the Dog, a new film starring Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, and Anne Heche, is highly recommended to readers who want some insight into how the national news media interacts with our American political machine, and how a good PR person can have an enormous impact on American history. The plot is that the president gets accused of making sexual advances to a young girl, 11 days before the election, and a distraction must be created to push the scandal out of the headlines. The president's handlers and a Hollywood director immediately set to work creating a fictional military crisis in Albania, and the press swallows it unquestioningly.
Lest you think this premise is merely hyperbolic, over-the-top fiction, supplement your viewing by reading Toxic Sludge Is Good for You!, the brilliant and damning 1995 study of the public relations industry by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton. Pay particular attention to chapter 10, "The Torturers' Lobby," and how the PR firm Hill & Knowlton, working for the Kuwaiti government, cooked up a batch of outrageous lies which helped sway Congress into backing the Gulf War -- and how the news media completely failed to investigate Hill & Knowlton until after the war was over.
For more on Wag the Dog, see the Chronicle film listings. As for Toxic Sludge (Common Courage Press, $16.95 paper), it may be available at local bookstores; if not, contact the Center for Media & Democracy at 608/233-3346, or e-mail email@example.com.