Top of the Year: For Local Media, 1999 Was a Year of Innovation, Infamy
Here are 10 ways the local media made news in 1999:
1. Austin American-Statesman goes anti-enviro ballistic: Right about the same time the local daily dropped the "It's Not Your Same Old Statesman" slogan in favor of "The Paper of Central Texas," it reverted to being very much the same old Statesman. Almost making us nostalgic for the bad old days of Roger Kintzel, editor Rich Oppel launched an attack on Austin's green community, seemingly determined to reopen the war between developers and environmentalists, who had enjoyed an uneasy truce in recent years.
The blitz began in June with a series of editorials in which Oppel bashed the city's system of advisory boards and commissions, which make recommendations to the City Council on whether it should approve or deny various development projects. Oppel misleadingly portrayed the commissions as having the authority to stop projects dead in their tracks, although even he admitted that the council frequently rejects commissioners' advice. In particular, Oppel focused on the Water & Wastewater Commission and Commissioners Harriet Harris and Lanetta Cooper, calling them "no-growthers," among other names. Oppel even went so far as to place almost all the blame for Austin's high housing costs on their heads, never bothering to consider the role that Austin's population explosion might have played in those costs -- nor the apparent lack of influence these alleged "no-growthers" have in an urban area which adds another 50 residents every week.
Then, when the SOS Alliance had the temerity to question an apparently wrapped-and-ready deal brought to the public by the council and Lower Colorado River Authority -- a $1.1 billion, 50-year water contract -- they felt the lash of the Statesman's editorial board, which called the sensible notion of slowing down the process to allow time for citizen scrutiny a "fool's gamble" and accused SOS of having a "no-growth" agenda. This was followed by a smirking op-ed piece from editorial page editor Arnold Garcia, which ridiculed Austinites for wanting a citizen review process at all.
Other editorial blasts even accused enviros, more or less, of hating little children -- in one case, for opposing yet another sprawl-inducing highway, and in another, for somehow causing a day care crisis in Austin (in reality, another unfortunate byproduct of Austin's runaway growth).
But those salvos would, in hindsight, seem like mere strafing runs. The atom bomb came in November, with a pair of front-page articles suggesting that Environmental Board member Tim Jones had been caught on tape threatening a developer with tough regulatory action unless the developer gave him a job. This was followed by a stunning editorial from Oppel which accused Jones of "blackmail" and a "shakedown" and demanded his resignation. Oppel quoted Jones as saying, "Hey, let me on. If I find something, I'll tell you, and it will be kind of below the radar screen. We'll work it out, and we'll never report it to all these government authorities."
However, upon listening to the tapes, The Austin Chronicle found that Jones said nothing of the sort; in fact, he never uttered the quote at all. (The Statesman ran a retraction of the quote shortly thereafter, but they didn't apologize for the potentially libelous allegations of blackmail. The Chronicle has made the tapes available online at http://www.auschron.com/issues/dispatch/1999-11-19/cols_pagetwo2.html; they are also available to the public from the Travis Co. Attorney's office.)
When Rich Oppel first came to the Statesman in 1995, the paper noticeably improved. By fanning the flames of a fire that everyone else wishes would die, the Statesman seems to be in full retreat back to the standards of old.
2. Chancellor and Capstar merge into AMFM Inc. Austin's own Capstar Broadcasting came into 1999 as the nation's largest radio empire by taking advantage of relaxed ownership restrictions under the 1996 Telecommunications Act. But the biggest wasn't big enough -- in March, Capstar CEO Steven Hicks merged his company with Dallas-based Chancellor Media, headed by his brother Thomas, to form a megagiant in control of 465 stations around America. And they aren't through yet -- in October, they announced yet another pending merger with San Antonio's Clearchannel Communications. Even after selling off several stations to meet the few remaining ownership restrictions, the Hicks brothers and their shareholders will command 830 stations.
3. George W. Bush finally faces some mainstream media scrutiny: Note that we didn't say "tough" scrutiny. Nonetheless, it's tougher than the kid-glove treatment he had previously received from Texas' major reporters and pundits (Molly Ivins excluded). Finally, word is slowly getting out that Shrub is a mile wide but only an inch thick, and perhaps isn't the best person to lead our nation, or even the Republican Party. National press personalities have noted Bush's lack of an environmental policy, lack of a foreign policy, and general lack of policy overall. Still, they could stand to be a lot more critical -- for instance, much howling occurred when Bush failed a reporter's "pop quiz" on the names of foreign leaders, but hardly a peep was heard about his accompanying remarks, which apparently condoned the military coup which overthrew Pakistan's democratically elected government.
4. Jim Ellinger gets purged from KOOP: KOOP's lefter-than-thou gang of ultra-radicals took firm control of what was Austin's best radio station in February and since then have been busy destroying it by alienating or purging programmers and volunteers who disagree with their autocratic and notably uncooperative management style. The most insulting blow came in July, when -- some 16 years after he came up with the idea for a democratic, cooperatively run community radio station -- Jim Ellinger was kicked out of that very station for rather spurious reasons. His alleged crimes included failing to read the station sign-off (a very minor FCC violation), "implying" that donations to the station were a waste of money, and "airing of incorrect information about station debt." (Station trustees said accurate information was "readily available, yet never sought"; Ellinger says he tried repeatedly to get it from them and was denied.) Then, in October, Ellinger was banned from the station premises amid questionable allegations that he was making harassing phone calls to the station.
KOOP is doomed -- it's just a question of when the final collapse comes.
5. News8 makes its debut: Austin has yet another outlet for local television news, and it's on all the time. As both a service to its subscribers and a lure for potential new ones, Time Warner Cable launched News8 in September. The station broadcasts local news 24 hours a day from a fancy, all-digital studio just a few blocks from the Capitol; its style is similar to that of another Time Warner property, CNN's Headline News, with a one-hour news "wheel" that is continually updated throughout the day. While it hasn't substantially raised the bar for what passes as news on local airwaves, at least it's a convenient fix for news junkies who crave more Austin-centric coverage.
6. gwbush.com makes news: This Massachusetts-based Web site has managed to have the most incisive commentary on the Bush campaign to be found anywhere -- through parody. Deliberately mimicking the official campaign site (found at http://www.georgewbush.com), this site puts special emphasis on attacking the governor's apparent hypocrisy on drug policy, but it also fires off zingers at his stands on affirmative action and other issues.
The site brought out the earliest hints at Bush's now-notorious thin skin -- the campaign first filed a copyright infringement complaint, which it never followed up on, and then filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, charging that the site should be required to file expenditure reports, just like actual campaigns. Bush, commenting on the parody site, said, "There ought to be limits to freedom," a quote that site owner Zack Exley has since emblazoned on a T-shirt. The site also sells great bumper stickers; our favorite is, "GWBush: Not a Crackhead Anymore!"
7. Important open government/open records laws get passed: They may not be sexy, but two bills passed in the 1999 Texas legislative session are highly important for news coverage: Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, pushed through an omnibus Freedom of Information bill which, among other things, pushes for more public information to be put on the Internet, forbids public officials from withholding public information, and prevents governmental bodies from delaying the release of public info by repeatedly asking for attorney general decisions to withhold information. The other bill, by Rep. Steve Wolens, D-Dallas, closed the "staff briefings" loophole in the Texas Open Meetings Act -- a much-abused ploy which allowed governmental bodies to discuss public matters in private, under the guise of "staff briefings" that weren't designated official meetings. The new law more strictly defines what a staff briefing is.
8. Controversial departures: KUT general manager Phil Corriveau and KJFK talk show host Alex Jones left their respective stations under cloudy circumstances. In July, Corriveau's contract was not renewed. KUT and Corriveau said the parting was amicable, the result of a change of direction by KUT. Many KUT staffers, under condition of anonymity, told a different story, saying that Corriveau was a victim of insurmountable "personal demons."
Jones was canned in December, despite being a good ratings draw for the station. KJFK said that Jones' rantings about the Branch Davidian debacle and black helicopters were costing the station advertising dollars; Jones claimed that he pulled in advertisers and was actually fired because station owner Times-Shamrock disagreed with his beliefs.
9. The Daily Texan holds its 100th Birthday Bash: The UT student newspaper reached the century mark, and a whole mess of distinguished and not-so-distinguished alumni came to town to celebrate. The occasion was marked by the publication of a history of the paper by Austin's Eakin Press (owned by the family of a former Texan editor, the late Michael Eakin), and the opening comments were made by no lesser celebrities than Walter Cronkite and Bill Moyers. The two collaborated in bashing today's corporate-controlled media system, but the local press, in reporting the illustrious duo's appearances, mostly ignored or underplayed the substance of their remarks. (Regrettably, the great former Texan and Texas Observer editor Willie Morris passed away shortly before the festivities, although his old pal Ronnie Dugger gave a great speech in his absence.)
10. Statesman takes on the Dept. of Public Safety: When the DPS released a report on evidence from the Branch Davidian disaster held by the Texas Rangers, it gave the report to The Dallas Morning News but withheld it from the Statesman -- something which is just plain illegal. The Statesman, in a rare example of doing the right thing, filed a suit which the attorney general's office fought all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, even though the information was public and should have been promptly handed over. The DPS claimed that the report was given to the Morning News by a rogue officer, and that its actions were in good faith. The paper and the state are currently discussing a settlement.
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