Kill the Messenger!

In its Tomstown counterattack, the GOP keeps looking for scapegoats

The response of Republican operatives and loyalists to the ongoing lawsuits and investigations surrounding GOP fundraising for the 2002 legislative campaigns has been predictable but nevertheless entertaining, boiling down to a couple of loaded phrases: "Partisan Witchhunt!" and "Media Bias!" The former has been directed primarily at Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who had the gall to respond to allegations and evidence of possible criminal conduct by the Texas Association of Business and the Texans for a Republican Majority by doing his job: investigating the matter.

The noisiest complainant about Earle is GOP state Chair Tina Benkiser, who dubbed him "The Earle of Injustice" (must be a desperate shortage of copywriters at party headquarters) and joined the party's executive committee in calling for the DA's Public Integrity Unit to be moved to the attorney general's office. A GOP Web site poll asks visitors to choose "the best argument" for moving the PIU to the AG – not among the options, curiously, is "because Greg Abbott won't investigate Republicans."

It was Benkiser's open records request to the DA that uncovered ammunition for the other half of the spin campaign: the revelation that veteran Statesman reporter Dave McNeely had provided drafts of a July article to the DA to review for errors or omissions. While that method of fact-checking is not one I would follow (one editor is quite enough, thank you), as McNeely employed it, it is hardly "the most shocking media scandal in recent Texas history!" (So declared Janelle Shepard of Texans for Texas, a newly minted GOP AstroTurf group, in calling for the resignations of both McNeely and Editor Rich Oppel.)

The fact is, whatever his method, McNeely produced a fair, competent Sunday Insight overview of the story ("Grand Old Politics," July 30) that summarized the history, briefly profiled the major players, and duly recited everybody's positions. It didn't break new ground, but that has been the task primarily of McNeely's colleague Laylan Copelin, who has done a praiseworthy job of keeping up with ongoing developments. None of the critics have pointed to a single disputed fact in McNeely's story. Nevertheless, he's been designated a public punching bag for the Republicans as they shriek about liberal media bias.


Truth in Advertising

Chief sucker-puncher on the McNeely story has been Sherry Sylvester, who edits Texas Media Watch, an online political newsletter. According to Sylvester (on the Houston Chronicle op-ed page last week), "The district attorney is presented positively in [McNeely's] story, and the targets of the investigation, Republicans and businessmen, are presented negatively." That's the best she can do: A story that recounts an official investigation of alleged corruption makes the investigators look better than the suspects. Sylvester denounces McNeely's "ethical breach" and the alleged refusal of the state's papers to make a big deal of it.

The Houston Chronicle identifies Sylvester as "the director of Texas Media Watch, an Austin think tank." (Sylvester appears to be the only employee, and very little thinking visibly goes on there, but OK.) A few days earlier, in a ponderous mea culpa on the controversy by "senior editor/reader advocate" David House, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram had referred to Sylvester's newsletter as a "nonpartisan media watch-dog project."

Hogwash.

From its inception during last year's Lege session, Sylvester's newsletter has been entirely dedicated to defending Republican officeholders and policies from critical coverage by the state's major dailies. (It also devoted a considerable amount of virtual memory to laughable accusations that the papers were insufficiently enthusiastic about Bush's war on Iraq.) That's not surprising, since Media Watch is funded by the Lone Star Foundation (devoted to "family, freedom, free enterprise, and the Constitution"), and both are bankrolled by former Austin banker David Hartman, a 1994 GOP candidate for state treasurer and a state Republican heavyweight. Hartman also underwrites The Lone Star Report, a conservative legislative newsletter; LSR's leading lights include The Dallas Morning News hard-rightist William Murchison and Citizens for a Sound Economy's Peggy Venable, whose most recent contribution to the public discourse was to accuse MoveOn.org of being a Communist front-group.

Sylvester herself is a former politics reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, where one of her last features was a fawning profile of GOP big wallet James Leininger, an unctuous performance that perhaps caught the eye of conservative spin-doctors. In any event, she's just doing the job she was hired to do. But that's no reason for mainstream editors to fall for her officially "nonpartisan" pose whenever she launches one of her purchased crusades. They could cite her own hypocritical proviso: "One of the most basic responsibilities of a newspaper is accurate labeling."


Stop the Presses

Also joining the counterattack was none other than Rep. Phil King, R-Re-Redistricting, who complained to Quorum Report that the media had heavily covered the contributions of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's PAC to state legislative campaigns but ignored similarly large contributions to Democratic candidates from DeLay's bête noire Martin Frost. (King added a gratuitous shot at McNeely.) As QR's Harvey Kronberg noted, King "does not make any claims about Frost's Lone Star Fund misusing corporate dollars or attempting to impact a speaker's race – both of which are at the heart of the controversy with Texans for a Republican Majority." If King has evidence of either in connection with Frost, he should bring it on, instead of lecturing reporters about being "objective."

Alternatively, King might look into the way his House colleagues Beverly Woolley, R-Houston, and Dianne White Delisi, R-Temple, went about gathering contributions for TRMPAC in 2002, showing up at corporate offices soliciting funds and armed with a wish list (at least in Woolley's case) on which were carefully noted the legislative priorities of the big shots writing the checks. On the face of it, that sort of cooked-to-order government might seem a bigger political scandal than a reporter sending a draft to a prosecutor. Since the Houston Chronicle's R.G. Ratcliffe broke the story in February, only The Texas Observer has followed up ("Rate of Exchange," March 12).

Perhaps we can look forward to outraged bulletins from Sylvester and King complaining that the media hasn't reported sufficiently on the Woolley/Delisi "bombshell." Don't hold your breath. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

campaign finance, Ronnie Earle, Texas Association of Business, Texans for a Republican Majority, Tina Benkiser, Public Integrity Unit, Dave McNeely, Janelle Shepard, Texans for Texas, Laylan Copelin, Sherry Sylvester, Texas Media Watch, David House, Lone Star Foundation, David Hartman, William Murchison, Lone Star Report, Peggy Venable, Phil King, Harvey Kronberg

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