Point Austin: Oregon Dreams, Austin Nightmare

Leave for a week, and there goes the neighborhood

Point Austin
Last Wednesday, I was en route from Portland, returning from an informative and blissful week in the city and on the Oregon coast, having even managed to be completely offline for a precious couple of days. So I was temporarily unaware that on Tuesday night in Austin, after a traffic accident, a feckless crowd of 3,000 Juneteenth revelers stood idly by while an angry mob of young black men beat David Morales to death in an Eastside parking lot.

That never actually happened, of course.

But that was the story quickly disseminated nationally and around the world, including Calgary, Canada; London; Sydney, Australia; and Mexico City, where Reforma announced that Morales had been "lynched." When it became abundantly clear, a couple of days later, that the earliest reports of the incident were wrong in almost every headline detail, a very few newspapers updated the story accordingly – blaming any misreporting, of course, on Austin city officials and the police. Yet as Jordan Smith points out today ("The Morales Murder"), any reporter with a week of experience knows (or should know) that breaking-news press releases from public information sources are, by definition, incomplete, fragmentary, and unconfirmed – and must be subject to clarification as a matter of course. The same Austin reporters who ran with instantaneous information from an active police incident are now loudly complaining that it was not 100% accurate – and still looking for a Juneteenth news hook to beat David Morales with.

It's one thing for local reporters to pull a rock and then to try to spend the following days salvaging and updating a story that, had they waited a few hours and made a few phone calls, they could have gotten right in the first place. But reading stern moral lectures on racial relations, mob violence, and the decay of Western civilization from Muskegon (Michigan) or Ottawa (Canada), for God's sake – based on an Austin, Texas, incident about which the authors know essentially nothing – is a little hard to take.

As Smith notes, the inevitable worst offender was Fox News' Bill O'Reilly, who not only distorted the barely available facts ("It happened on the grounds of the Juneteenth celebration!") but used these lies to complain about supposed "underreporting" of African-American crime. Much closer to home, the "public editor" of the San Antonio Express-News, Bob Richter, had not a word of criticism for the pack behavior of Capitol reporters (including his own colleagues), offering instead editorial tsk-tsking about the "ongoing problem" of "the APD's strained relations with minorities." Unlike the multiracial paradise of San Antonio, I'm sure.

Last week, much of the world was falsely told by sloppy, rushed reporters working for a myriad mainstream (i.e., white-owned) news sources, that an angry mob of black men beat a Hispanic man to death while thousands of black festivalgoers watched – and the central lesson here is either the underreporting of black crime or the Austin Police Department's poor minority relations!?

Maybe I should have stayed offline for a few more weeks.


Conventioneering

I had traveled to Portland, Ore., for the annual convention of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, where several hundred journalists from papers roughly similar to the Chronicle schmooze, party, and educate one another about what we do and how and why we do it. There were several nuts-and-bolts sessions of strong interest mainly to the participants – for example, I took part in a panel on local election reporting – but also a few media and political stars.

Jim Hightower delivered a brief encomium for the late Molly Ivins, in honor of a new AAN award in her name, recently accepted by MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, who quipped, "I still want to be Molly Ivins when I grow up." Hightower spoke at the awards luncheon, where a couple of our newshounds (Wells Dunbar and Kevin Brass, congrats!) picked up awards, as did colleagues in the advertising and Web departments (ditto; details at AAN.org).

There was much ambivalent huffing and puffing about blogging and podcasting and cross-posting, etc. Arianna "No Celebrity Left Unblogged" Huffington cheerfully extended an offer for all of us working stiffs to join The Huffington Post's "Off the Bus" presidential campaign reporting project – at no fee, of course. "The business model of the blog," she explained brightly, "is based on bloggers not being paid." Nice work, Arianna, if you can get it. I'm thinking of asking her to write for Chronic (Motto: "All the News We Can Afford"), where we pay the same rates.


The Misrule of Law

For me, the week's highlight (other than those two glorious days on the Oregon coast) was the appearance of David Iglesias, the former New Mexico federal attorney who was fired by the Bush administration's Department of Justice after he resisted political pressure to indict Democrats on voter-fraud charges a few weeks before last November's election. (Until this administration, Iglesias said, such timing-politicized charges would have been a violation of explicit DOJ policy.) Iglesias is no ideologue, of any stripe, and until all this happened he had been a loyal Republican prosecutor who considered his professional mentor to be Sen. Pete Domenici. It was Domenici's phone call to Iglesias that was the most explicit pressure to file political indictments – when Iglesias declined, the senator hung up on him, and only when he was later fired, along with several others, did Iglesias realize the extent of the ideological corruption of the DOJ.

Iglesias told the AAN reporters that he's still trying to comprehend the fallout of the firings, what all this means to the country, and the potential "damage to the rule of law" represented by the rampant politicization of the DOJ under Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. He offered perhaps surprisingly supportive words for former AG John Ashcroft, who he said told him he would have to "keep politics out" of his office, in contrast to Gonzales, who he said bluntly told a group of new federal attorney appointees, "You work for the White House." These days, apparently, the only one who doesn't is Dick Cheney, the Law Unto Himself.

I had anticipated writing more about the convention – and perhaps a few words about the awesome, spiritually uplifting isolation of the Oregon coast. But then that world-important story broke in Austin – and here we all are, back home, picking up the pieces. end story


The David Iglesias presentation, a public interview with Julia Goldberg, editor of the Santa Fe Reporter, is available on AAN.org.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

media, Austin Police Dept., Juneteenth, Bill O'Reilly, David Morales, Bob Richter, AAN, Arianna Huffington, Jim Hightower, Molly Ivins, David Iglesias, Alberto Gonzales

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