Austin at Large: Your Servants Are Listening

Angry readers, busted City Hall aides, triumphant politicians: The system works!

Austin at Large: Your Servants Are Listening

Like many journalists in today's media ecosystem, I find myself wondering exactly who I'm talking to. We have access to many more people in more places than we did before the internet. But we have less of a sense of what they really think or care about than we did when we mostly picked our audiences, writing to targets whose geography and status matched our own, in a world where the number of news outlets was sternly finite. Now that everyone is competing with The New York Times (who does not play fair with small local outlets; pass it on), that audience gerrymandering is becoming unwound, and doing a job like mine (metro columnist and news editor in a major U.S. city) is more like being a Guild navigator in the Dune universe, aiming at a target that exists only in our imaginations. Twitter and other social platforms have sorta closed the breach in terms of two-way contact with audiences, but anyone who forgets never to read the comments (even the relative few we get on our stories online) can tell you that it's not the same as true honest and respectful engagement.

Lie at Your Own Risk!

Another factor that's made this all fuzzy is the obligation most political and government players, including several people running for office in Austin right now, have taken on to themselves engage with the public. This means that instead of journalists telling you why things are the way they are, we're often reporting on what other people are saying about the way things are, which is different. In the romantic and mythic version of our work, the press stands as a snarling watchdog in constant opposition to those people with power, but really, most readers just want to know the truth. Sometimes that's exactly what the official sources are delivering, sometimes it's the opposite of that. If we, as journalists, know the difference, we should say so and not just let our sources duel clumsily with each other until everyone gets tired.

I tried to do that with my series on the South Central Waterfront over the last three weeks, which riled up some old-time readers who've written letters to accuse me of egocentric ad hominem fact-free attacks on local saints because I 1) thought what they were telling you was wrong, and brought the receipts, and 2) did not accompany each of my points with a corresponding dunk on the other side for "balance," and 3a) expressed my personal views on a subject I know a great deal about and care about very much, a level of expertise that's frankly discouraged by most press outlets, in 3b) this here opinion column, which is different from our news coverage, which you can tell because it's written in first person and I expose myself to all the incoming flak. I think all of those things make me more credible; our letters from readers suggest otherwise. But that's OK, because it's real engagement between all the people involved in making these decisions, or trying to influence them. It's how we uncover the truth.

That'll Be $20,000, Please

I also know a lot about the circumstances of the case that has led to former mayoral aide and nonprofit executive Frank Rodriguez being convicted of fraud and looking at five years or so in federal prison (he's 71). I know Frank personally, I knew about his curious dual role as City Hall advisor and leader of Latino HealthCare Forum – a group that received lots of grant funding from the city, Central Health (my consulting client at the time), and others investing in improved health outcomes in the Eastern Crescent. What did LHCF (usually just called "Latino" by those on the inside) do for those grants? Things like boosting Affordable Care Act enrollment, staging community health fairs, partnering with Univision, recruiting and training promotoras, and other efforts that mostly also fall under the broad umbrella of "civic engagement."

I also knew that Rodriguez had, at different points in his career, taken compensation from Latino for both his general services and for specific grant writing efforts; paying a commission or fee to grant writers is not unheard of. So the prospect of his doing the same while also working in the mayor's office, for pay, and bound by a code of ethics that frowns on side work, was always there, but Frank Rodriguez had a stellar reputation among the circles that also include Steve Adler, and nobody thought he would lie, to the mayor as well as to the public and the Feds, about his double-dipping. He did, and it's sad.

Wear a Pussyhat With Pride

Another one of my longtime friends made good, state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, just prevailed in the long-running bizarro First Amendment case brought by the GOP to harass her for almost five years. When she wore a knit pink "pussyhat" on the dais in 2017, following her participation in the Women's March (civic engagement!) and while she was still Travis County judge, she prompted a move to censure her by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. (Though county judges are administrators, they can also do many "real judge" functions like marry people.) This got added onto when she told a tasteless joke about Gov. Greg Abbott at the Texas Tribune Festival in 2019, which I wrote about at the time. When she challenged her censure, the panel that finally got around to hearing her COVID-delayed case featured crotchety old white GOP judges from places like Amarillo ... who agreed unanimously that Eckhardt was acting within her constitutional rights and entitled to her opinions – or, you might say, is free to tell the truth.

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