Guest column: Watchdog groups are the new journalists
At 57, I don’t mind admitting I’m a baby-boomer. In some younger circles, that makes me “old school,” and they’re right — I am. I remember things like black and white television sets atop which were rabbit ears, aluminum Christmas trees with angel hair, and unfiltered Pall Malls which sold for 35-cents-a-pack in the days when a 10-year-old could get them at the corner store with a note.
But I remember other things, too. For example, what it feels like to wonder why my mother was not at home while parts of downtown Washington D.C. became an inferno in the aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination. I remember seeing national guardsmen walking along our streets with their M-16 rifles during the curfew that followed.
I also remember seeing on TV, as many Americans did, the immortal image of a disgraced U. S, president alighting a helicopter and waving good-bye. These are a few images seared into my memory — old school, that I am.
Nixon’s fall from grace was the result of what we used to call investigative journalism.
Those were the days when a newspaper of record held the American imagination captive and served as the people’s watchdog and its voice. It could bring governmental officials to their knees and root out corruption even in the highest offices.
An interesting fact, long since forgotten, about the Watergate scandal: it is probably more responsible for the surge in enrollment in journalism schools the following year than any other event. Everybody wanted to be another Woodward and Bernstein — whose story went on to become immortalized in Hollywood lore. And “investigative journalism” became the new media darling.
Flash forward to the early 1990s. Enter the Internet and newspaper subscriptions begin to sag; two-paper towns become one-paper towns — thanks to corporate gobbling and suddenly investigative journalism by mainstream media goes into decline — and the rise of small, feisty tabloids begin to emerge to fill the void.
I know. I was writing for them during the transition.
I was writing about issues the mainstream media refused to cover: heterosexual HIV women who were long-term survivors and meeting in secret in a church basement while everyone thought it was a “Gay man’s disease”; slumlords in Houston, some of whom were attorneys in cahoots with large land-developers eyeing the prize of Allen Parkway Village because of the land it sat on, never minding its enormous historical value to the African American community already there; male rape, a grossly under-reported yet pernicious crime taking place under the noses of Houstonians; homelessness before homelessness was cool. Public News, Houston Press, Interview magazine, New Print Magazine. On and on.
Yes, those were the days.
But even small tabloids, despite their chainsaw journalism, could not avoid the inevitable onslaught of concurrent blogs by amateurs, and their endless opinions and disinformation campaigns presented as facts.
Just as I was witness to how investigative journalism brought down a U.S. president, I have also borne witness to the snuffing out of tabloid journalism and the energy and tenacity once held by genuine small papers and what Hunter S. Thompson popularized as “gonzo” journalism. This is not to say Thompson was right, but to say, he was fed up.
We’ve reached another point of being fed up. Or we should.
We’ve reached the point where, like in the 1990s, the only outlets bothering to report on political corruption, maleficence and institutional illegality are outliers – although now, rather than being small tabloids, they are non-profits. ProPublica.org, Texas Tribune, Center for Investigative Reporting, ThinkProgressive.org and so forth. The Internet landscape is littered with these small but feisty outlets, doing the work that their tabloid brethren did in days of yore – filling the void abdicated by the mainstream. Cluttering up this landscape is the work being done by a hundred advocacy groups competing for the same eyeballs and often using the same journalistic techniques as the legitimate journalistic outlets.
Which is exactly the problem: it’s not just confusing; they shouldn’t have to. The mainstream media should be doing its job.
For example, if some journalists from mainstream papers were to dig into some of the bedrock causes of why Texas universities are now facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital improvements in order to accommodate the shiny new S.B. 11 law, (“Campus Carry”) they might discover that that bill had been incubating in the Texas legislature ever since the American Legislative Exchange Council in 2008 introduced its model legislation.
They might also learn that the group, Students for Concealed Carry on Campus, has been advocating for those changes right alongside ALEC with the help of folks from the Tea Party Patriot organization, the Leadership Institute, and their website, Campus Reform, and the attorney, W. Scott Lewis, who took over SCCC years ago, and who has been working hand-in-glove to introduce model changes in college administrations at various college-related conventions — that is, when he’s not being an attorney. They might also discover an over-arching pattern of lawsuits, legislation and other elements of a social engineering scheme designed to advance a libertarian agenda.
But why should they? Who’s demanding it? Not the readers, who are too busy posting cutesy pictures of their grandchildren and what they had for breakfast on Facebook and Pinterest to notice that, over the last 20 years, their country has been hijacked by both the NRA — who’s behind the ALEC adoption of more than 20 states’ campus carry laws — and ALEC who has put them, like the proverbial toad, into a slowly simmering pot of water. They won’t ever really notice.
Who does that leave?
Old-school gruffs like me who will still pipe up occasionally with an essay or two in the vain hope that someone, somewhere on a metro news desk will notice IT – and do their fucking job.
Alex Colvin is the president of Gun Free UH and a history senior.