Comforting the comfortable, afflicting the afflicted

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Posted: May 23, 2014 5:00 AM
Comforting the comfortable, afflicting the afflicted

By Mark Lisheron | Watchdog.org

A couple of nights ago at a debate in Salado between the two Republican candidates for lieutenant governor, Watchdog.org and its Texas reporter, Jon Cassidy, had a breakthrough of sorts.

State Sen. Dan Patrick, currently a heavy favorite to depose longtime Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, made political favoritism at the University of Texas a campaign issue, daring the rest of the press to cover it.

By rest of the press I mean everyone other than Cassidy, who for months has been courageously and almost anonymously providing the only substantive coverage of what Patrick told the Salado debate crowd is “a potential huge scandal in the making.”

HALL: The UT regent is on the hot seat for his investigations into law school admissions.

HALL: The UT regent is on the hot seat for his investigations into law school admissions.

If elected, Patrick said, he would call for an investigation on behalf of the parents and grandparents of Texas children who might be passed over for admission to the state’s premier law school for the child of some politician or a politician’s crony.

That sort of favoritism, Patrick said, “can bring down the whole law school.”

You cannot find any of what I just wrote in The Houston Chronicle, the biggest newspaper in the state, which mentioned something about a disagreement between the candidates over the issue in paragraph 16 near the bottom of its story.

The Dallas Morning News, the second biggest paper, didn’t mention it at all.

You have to actually go to the video tape (the question and answer begins about the 6:35-minute mark, here) of the debate. To see what was written after viewing it is to think the reporters were covering a different debate.

And in a very real sense they were. Why, the questioner asked Patrick, was he only reading about the fate of Wallace Hall, the UT regent who started this whole favoritism mess, and not about the things Hall uncovered.

Why, indeed. What the questioner meant was why was he not reading about the things Hall uncovered any place other than Watchdog.org. It’s not just an excellent question, but one of the important journalism questions of our time.

To begin to answer the question, I think it important to mention I edited most of Cassidy’s exclusives in his dogged ongoing reporting. It’s also important to know I had a 30-year career as a reporter for newspapers before joining Watchdog.org in 2010.

It might be hard to believe, but there once was a time when newspapers might have covered Wallace Hall in a very different way. He was what I would have called “good copy,” a maverick with authority bucking two of the biggest systems in the state.

Newspapers reporters and editors, when they are feeling all self-righteous, are particularly fond of paraphrasing the early 20th century journalist Finley Peter Dunne. We’re in this ink-stained, crappy-paying business, they are want to say, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

It shouldn’t surprise you — and it gives me great amusement to know — how grossly out of context the actual quote is taken.

“Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.”

Originally coming from the mouth of his fictional character, Mr. Dooley, Dunne lampooned newspapers for their reckless use of power, their presumption and high-handedness.

Even a cursory reading of just the mainstream coverage makes clear that from the time Wallace Hall started poking around in the secret affairs of the university he has been mightily afflicted.

And afflicted by some of the most comfortable people in Texas.

If you subscribe to anything close to Dunne’s twisted journalism credo, the benefit of the doubt should have gone to Hall. The risk to his reputation alone should not have allowed any reporter covering the story to rest until he satisfactorily answered why Hall was doing it.

Mind you, I am not for a moment suggesting the press should have taken sides. Just the opposite.

Because of Hall’s accusations that high-ranking political and academic figures were complicit in rigging a system that belongs to the public, every resource from every press outlet in the state should have been brought to bear to learn if Hall was telling the truth.

The press did take sides, all right — all but Cassidy. From the beginning, reporters and their newspapers did to Hall what they did to Mr. Dooley.

The bigwigs that reporters brag about keeping honest were cast as the afflicted. Imagine the temerity of a regent inundating the university with requests for public documents. When the media makes these requests, it’s in the noble pursuit of the truth. From Hall, it’s harassment of the highest order.

The Chronicle’s own investigation, published March 25, “depicts a university system in deep upheaval caused by serial investigations conducted by Hall.” The unquestioned heroes of the story were Hall’s fellow regents and school officials who resisted him.

While Cassidy was requesting documents and spending months poring over them, the rest of the press corps did dutiful stenography, covering every detail of the government’s case against Hall.

On May 13, when Watchdog documented in excruciating detail the level of political influence on law school admissions Hall suggested, the response from the rest of the press was silence.

Three days later, Cassidy reported that UT System officials refused a full investigation in spite of their own preliminary and watered-down inquiry that mirrored Cassidy’s reporting.

The Texas Tribune, carefully waiting for UT’s official release, perfectly parroted the UT line that the preliminary inquiry turned up no “systemic favoritism.” By systemic, we assume favoritism not officially approved by the power brokers going after Hall.

I would like to say my long fraternization with fellow newspaper reporters gives my some insight into why the motives of people in the business of making themselves comfortable by acquiring and wielding power have gone unquestioned.

I have really seen nothing like it in my professional career, which I would stake on the veracity of Jon Cassidy’s reporting. It saddens me to realize there isn’t enough self-awareness here for anyone to feel ashamed.

The state is going ahead with an impeachment of Hall and you can bet most of the press will be there to record the officially sanctioned version of it. You’ll still be able to get the real story from Cassidy.

I was somewhat encouraged by a Facebook post yesterday by R.G. Ratcliffe, a longtime and respected member of the capital reporting corps before he was unceremoniously dumped by the Chronicle.

Ratcliffe had read the latest Cassidy blockbuster and linked to it. His compliment was back-handed but he concluded “there is way too much smoke here for this to just be spin from the right. Wallace Hall aside, this looks like terrible cronyism.”

But like most skeptical reporters, Ratcliffe wanted further proof. “If I’ve missed an MSM story that does a deep dive on this, please, point it out.”

I’m sorry to say, R.G., you aren’t going to find it.

Reach Mark at mark@watchdog.org.