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CAMPAIGN 2000

Scrutiny Yielding a Clouded Picture, Texans Say

Media: The state's journalists cite a lack of perspective by national reporters covering Bush's policies. But some criticism is seen as warranted.

October 25, 2000|CLAUDIA KOLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HOUSTON — Up in Amarillo, reporters say outsiders take cheap shots at the governor. In Austin, some writers think visiting colleagues don't quite grasp Texas politics. In Houston, journalists marvel at out-of-towners' time and resources.

Appraising how their state has fared in the national press, many Texas journalists say that, although the coverage sometimes distorts what it's like here, Texas is unbowed from all the attention. And perhaps better off.

The verdict is a far cry from that in Arkansas, the last state to go under the national scalpel. Eight years after Bill Clinton first ran for president, reporters there still seethe at the hillbilly image produced by outside reporters. "Local media were not at all happy with the coverage in Arkansas," said Robert Savage, professor of political science at the University of Arkansas. "The entire population felt much abused."

Texas journalists have reacted more equably. True, some feel that Gov. George W. Bush gets unfairly blamed for every state problem. Others complain that anti-Bush TV ads prompt stories that depict their state as a toxic sinkhole.

"As a Texan, I must confess it does rankle to see your state described as some sort of Third World backwater," said Rena Pederson, editorial page editor of the Dallas Morning News. The newspaper endorsed Bush this week.

But relatively few protest the recent drubbings on subjects such as Texas capital punishment, pollution, health care or concealed weapons from such papers as The Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times.

"I think many of us in Texas are acutely aware of the environmental concerns here. I don't think anybody has any illusions about the fact that our kids don't do as well as other kids nationwide," said John Kanelis, editor of the Amarillo Globe-News opinion page. "We are an awfully big target. As Wilt Chamberlain used to say, nobody loves Goliath."

Insiders Point to Lack of Perspective

Ken Brodnax, opinion page editor at the conservative Odessa American, said the outside gaze on the state probably is useful.

"It's the role of the media to try and expose any games that are being played," he said. "I don't think it's been a necessarily unfair portrayal by the mainstream media."

Lack of perspective has been the chief flaw of outside reporting, many journalists said. Particularly vexing to some have been reports about Texas' environmental problems. Reporters have extensively covered Houston overtaking Los Angeles as the nation's smoggiest city and profiled low-income colonias on the Texas-Mexico border that are plagued by disease and sanitation problems.

"I'm not quarreling with anybody's facts. I do question whether or not those facts have been put in some kind of context," said Arnold Garcia, editorial page editor of the Austin American-Statesman, which has endorsed Bush. "I think the national media has been real quick to judge Texas and showed a certain amount of indifference to the fact that Texas shares a 1,000-mile border with a Third World country."

Evan Smith, editor of Texas Monthly magazine, said some national reporters take a certain pleasure in attacking the governor, sometimes for problems beyond the scope of his office.

"Two papers that shall remain nameless and have the word 'Times' in them have been particularly hard on Bush," Smith said. "It's not about being for or against Bush, it's about whether the coverage has been fair or deep."

Several Texas reporters also complain about the coverage of convicted killer Gary Graham's execution in June. Reporters from across the nation descended on Texas before Graham was put to death, drawn by legal groups and activists who argued that his lawyer had not called on witnesses who might have helped exonerate him.

National reporters, locals said, oversimplified the case's long, complicated history.

"Gary Graham was portrayed as a poster boy for the anti-death penalty movement, but he had a very checkered past," said Doug Miller, a political reporter for KHOU-TV in Houston. "I've interviewed other people on death row who had more compelling cases in their favor than Gary Graham. I was surprised when I saw him become sort of a national icon against the death penalty."

Even journalists who praise the outside reporting say out-of-towners pursuing campaign claims can misjudge their complexity.

"Here in Houston, the Democratic National Committee issued a mock travel advisory that was very funny--attacking our air quality, and the ability of George Bush to fix it," said Julie Mason, political columnist for the Houston Chronicle. "But they overlooked the fact that the city has a Democratic mayor supporting Al Gore."

At its best, she said, the combined work of local and national press has debunked several notions that once were widespread.

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