By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org
HOUSTON — On the unlikely chance you have friends like mine, who enjoy making fun of bad journalism, send them this editorial that ran Monday in the San Antonio Express-News.
I can sympathize with editorial writers. They’re supposed to crank out authoritative copy on stuff they’ve barely even read or thought about, so they often end up with these scolding, dull, little pieces assembled from interlocking clichés and secondhand wisdom, pieces that are so wrong, if you wanted to make them any worse you’d have to misspell a few words and throw in a little racism.
Their alternative is to wander around a topic for a few hundred words and then give up, like this writer did recently. That approach is pointless, but it has the virtue of being harmless.
Monday editorials are often the latter sort — a few declarations and factoids the writer throws together late the week before, because nobody sits around reading editorials on a Monday morning.
But mixing the two approaches is risky. You can’t take a cliché such as calling for somebody’s resignation and graft it onto a careless Monday editorial. You can’t make a symbolic demand that the governor remove University of Texas regent Wallace Hall and call Hall an “embarrassment” in your headline and then offer, instead of an explanation, a factual mistake.
That factual mistake is a matter of no interest or importance to the general reader, so before I get to it, let me just offer this simple reason the reader should care about this story: People who try to shut down investigations are usually corrupt, and most of the state’s political leadership wants to shut down Hall. Hall is about as popular as an internal affairs cop, a tax auditor or a good investigative reporter, in that he alienates people with his relentless pursuit of answers.
The Express-News, however, is more concerned that Hall’s questions are “undermining” the school’s “national standing” and “are an embarrassment” that “threaten the reputation of” this “jewel in public education.”
That’s the sort of talk you’d expect from a booster or a public relations agent, not somebody whose allegiance ought to be to the truth.
The editorial board still thinks the UT scandal is really all some plot by Gov. Rick Perry to oust Bill Powers as president of UT, but it can’t explain why the plot hasn’t been carried out yet, given that Perry has appointed all nine board members.
These folks are free to their opinions. However, they have strict obligations to the facts, and to distinguish those facts from dubious, unverified assertions.
A Powers gopher named Kevin Hegarty has the job of getting in Hall’s way, of coming up with reasons that records can’t be turned over, of refusing to share some stuff and taking his time with the rest. Earlier this year, he tried to block Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa’s inquiry into admissions favoritism at UT’s law school.
He is, in other words, a partisan. He is also the source of an assertion that Hall’s inquiries have required the production of some 800,000 pages.
Since the main pretext for impeaching Hall is that his record-browsing has been too burdensome for UT, the page count matters. It is also rather uncertain.
Hegarty is the only source of the claim that the count is 800,000 pages, although that number assumed its own reality once the media started citing it. But when Cigarroa tried to verify it, he came up with “a far smaller number of pages … perhaps fewer than 100,000.”
An informed editorialist would know Cigarroa is the closest thing to a neutral source, as he’s loyal to neither Hall nor Powers, often getting caught in the crossfire.
Yet the Express-News cuts Cigarroa out of the picture, flatly asserting that the university has produced 800,000 pages of documents, and that Hegarty simply “revealed” this fact to the world, while Hall is the one who “contests that figure.”
Let’s be charitable and assume the editorial writers didn’t know about Cigarroa’s letter; after all, writing confidently from a position of ignorance is part of the job description. That ignorance, however, leads directly to a horrible misapprehension. When Hall emails Cigarroa to insist that Hegarty be held accountable for his figure, all the paper can see is “manipulation, harassment, and disparagement.”
Nearly as bad, the editorial repeats a lie started by San Antonio Rep. Ferdinand Frank Fischer, that “Hall has filed countless records requests in his quixotic pursuit,” ignoring Cigarroa’s refutation of the claim.
“Regent Hall did not make 1,200 requests under the TPIA for documents and emails, but only requested information concerning the TPIA requests previously made by others. Regent Hall filed, as a private citizen, five TPIA requests of his own,” Cigarroa wrote.
The editorial board made the exact same mistake in November and was corrected then.
Still, I can sympathize with the editorial writers, who tend to rely on their own paper’s coverage. Those quotations come from the UT system’s official response to last winter’s show trial, something the paper’s news staff didn’t even bother to report on. It’s only the other side of the story.
Contact Jon Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jpcassidy000. If you would like to send him documents or messages anonymously, download the Tor browser and go to our SecureDrop submission page: http://5bygo7e2rpnrh5vo.onion