Lege Gone Wild!

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Late last week, the Houston Chronicle’s David Saleh Rauf and Lauren McGaughy broke the news that activists with a group called the American Phoenix Foundation have, since the session began, amassed 800 hours’ worth of secret video footage of various legislators and lobbyists doing whatever it is they do when they think the public isn’t watching. Yesterday, the news seemed to crystallize, once the Texas Tribune’s Terri Langford reported that the American Phoenix Foundation has given all the footage to Breitbart Texas’s Brandon Darby, who has begun reviewing the clips and told Langford that “some of it is very newsworthy.” 

This may make me sound like a really bad reporter, but as it happens, I heard about the group’s plans to secretly film straying legislators months ago–back in, I think, November; it was after the elections but not too cold to sit outside. It didn’t even occur to me to follow up on that tip, because it seemed so silly. The bar at the W Hotel is in downtown Austin. It has security cameras, I assume, and is usually bustling with activity. It has a reputation as a meat market, and I rarely go there myself, if I can avoid it, because it’s the kind of place where a young woman can’t have a quiet conversation with a friend without being interrupted a hundred times by tech bros and lawyers. All of that being the case, I thought the scheme sounded belligerent, but silly. If anyone wants proof of sordid behavior they can just stroll over to the W and see some. And any elected official, even a lowly House rep, would have to be unusually reckless or hubristic to pursue their own sordid impulses in a busy public location, less than a mile from their office, with a reputation for affluent sleaze.

That’s still my general impression. The rumor mill suggests that some of the clips are lurid enough. Even so I doubt they’re more appalling than some of the antics that are livestreamed from the Capitol today. Will they be newsworthy, as Darby said? Like many people, I find the tactic distasteful, and part of an ominous trend to keep all politicians in some kind of crowd-sourced Panopticon; that’s needlessly punitive to the politicians themselves, who are people too, and it’s unhealthy for the republic, because as the hassles of public service increase the quality of public servants is bound to deteriorate. At the same time I also found it extremely distasteful when Bill Zedler and Molly White teamed up to lecture medical doctor J.D. Sheffield about vaccine “science” last week. And what’s done is done. So let’s set aside the etiquette arguments and consider how this will play out. The clips that eventually surface will have to be judged in context, on a case by case basis. I might consider them newsworthy if they meet one of three criteria:

  1. They document aggressive, willful hypocrisy. An undercover video of a married legislator hitting on a stranger is just malicious personal gossip, unless the legislator in question is the type who never misses an opportunity to demagogue about sexual morality during a debate over a bill related to transportation funding or something like that.
  2. They document overt corruption, like, “Thanks for meeting me at the bar so I can give you this envelope of cash.”
  3. They document abuse of power.

 

Darby, I think, is well-equipped to arbitrate between the clips that may have legitimate public-interest implications and those that would only indulge the public’s sweet tooth for malicious personal gossip, while causing potentially serious distress to the people caught with their hands in the cookie jar and their families, who surely don’t deserve such heartache. And contra most of the Capitol chatter, I don’t think Darby and the activists who organized this sting are puppets of Tim Dunn et al–even though, as Rauf and McGaughy noted, there are plenty of provable connections between the American Phoenix Foundation, EmpowerTexans, and Breitbart Texas.

We’ll see, though; if not before the end of the regular session, perhaps during the special session, which should be easily avoidable this year, but may not be. In the meantime, I hope our hardworking legislators and lobbyists aren’t losing too much sleep over this. And for any who are—well, maybe it’s an opportunity for learning and personal growth, if not on ethics, at least on tactics: next time, if you’re looking to conduct clandestine business, consider meeting literally almost anywhere else.

 

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  • José

    Perhaps this won’t amount to a hill of beans, that folks will see the secret tapes and respond with a “Yeah, so what?” But given their proven track record at manufacturing sensational headlines out of basically nothing, I have great faith in the Breibarts and the O’Keefes and their sort to make something much more. Certainly there will be a nugget or two of material good enough to spin into a first rate scandal. As we’ve seen before, these kinds of allegations don’t necessarily have to be true in order to be successful. The tale simply needs to confirm the prejudices of a deeply suspicious and aggrieved faction, and then be sufficiently plausible and interesting for the media to play the story repeatedly and thereby feed the beast.

  • Indiana Pearl

    Consider the source.

  • Sidd Finch

    “The High Septon once told me that as we sin, so do we suffer.”

    • Erica Grieder

      “Winter is coming.”

      • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

        only for the left, its fixin to get hotter than hades here…and not just for the democrats.

  • Blue Dogs

    Erica: I’m interested to know who’s on those videos!

  • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

    Matt Drudge changed forever how the news is reported when he broke the story the state run media wouldn’t report. Andrew Breitbart broke the chains the left had on “reporting the news” when he offered anyone money to produce video supporting the tea party shouting racial slurs and spitting on Nancy Pelosi and other democrats while they marched to support Obamacare.
    The left uses blogs like this, slanted polls, and spin to manufacture “the news” to fit their beliefs and narratives.
    The right uses blogs to report the news and expose hypocrisy be it by the left or right.
    The times they are achanging.

    • don76550

      I think Brietbart did us a real service when he exposed Anthony Weiner for the slimeball that he is. I think the vidios showing the corruption of ACORN also did us a great service resulting in this corrupt organization being defunded.

      • 6660splendidday

        I think Brietbart did us a real service when he kicked off.

        • don76550

          Evidently you are a fan of Weiner’s weiner.

  • Texas Publius

    So the Tapers were going only after House members, not Senators? That flies in the face of what this Joe Basel guy said was his motive. Hmmmm….

    The Texas Rangers better question the Lt Governor, his aides, MQS, TPPF, and Wallace Hall on what they know about this, and when they knew it. Sounds like the latest round in the We Hate Straus campaign…

    • Erica Grieder

      Darby said yesterday (on Twitter) that the clips he’s reviewed so far are roughly half and half representatives/senators. I’m getting the impression that for the first few months of the project,
      they were secretly filming any legislators, but that in the past few weeks or so they’ve started overtly confronting the House members, as described in the Houston Chronicle story, but not the Senate, with gotcha questions. (Yesterday, for example, a couple of the activists were lurking just outside the House chamber and approaching reps as they were trying to go in or out.)

      As for *why* they would make that shift, I dunno; but if I had to guess–the activists themselves don’t have a platform to distribute their video, so it may be that their strategy changed when they started looking for right-wing media partners

      • Texas Publius

        I heard from multiple folks that the Joe Basel guy is in the Capitol today pushing a stroller with a baby.

      • Beerman

        It would be interesting if they are tracking Dan Patrick and his outside activities. I can’t help but remember what one of his old business partners once said about Mr. Patrick and Austin: “There are a lot of demons out there. Some of them have money in their pockets, and some of them have short skirts.”

        • Gunslinger

          Dan Patrick will be strangely absent from all the video footage.

          • Beerman

            I am confident that you are right…….

          • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

            I am confidant you are drunk

        • Lilly

          The Houston Chronicle and QR are reporting a Patrick aide knew about the videotaping — and that it “did not involve in the upper chamber.” The plot thickens…

          http://m.chron.com/news/politics/texas/article/Patrick-aide-knew-of-videotaping-but-did-not-6256153.php

          • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

            reporting….hahaha

          • Lilly

            I hear the screeching of a troll below…

  • dave in texas

    You have a lot more faith than I do in the willingness of anyone involved with Breitbart to look at this with anything remotely approaching objectivity or evenhandedness. Breitbart’s entire enterprise has been built entirely on yanking things completely out of context and putting the most lurid and misleading spin possible on whatever footage is released. Obviously, you know Brandon Darby and I don’t, and I sincerely hope you’re right, but I’m not holding my breath for anything other than the worst kind of sensationalism to come out of this.

    • Erica Grieder

      Thanks. I could be wrong, and I agree to an extent about Breitbart; if they publish any clips the headline will be provocative. But as you know, I generally put more weight in the individual than the outlet. Darby has declined to join the right-wing bandwagon when the narrative du jour is provably wrong (Cliven Bundy, the ISIS camp in Juarez) and I can personally confirm that he’s declined to report certain pieces of gossip in the past (I know because I’ve declined to report them too, and we’ve talked about it.)

      • don76550

        Guess you must be an Anthony Weiner fan. Your kind of congressman?

    • Beerman

      The rhetoric on the Breitbart/Drudge blogs reminds me of the many propaganda articles in the Das Schwarze Korps newspaper of the 1940’s. A newspaper created and run by the Third Reich SS.

    • don76550

      Not true at all.

  • donuthin2

    What has Molly done now? Her small district is a very well respected medical center. And she is against vaccines? Wonder if those that are rational will wake up and make sure she is a one term-er?

    She is an embarrassment.

    • Erica Grieder

      It was so bad. If I can muster the courage I’ll go find the video for you :(

      • José

        Please do post a link to the video.
        It’s bad enough when pols hide behind the excuse of “Well, I’m not a scientist.” It’s much worse when they pretend to be experts and instead prove themselves to be wildly and willfully misinformed.

        • Indiana Pearl

          “DUDE, I’m not a scientist,” is the refrain.

        • WUSRPH

          Cuz they read it on the internet…..

      • don76550

        I have met Molly and she has far more credibility than you.

  • Gunslinger

    I sense that this will be mostly seeds and stems when this all shakes out. It seems much of this is just designed to scare legislators. Otherwise, why tip their hand on this so early? If they’ve got gold, why would the Phoenix Foundation sit on it? Why would Brietbart agree to sit on it? Why not give it to a more reputable media outlet if they’ve got something really good?

    This is all hype and spin…two things in which Brietbart excels. One or two lawmakers will get embarrassed. But by the next week there will be a new news story and everyone will forget about this.

    This is Texas. Even when we find public officials doing something wrong, the people don’t care. Phoenix Foundation knows this and that’s why they haven’t released the footage, because I doubt they’ve got anything substantial. The threat of this footage is more useful than actual footage.

  • Blue Dogs

    GOP-controlled Harris County Commission names longtime Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Ron Hickman (R) as the new Harris County Sheriff today!
    http://abc13.com/news/ron-hickman-sworn-in-as-new-harris-county-sheriff/716694/

  • WUSRPH

    Anybody know anything about the restraining order the AP says an “Oklahoma stripper” has taken out against Senator Perry, one of the Senate’s most religious members?

    • Sidd Finch

      Go on…..

      • WUSRPH

        All I know is that the AP reports that a restraining order has been issued. County Clerk in Oklahoma told AP no details available as it has not yet been served. Story says Perry’s office did not return calls and that “his Tulsa attorney” declined comment. Reported that the woman identified herself as a dance at a gentlemen’s club and had posted a copy of the protective order on tweet.

        P.S. Why do they call a place a “gentlemen’s club” when no real gentleman (in the proper sense) would go there?

        • José

          Same reason that adult entertainment is usually childish.

  • WUSRPH

    There are always a couple of little boys who never grew up in each batch of new legislators…Usually they serve as just a source of humor and gossip for their colleagues but every few sessions one of them gets in the media….The result is a worse image for all the members……That is probably what will happen this time too.

  • Gunslinger

    Lege gone wild, indeed. Let’s see if Phoenix has any film on Perry…I tend to doubt it.

    http://www.statesman.com/ap/ap/oklahoma/woman-seeks-protective-order-against-texas-state-s/nmFBC/

  • Indiana Pearl

    Deep Throat taught us to “follow the money.” Whose bank account will be enriched when the dust settles?

  • PrattonTexas

    I’m excited about the whole project – even if friends of mine get hit. This is investigative journalism as opposed to being a part of the Austin insider-class. Go get ’em.

    • José

      Yes, America has a long and well established tradition of relaying bad news, especially if it’s titillating, even about close and dear friends. Speed is important but accuracy and fairness are not. You can make your corrections and apologies later but it doesn’t matter since the damage is already done. This is called “gossip”.

    • WUSRPH

      There is a REAL DIFFERENCE between “investigative journalism” and “lynch journalism” and this sounds much more like the second than the first except it is an insult to even the lowliest reporter to call what these folks do “journalism” unless you insert the word YELLOW (in capitol letters).

      • José

        To paraphrase von Clausewitz, Breibart style “journalism” is merely the continuation of politics by other means.

        • WUSRPH

          I think it is more the “denigration of journalism”

        • Beerman

          Breitbart/Drudge style of reporting relies on the audience of the fearful and gullible, and it has become a political strategy for some groups.

      • Beerman

        Whatever happen to fact checking journalism?

        • http://www.fortbendconservative.org/ John Bernard Books

          like Dan Rather….Peter Jennings? Who specifically?

          • don76550

            Don’t forget Brian Williams.

      • Beerman

        A journalist has every right to bias, but opinions with factual arguments tend to be more persuasive.

        • WUSRPH

          I would prefer to use the term “reporter” rather than “journalist” as the old definition of a “journalist” is a dead or retired reporter. In any case, a “journalist” or reporter whose bias clearly shows is not a journalist or a reporter….She/he may be an essayist, a columnist, or an editorialist, but not a REPORTER.

          On a day by day basis you have to rely on the skill, knowledge and integrity of the reporter to do all that is possible to determine the facts. If that is impossible it is then a reporter’s responsibility to report all sides of the issue and/or that it was impossible to verify all the statements. That is “objective journalism”.

          A reporter who fails to do meet those standards does not stay a reporter for long. These days, instead, they move on political or business public relations or be featured on Fox and MSNBC and on the many blogs that make no attempt to be “objective”, “fair” or “complete” but, instead, are designed to play to the preexisting biases of their audiences.

          • Beerman

            No matter if you are a “reporter,” a “journalist,” a “blogger,” when you have to lie, repeatedly, about verifiable facts, then you are not a legitimate advocate that deserves to be taken seriously.

          • WUSRPH

            Fully agree…but people who lie repeatedly and use those titles, other than blogger, are using a title they are not entitled to….

  • don76550

    Another reason these vidios will be newsworthy is they will expose phony legislators who talk one way in their district and vote another way in Austin. I am fed up with legislator liars who strive to deceive their constituents.