Lights Out?

I’m going to go out on a limb here —but not too far—and predict that supporters of Chris Bell’s campaign for governor will be angry when they read “ He’s Sisyphus, and He Approves This Message ”, by executive editor S. C. Gwynne. But misery loves company: Residents of Marfa, the Presidio County seat that owes its existence to Donald Judd and hype, won’t be made any happier by senior editor Michael Hall’s “ The Truth Is Out There ”. What these stories have in common is a bracing dose of reality. The former says out loud what everyone in the political establishment has been thinking for months: Barring something massive and massively unforeseen, the Democratic standard-bearer has virtually no chance of denying Rick Perry another term in office. The latter dares to out Marfa’s mythic claim to fame, those mysterious lights of lore and yore, as likely little more than wishful thinking and the far-off high beams of cars pushing the speed limit.

This is not an especially good time to be courting the enmity of our readers. Perhaps you’ve heard: Print journalism is dead. But what’s the mission of a magazine like ours? To tell it like it is, even if that sometimes (okay, often) means making people hate us.

In conceiving the Bell story, Gwynne was as much interested in the predicament in which any statewide Democratic candidate finds himself at the moment—this being one of the redder states in the union, even with the Bush presidency in free fall—as in the candidate himself. It’s not like the D’s haven’t been given opportunity after opportunity to slap the conservative Republican leadership at the Capitol upside the head. And yet they’ve been profoundly unsuccessful at making the case for their return to power, ceding the moral high ground to the only real minority party that matters these days: the moderate Republicans. (For a frank discussion of this intramural warfare, check out GOP power broker James Leininger’s interview with yours truly, “ Money Talks ,”.)

The simple fact is, Gwynne likes Bell—likes him quite a bit—and voters might as well, if only they were (a) paying attention and (b) inclined to believe that a Democrat had the faintest chance of prevailing. Ah, there’s the rub. The Bell campaign, and Bell himself, will argue that the media, and our story in particular, are responsible for (b)—we’re the ones insisting that Bell has no chance, so the public believes it. If only we wouldn’t repeat the conventional wisdom, if only we wouldn’t report on the polls showing Bell in third (or fourth) place in a presumed four-way race with Perry and independents Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman, their man could get traction. I have no proof that this isn’t true, but my gut tells me that even if the media dutifully reported Bell’s positions on issues and left the punditry to the oily, well-heeled consultants, he’d still be looking for work on November 8. So why shouldn’t we say so?

As for the Marfa lights: Yeah, we know how few tourist attractions there are out that way, and yeah, we know that by openly questioning their existence, we run the risk of taking money out of the pockets of hardworking West Texans. I know better than most people, since I recently helped to get a public radio station on the air in Marfa. But it isn’t my job, or this magazine’s, to look out for the economic well-being of the communities we cover (although we’d be happy if our exceptional journalism incidentally boosted the fortunes of every city and town in the state). Anyway, aren’t we saying—again—something that is already widely known? Does anyone honestly believe the lights are real, that their provenance is a mystery?

The only thing that would be more surprising is Chris Bell’s inaugural.

Next Month

The next Jessica Simpson, the next T. R. Fehrenbach, what the special session means for the governor’s race, a farm-to-table feast, the life of an illegal immigrant, John Graves’s paddle, and Jan Reid’s high school reunion.

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