The Capitol Press Corpse

Is it really time to pronounce the body? Or is the slimmed-down way we report on state government not nearly as bad as the Austin worrywarts would have you believe?

Perhaps the best place to start is with Thomas Jefferson. Not his famous statement about the importance of a free press as a government watchdog—“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter”—but rather two statements that, in all likelihood, were more representative of his true sentiments: “I do not take a single newspaper, nor read one a month, and I feel myself infinitely the happier for it” and “The advertisement is the most truthful part of a newspaper.”

Politicians don’t like scrutiny. They don’t like criticism; nobody does (even the sainted Jefferson didn’t). There are countries in the world where scrutiny does not occur because political leaders can punish it—Russia, Cuba, China—and there are places where scrutiny does not occur because the media are voluntarily derelict in their duty. Unfortunately, some of these places are in Texas: Brownsville, Harlingen, and McAllen. The Freedom Newspapers chain shut down its Capitol bureau, which served all three papers, in November, and the Hearst bureau, already a combined operation of the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle bureaus, saw its staff of eight reduced by two. The public took little notice of these events, but the Austin media community treated them as deaths in the family—the latest misfortune to befall the incredible shrinking Capitol press corps.

It is my intention to engage in as little hand-wringing as possible over these events, so I will let the American Journalism Review do it for me. Nearly ten years ago, the AJR ran a piece titled “Missing the Story at the Statehouse.” The gist of the argument was that what’s happening in Texas today was happening everywhere: “Coverage of state government is in steep decline. In capital press rooms around the country, there are more and more empty desks and silent phones. Bureaus are shrinking, reporters are younger and less experienced, stories get less space and poorer play, and all

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