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:
- 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.
- They document overt corruption, like, “Thanks for meeting me at the bar so I can give you this envelope of cash.”
- 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.