Where have all the press-friendly Texas politicians gone?

So long, Senate. For as long as anyone can remember, authorized representatives of the Texas press corps have sat at a long rectangular table in the front left of the upper house, freely watching the proceedings, talking and occasionally interviewing legislators and staff. It was an unusual privilege: the legislatures of many states do not allow members of the press to speak, and, of course, Congress. On the one hand, Texas Lege, a rather opaque and parochial institution, was a bit more transparent than its peers. And since authoritative lobbyists same allowed on the floor, it seemed fair to let hacks in as well.

This year, when reporters took office in the Senate, they were absent from the “rules of speaking” that reporters must follow – in past sessions they were identical to the rules for the House of Representatives. On Friday, the secretary of the Senate explained why this was so: the press would not be allowed to speak. Reporters could sit on the gallery with everyone else.

This restriction was in effect in the last session as well. In 2021, a year after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Senate broke with tradition and kicked out the press as one of many new rules restricting people’s interactions at the Capitol. This was understandable, although the antiviral cocoon created to protect Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who presides over the House, was a little funny considering he said on television shortly after the pandemic began that old people elsewhere might have to sacrifice their lives. to keep the economy buzzing. However, it was hard not to suspect that the press would never return to the site.

How serious is the access restriction really? Democracy can die in the dark because Washington Post there is, but there was no light in Lega for a long time. In particular, babysitting at the press table in the Senate has always been considered less preferable than a similar duty in the House of Representatives, which is more exuberant and where legislators really like to chat. Interesting discussions in the Senate these days are mostly held behind closed doors. In fact, reporters may be better off hanging out in the gallery, where lobbyists and other stakeholders practice pagan magic for most of the session, although many may just watch from home instead.

But the closing of the Senate floor does matter as another step in a long process in which Texan politicians – overwhelmingly Republican, with a few Democrats in the mix – have abandoned media engagement. Patrick, who was a right-wing shocker radio host before running for president, has a knack for manipulating the media without offering them anything in return. Consider that the headlining event for Patrick’s third run for the Senate, an eight-week bus tour of rural Texas, was essentially closed to the public: the dates and locations of the events were not revealed to voters or the media. Patrick spoke to selected people and posted limited excerpts on social media. Several important issues facing Lege this session, most notably Patrick’s promotion of the school voucher, are of great importance for rural Texas. It would be nice to hear what he said to these crowds and what questions he was asked. But very little of it is on record.

Patrick is simply continuing a decades-long trend of Texas state officials to keep their distance from the press. The level of paranoia and distrust, and sometimes hatred, of reporters in Texas is constantly surprising. In the mid-2010s, some government agency employees told me that their chosen boss kept a white noise machine in his office to block out potential eavesdropping devices possibly left by reporters. Around the same time, one lobbyist told me, another had visitors to his office sign forms stating that they were not closed journalists and were not acting on behalf of anyone. For part of the past eight years, Gov. Greg Abbott’s office has not even spoken to the Texas Tribune, the state government’s most comprehensive publication.

Conservatives are fond of saying that the media has brought this on itself—that reporters are too left-wing and have lost their relevance, audience, and claim to authority. But there are so many reasons why the reporting relationship in the Legislative Assembly has changed since the great Paul Burke, longtime institutional chronicler for this magazine. Burka was one of the greatest political writers ever produced by the state, and perhaps the country. But the way he did his job cannot be done today.

Burka was at the club, which is partly why he was able to speak with such authority and collect so much insider gossip. He came from the same social circle as many legislators. He went to Rice and the University of Texas School of Law with future sources. Politics was less ideologized; legislators of all stripes desperately wanted to stand out, to see their names in print. An unreasonable remark made by Burke may appear in a magazine issue. Texas Monthly in a few months and regret, but his influence will be limited to the reach of a printed magazine.

Today, journalists have changed, and legislators have also changed. The chasm between the racial, class, and educational backgrounds of journalists and the officials they cover is wider than ever before. The ethos of the good old boy who runs the state is still strong, and some legislators and journalists do communicate, but the relationship is very different from what it used to be. Along with this, there are opportunities to gain trust. Meanwhile, politicians now operate in a media-saturated world. They are always “on” and always alert. On social media, they have the opportunity to present exactly the versions of themselves that they want to present. Patrick’s trip was so Instagram-ready, so meticulously choreographed, you almost expected him to post a story of sunrise meditation in Outdoor Voices yoga pants. When someone offers a different interpretation, politicians perceive it as a violation.

Ultimately, closer relationships between legislators and journalists have been maintained in the past because it has benefited both. As a legislator, if you think your position on any issue is likely to gain substantial support in the room of normal Texans, it’s good for you to talk to a reporter, even a hostile one. They may write that you are delaying school meals for children in need, but some Texans will read the article and find your concern for taxpayer money compelling. But if you are afraid of how your position will be perceived by these normal people, it is best to hide your beliefs and intentions. Legé’s business today is often what most Texans don’t want, things that don’t score well in the polls, such as a complete ban on abortion, which about 15 percent of Texans agree with, or less importantly, open and unlicensed carry of a gun. . over 40 percent support. In truth, it’s surprising that Patrick would allow reporters to stay in the gallery at all.

My trademark recollection of the Senate press table speaks perhaps of how frivolous access can be. Back in the days of the dinosaurs and David Dewhurst, lieutenant governor until 2014, the Senate was chilly. Dewhurst was said to sweat easily – or perhaps we thought he was a lizard. Texas Monthly Alumnus Sonia Smith tweeted that she was jealous of State Senator Donna Campbell, who brought Snuggie for warmth. A few minutes later Dewhurst came out, still smiling, and brought Smith a blanket. These relationships and this closeness sometimes paid off in more significant ways. A few months later, journalists acted as filibuster Wendy Davis, recounting the details of that long day at close range. The accounts we have of what happened on that night, one of the most dramatic in the Senate in living memory, would be less significant if the press had to watch it live or in a gallery along with everyone else.

I wouldn’t ask you to pour one bottle for the Senate press. But as a citizen of Texas, you are missing out on something broader—something that you have been losing for some time that will be very difficult for you to get back. The legislature is a vital institution in your life. It’s also comically opaque and incomprehensible. The ability of the press to convey what life in Lega is like has fallen from what it was even ten years ago. And that is what many politicians want.

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