This December, the Observer will hold a gala celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, an event that is rather amazing for a small, regional, printed-on-newsprint magazine that has flirted with death many times in recent years. (Full disclosure: I’m a contributing writer for the Observer. I’ve also written for Texas Monthly). Financial struggles are nothing new to the Observer, which has been running on a sometimes ragged shoestring since it was founded by Ronnie Dugger in 1954. Since then, the magazine has gained fame for its relentless muckraking and for its editors, who include Willie Morris, who later edited Harper’s magazine, as well as Molly Ivins, Jim Hightower, and several others.
The Observer, which has only 7,000 paid subscribers, will never compete with Texas Monthly or the other big news outlets in the state. But the magazine is now stable and financially solvent. And part of the reason for that stability, ironically, is George W. Bush. “Renewals have been good this year because of interest in Texas politics and in Bush,” says the magazine’s co-editor, Barbara Belejack.
Although Bush has moved to Washington, the Observer continues to run lots of anti-Bush pieces. Last November, the magazine ran a piece by columnist Hightower which said that “This is not America, the Land of the Free, but a new land of Bush autocracy.” Two weeks later, it ran a piece by Molly Ivins that skewered the Bush administration’s efforts to put a positive spin on the problems in Iraq. “Bush has been touting the cheerful reports brought back by congressional delegations,” she wrote. “Right. It’s so secure in Iraq, the delegations spent their nights in Kuwait.” Belejack told CJR that readers shouldn’t expect much change from the Observer in the years to come. “Bush and his administration are about crony capitalism and the abuse of power. They’ve given the Texas Observer — and all journalists — lots to do.”
The editorial pages at several Texas papers are showing their unhappiness with the Iraq War, Bush’s fiscal policies, and his swing to the right.
On February 26, the Waco Tribune-Herald, the paper closest to Bush’s homestead in Crawford (which sits about fifteen miles west of Waco), excoriated the president for his support of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. “Bush’s unnecessarily divisive call for constitutional activism is more likely to be remembered as election-year political grandstanding than as a serious threat to the constitutional rights of a group of Americans,” said the paper. The editorial concluded with a direct shot at Bush’s campaign slogan that he was a “uniter, not a divider.” Supporting the amendment, the Tribune-Herald said, “is the act of a divider, not a uniter. The issue of gay marriages should be left to the states.” That piece followed a pair of editorials in January that criticized Bush’s fiscal policies, including a January 28 piece titled “Strangulation by Debt.”
The recent editorials are a sharp contrast to the tone taken by the Waco paper in October 2000, when it gave Bush an unqualified endorsement in the presidential race. In its endorsement, the paper said Bush “offers Americans the hope that his leadership can break the regrettable gridlock that has characterized government in Washington in recent years. As governor, Bush took the lead in establishing a tone of mutual respect and bipartisanship in Austin. That spirit of working together to solve common problems is sorely needed in the nation’s capital.” The editorial went on, “The people who know Bush the best, Texans, support him the most. That’s a telling point.”
The Houston Chronicle endorsed Bush for president in 2000 as well, saying that he offered “Americans sincerely held beliefs and a blameless record in public office.” But since 2002 — and particularly in the months leading up to the second Iraq War — the paper in America’s fourth-largest city has been sharply critical of Bush. In a March 9, 2003, editorial, the paper said the Bush administration “has managed to get the United States crosswise with some of its principal allies — Turkey, France and Germany. Bush’s fixation on Iraq has also aggravated rifts with Russian, China and other regional powers.” The piece also scoffed at Bush’s claim that he had not made up his mind about military action, writing that “Americans can be forgiven for not trusting their president on this point.” Nine days later, on March 18, the paper said that in its rush to go to war the Bush administration had “left the United States paying a price in failed diplomacy, upended alliances and globally bad public relations.” The same editorial warned about the dangers that lurked in rebuilding Iraq after the war. “Perhaps the administration will learn from its prewar diplomatic ineptitudes and will manage this area more skillfully. Perhaps.”