Covering Climate Now

The devastating Texas-storm story centers Ted Cruz

February 19, 2021

An epic winter storm spiraled across the South this week. In Texas, the temperature plummeted, driving demand for electricity; supply systems froze; soon, the power went out. As of Tuesday lunchtime, more than four million people had been affected. Newsrooms were hit, too: KFDX, a TV station in Wichita Falls, went dark; the printing facilities of the Austin American-Statesman and the Houston Chronicle suffered outages. “Even during Hurricane Harvey, our facility never lost power and we never stopped producing the print edition,” staffers at the Chronicle noted, “but each weather emergency brings its own twists.” Other papers cancelled deliveries because of dangerous conditions on the roads; the San Antonio Express-News, which, since last month, has been printed nearly two-hundred miles away, in Houston, is still experiencing delays. Outlets including the American-Statesman and the Texas Tribune have been communicating with readers via text, as internet access is sporadic. Reporters are helping vulnerable neighbors, fixing broken pipes, and charging their phones in their cars. “Melting snow to fill up my toilet tank while listening to a @PUCTX meeting,” Lauren McGaughy, of the Dallas Morning News, tweeted, referring to the state’s Public Utility Commission. “Life of a Texas journalist, February 2021.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Greg Abbott, the state’s governor, went on WFAA, in Dallas, to describe the problem. Natural gas, he said, was “frozen in the pipeline and frozen in the rig.” Then Abbott visited Sean Hannity, on Fox, and blamed renewables: “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.” At a press conference on Wednesday—his first of the crisis, more than sixty hours after the blackouts began—Abbott changed his message again. But his Fox comments nonetheless contributed to a right-wing anti-climate crusade; according to Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group, between Monday evening and Wednesday afternoon, talking heads on Fox News and Fox Business dissed green energy nearly one-hundred-and-thirty times. “Unbeknownst to most people, the Green New Deal came to Texas,” Tucker Carlson said. “The power grid in the state became totally reliant on windmills, then it got cold and the windmills broke.” (In reality, Texas is much more reliant on fossil fuels than on renewables, and the failure was system-wide.) It wasn’t just Fox: under the headline “Texas spins into the wind,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board accused “the media” of falling for “climate-change conformity.” As the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent wrote, the default crisis response of right-wing politicians, and their boosters in the press, is “to increasingly retreat from real policy debates into an alternate information universe.”

New from CJR: The preoccupation of ‘wonks’

Yesterday, a creature from the alternate information universe became a crossover star. Photos appeared to show Ted Cruz, the Texas senator, boarding a flight to Cancún while his state suffered. David Shuster, a TV journalist, confirmed that the man was indeed Cruz, as did various travel journalists and political reporters. (“The camera-phone crowdsourcing involved in every aspect of this story is just amazing,” Katie Rogers, of the New York Times, observed.) Cruz was forced to turn around, come home, and comment: he admitted to the trip, though he claimed that he was just trying to be “a good dad” to his daughters, who wanted to go while they were off from school. “It’s chutzpah,” Dana Bash said, on CNN. Journalists managed to fill in the finer details of Cruz’s itinerary; the Times obtained text messages that his wife, Heidi, sent to friends and neighbors outlining the family’s plot to flee their “FREEZING” home for a Mexican Ritz-Carlton. The senator conceded that he had planned to stay in Cancún through the weekend.

Cruz’s selfishness brought the Texas story into sharp political focus; last night, it was the angle that most of the prime-time cable shows led with. Some segments described Cruz’s trip as a “blunder” or a “gaffe”; the better ones used it to illustrate structural failings of leadership, institutions, and infrastructure. “Governing is not posting, it’s not podcasting, it’s not cable-news anchoring,” MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said. “Both my parents worked as civil servants in city government, and I have a cable-news show, and they had harder jobs than I do. What we’ve seen this week in Texas is a total failure of governance. And it’s not just Ted Cruz.” Coverage also discussed the storm in the context of the climate crisis, highlighting long-term concerns with the electric grid. State officials said yesterday that Texas had been “seconds and minutes” away from a months-long catastrophe—an image even scarier than Ted Cruz on the beach.

The environmental disaster intersected with the coronavirus, as power and water problems have forced some hospitals to turn away patients and, as several outlets have reported, compounded pandemic-induced financial misery. The COVID Tracking Project pointed out yesterday, with reference to other recent storms, “if people are having trouble moving around the city because of a storm, they are also less likely to seek out testing or even seek medical attention,” but “because authorities are still able to report something, the interruption is not immediately obvious.” Vaccine rollout was disrupted, too. On the whole, however, COVID has been less ubiquitous than Cruz in the topline national framing—which reflects a trend, over recent months, of pandemic news feeling siloed from other urgent problems.

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Local journalists are covering the interlocking crises: The Chronicle homepage leads this morning with a story on the storm’s growing death toll; the American-Statesman leads with an article about COVID vaccine and testing delays. The Texas Tribune’s top story centers the impact of the storm on Black and Hispanic Texans, communities that have already been hit hardest by the pandemic. Cruz is much less prominent, though the editorial board of the Chronicle did call on him to resign—the second time this year it has done so. “As Texans froze, Ted Cruz got a ticket to paradise,” the headline reads. “Paradise can have him.”

Below, more on Texas and the storm:

  • The death toll: Officials believe that the number of deaths linked to the storm and the outages is likely higher than the figures that are being reported in the media, but, as the Daily Beast points out, “there’s no way of understanding in real time how many people are dying as a result of, for example, hypothermia or because they had existing diseases and couldn’t reach their medications.” Juliette Kayyem, a former national-security official, told the Beast that the only solution will be to conduct “an excess death analysis—to figure out how many more deaths occurred over the last several days than occurred, say, in 2019.”
  • Not just Texas: The storm this week battered other states, too; yesterday, President Biden approved emergency declarations for Oklahoma and Louisiana. Earlier in the week, Jason Collington, editor of the Tulsa World, spoke with Poynter’s Amaris Castillo about disruptions to the paper’s normal distribution schedule. “We’re working to get our presses and everyone working earlier, so we can get the press started earlier, which means carriers have to come in earlier,” he said. “You move one thing, and then you got to move four other groups of people.”
  • The climate crisis in Texas: On Wednesday, David Schechter, of WFAA, in Dallas, wrote for CJR and The Nation’s Covering Climate Now project explaining how his local coverage of the climate crisis has evolved over time. “On the rare occasions when I absolutely had to report about climate, I found myself defaulting to both-sides-ism—saying that ‘climate change is controversial’ and giving both sides equal weight in my story,” he wrote. “With a little training, I’ve found, it’s possible to see how climate change intersects with important local issues.”
  • A new presence: Nieman Lab’s Hanaa’ Tameez reports on the impending launch of the Fort Worth Report, a nonprofit outlet in Fort Worth that will aim to, among other things, produce nuanced coverage of communities of color in the city. “We’re not going to be doing police blotter news,” Chris Cobler, the Report’s CEO and publisher, said. “I think you write about those issues, like institutional racism, from a deeper standpoint, get the context to it, and make sure you have the voices of all the community involved in it.”

Other notable stories:

  • The Washington Post published “A mass-casualty event every day,” a package, reported between January 11 and January 13, that brings together stories about coronavirus deaths. “In a nation still partially shut down, those deaths often took place out of sight. But in hospitals and funeral homes and living rooms and cemeteries across America, the torrent of death was inescapable,” the package begins. “On three of the deadliest days in the deadliest month, Washington Post reporters and photographers fanned out across the nation to capture the stories of the people and places closest to the lives lost.”
  • This week—after Reply All, a podcast made by Gimlet, published the second episode of “The Test Kitchen,” a miniseries about race and workplace toxicity at Bon Appétit—Eric Eddings, a former Gimlet staffer, wrote on Twitter that Sruthi Pinnamaneni, who reported the miniseries, and P.J. Vogt, a host of Reply All, “contributed to a near identical toxic dynamic at Gimlet,” including by opposing a union drive. Pinnamaneni and Vogt apologized; now, per Vulture’s Nicholas Quah, they will both permanently step away from Reply All, and Gimlet bosses will “discuss what comes next for the miniseries.”
  • Last spring, as journalists fawned over Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, he gave a series of playful interviews to his brother, Chris Cuomo, of CNN. As I noted on Tuesday, the governor, who now stands accused of covering up nursing-home deaths, hasn’t appeared on his brother’s show in a while; Chris Cuomo hasn’t covered the controversy at all. A CNN spokesperson has since said that a rule established in 2013 bars Chris from covering Andrew; in the early months of the pandemic, CNN decided to suspend the rule given the “significant human interest” of the brothers’ story, but it is now back in effect.
  • Poynter’s Doris Truong writes that stories about the death of Rush Limbaugh too often downplayed his racism. “To neglect Limbaugh’s long history of othering and gaslighting people of color is to let him continue to control the narrative,” she writes. “The truth about someone’s life isn’t necessarily what their most ardent supporters want to acknowledge — that’s what separates a news article from an obituary paid for by loved ones.”
  • This week, Voto Latino and Media Matters for America jointly launched a “Latino Anti-Disinformation Lab” aimed at tackling Spanish-language disinformation campaigns about the pandemic, politics, and other topics. Tom Perez, the former head of the Democratic National Committee, will serve as co-chair alongside Maria Teresa Kumar, of Voto Latino, and Angelo Carusone, of Media Matters. NBC’s Jonathan Allen has more.
  • Vanity Fair’s Tom Kludt profiles Briahna Joy Gray, a journalist and former spokesperson for Bernie Sanders who wants a reset in relations between progressive lawmakers and the media. “There is not enough coordination between left media in terms of messaging and having that kind of discipline that you need to get your ideas out there,” Gray says. “The best people at this are the people in the right-wing media. They are in lockstep.”
  • CJR’s Lauren Harris spoke with Anthony Nadler, a media communications scholar, about the limitations of the “news ecosystem” metaphor. “The metaphor really invites us to think of the system as a bunch of individual actors competing against each other,” Nadler says, while downplaying “modes of thinking that are more about centralized planning or collective effort.” (You can subscribe to Harris’s newsletter on the news business here.)
  • For Nieman Reports, Clio Chang explores what the shuttering of physical newsrooms means for reporters who are just starting their careers. “For many, losing a newsroom means also losing the type of serendipitous conversations that can really help a young reporter who might not have a big rolodex of sources or the same community connections,” Chang writes. (For more on this subject, read Ruth Margalit in CJR.)
  • And Salon’s Roger Sollenberger lays out an “unusual and at times suspicious level of engagement” between Hannity, of Fox, and the coach of his son’s college tennis team. The relationship appears to have triggered a federal investigation, of which Hannity denied any knowledge. The case was closed without indictments, but it nonetheless shines a light, Sollenberger writes, into “the many legal gray zones” of college athletics.

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