Austin Story on “Netroots’ Back Online

By: Greg Mitchell

It started innocently enough, over coffee in a hotel lobby, with me (as usual at that hour) huddled over a newspaper?in print, not on a laptop, unlike everyone else in the vicinity. A little more than a day later, the front-page article I was reading, and getting worked up about, would be pulled from the paper?s Web site after a storm of protest. Now an editor’s note in the Tuesday paper, more or less apologizing, has been published.

And I had at least a little something to do with it.

Later Tuesday the article reappeared on the site, now labeled “commentary.”

I was in Austin, Texas, this past weekend, after being invited to speak on a panel at the giant Netroots Nation annual convention of liberal-minded bloggers/activists. The subject was ?War Pundits? and my colleagues on the panel included fellow authors Samantha Power and Mark Danner. In my brief remarks, I somehow managed to work in references to Austin icons Molly Ivins and Steve Earle, along with Bill Kristol and Sean Hannity.

About an hour before my panel, Al Gore showed up in the main ballroom?- taking the microphone from Nancy Pelosi. Howard Dean, Paul Krugman, and Wesley Clark had spoken earlier, with more than 2000 in attendance?including, reportedly, about 200 ?MSM? reporters, C-SPAN and the like. You get the idea.

Anyway: Media coverage had been fairly positive (with the usual inaccuracies), probably because the attendees, and their friends, had proven instrumental in helping to hand Congress to the Democrats in 2006, then sparked wins in a few special elections, and seemed poised to repeat all that this November.

But frankly, when I bought the Austin American-Statesman at the Hilton?s lobby coffee shop on Sunday morning, I was just looking to catch up on some national news and the baseball scores. Yet, staring me right in the face, just below the fold on the left side of the front page, was a report on the conference by one Patrick Beach, who was IDed as a ?feature writer.? That label often means trouble on the front page, and it certainly did here.

Beach described the gathering in stereotypes that better fit the aging Old Left of years ago than the much younger Netroots of today. I mean, how many of these bloggers have ever read much of Chomsky, as he suggested?

When Beach, at the start referred to the crowd as “marauding liberals” I knew it was not to be taken literally. But then we got this:

— The audience nearly staged a “faint-in” when Gore appeared (note use of ’60s term).

— Pelosi is so far left her title should include “(D-Beijing).” This would come as a surprise to many in the crowd who have criticized her timidity ? and posed hostile questions in the Q & A..

— The liberal blogosphere is “terribly self-confirming” — not like the mainstream media! In a contradiction, he then noted that at the conference they “critiqued themselves.”

— Paul Krugman, as if to “galvanize stereotypes,” wore Birkenstocks — but Beach throughout the article clearly needed no help in having his own stereotypes galvanized.

— It’s shooting fish in a barrel “to paint liberals as overly intellectual types incapable of having fun unless reading Noam Chomsky counts, and its sure does for them.” In fact, the convention was practically “party central,” few attendees were “intellectuals,” and only a tiny percentage, I would guess, are Chomsky lovers — again, an outmoded stereotype.

— Those who protested during the Pelosi/Gore “faint-in” were “shushed” as if they were at a Nanci Griffith concert. I certainly know who she is, but I can imagine most of these particular attendees reading this reference and asking, “Who???”

— One more reference to Liberals Don’t Wanna “have fun.” And so on.

It was the front-page placement that irked me.

Well, I thought I would perform a public service and let some of the convention attendees know about all this — few are fans of dead-tree media — so I posted a summary on my diary at DailyKos (the popular blog that founded Netroots). The ?Kossacks? as they are known could do what they wanted with it, if anything. Within a few minutes, so many people were reading and recommending my post that it shot to near the top of the DailyKos ?diaries? for the day. It also got picked up at some other popular blogs.

Many commenters promised to write letters to the editor. Some of them were Austinites who claimed they knew people at the local paper and might actually work their magic on them.

Theories abounded:

–Longtime editor Rich Oppel had recently retired and who was this new leader named Fred Zipp?

–The paper had been a cheerleader for Bush for many years and only acted liberal, at times, because this, afterall, was Austin.

–Patrick Beach, who has had a long career at the paper (he is a former rock critic), allegedly had rarely written a political piece in his life and probably was assigned to the convention, with no background in this kind of thing, on a lark or in desperation.

Monday: I was back in New York and had turned the page on all this, until I got an email from Michael King, news editor at the Austin Chronicle, the long-running and successful alt-weekly. Coincidentally, the paper?s founding editor (and South-by-Southwest guru) Louis Black had given me a personal tour of the Chronicle?s rambling offices on Saturday night.

Anyway, King informed me that the comments from Beach?s article had been wiped and it was impossible to find the article on the paper?s Web site, though it might still be there somewhere. Perhaps, he mused, “some editor finally looked at the piece and yanked it out of simple
embarrassment.”

Later Monday, I found the link to the original article on Google ? and now the story had been removed from the site completely and was “not available.”

A prominent liberal Texas blog, Burnt Orange Report, had been monitoring ?Beach-gate? and reprinted some comments that letter writers had allegedly received from Beach, with the feature writer claiming his report was all meant to be funny and maybe they didn?t ?get? it. Well, the best that could be said is that Beach is not stupid or malicious but has a god-awful sense of humor.

But another Austinite at the blog published what he said was a response from Editor Zipp himself, promising an editor?s note on Tuesday — with Zipp, if that was really him, declaring that some very good editors had suffered a severe lapse in judgment in placing the Beach piece on page one.

Now the promised editor’s note by Zipp, for Tuesday edition, has appeared on the paper’s Web site. It follows in its entirety:

“Readers expect front-page stories to speak directly and clearly about events and issues. Eliminating the possibility of misunderstanding from our work is a critical part of our daily newsroom routine. When we communicate in a way that could be misinterpreted, we fail to meet our standards.

“Our front-page story Sunday about the Netroots Nation convention included doses of irony and exaggeration. It made assertions (that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi might find herself at home politically in Beijing, for example) and characterizations (“marauding liberals” was one) meant to amuse. For many readers, we failed.

“In trying for a humorous take on the Netroots phenomenon without labeling it something other than a straightforward news story, we compromised our standards.”

Greg Mitchell’s new book is “So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits — and the President — Failed on Iraq.”
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UPDATE: It’s not every day you get a letter like the following (besides dozens of letters of thanks and some hate mail) so here it is in full.
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Hello, Mr. Mitchell. This is Patrick Beach’s ex-wife. I feel compelled to write in response to the controversy that his article on the Netroots convention has generated.

In all the furor, I’ve seen several inaccuracies, the chief one being that Patrick is new to political reporting (which I realize you posit as just a theory). It’s far from true. He has written in-depth profiles of politicians from across the spectrum, including George W. Bush, the McClellan brothers and the late Texas Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. (In fact, Patrick wrote a wonderful front-page obituary on Bullock for the Statesman.) The Statesman sent him to Washington to cover Bush’s first inauguration. He also has covered the Iowa caucuses, first as a reporter for the Des Moines Register and then again for the Statesman. More recently, he wrote about both the Clinton and Obama campaigns in Texas. And he even interviewed Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas for an article he wrote a couple of years ago about the ascent of political bloggers. (Is that irony?)

Another inaccuracy: that Patrick’s e-mail reply to irate readers made it sound like they simply didn’t “get” his article. His actual e-mail was much more courteous and in no way condescending. Rather, he took “sorry if my attempt at humor didn’t work for you” approach.

Another development worth noting: The Statesman has since put his full article back online.

And finally, while I agree that this story was not packaged and played as it should have been ? which the Statesman acknowledged this morning ? I think folks need to lighten up a bit and see it for what it was: an effort to write about an event in an edgy, satirical way. And although this might not be Patrick’s best work, his writing is frequently hilarious. So while I appreciate you acknowledging that he’s neither stupid nor malicious, I’d like to make one final correction (albeit a subjective one) to the record: He has an excellent sense of humor. And please keep in mind that this is his ex-wife saying this!

Allison Hall

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