Friday, December 7, 2012

Dean Lemann, Texas Monthly and the Whitening of American Journalism (Part 1)

            Access remains the single most important ingredient of good journalism, whether you have the interview or the documents or someone on the inside who’s talking or leaking email. Recently an understanding of science or an ability with numbers, especially statistics—or knowledge of computers—has become a close second to live sources for getting the story. But what if you have both? What if you have access and the numbers to go along with the words?
            What if you’ve talked to the decision makers and to the grunts because you got an interview with the bigwigs and you were a grunt yourself at the enterprise in question—and you learned how to crunch numbers in graduate school—and what if the story is about journalism itself, about a fat glossy magazine that’s familiar to readers and about which there have been questions, doubts, for years? What if the questions are reflective of the doubts about all American journalism and perhaps American society as well?
            What if the publication is a magazine like Texas Monthly that pretty much owns its market and whose staff has been wondering if it’s more honored than read, while people on the outside have been wondering, well, if the magazine isn't just a little racist and whether it deserves to be read at all? What if a couple of years ago an obscure want-to-be academic wasn’t necessarily wondering about the big big picture, only the little big picture, “explor[ing] the means by which Texas Monthly magazine constructs a Texas identity,” working on her dissertation, trying to get it done, but in the course of her research she answered some pretty deep questions about American journalism and its failings that people were mostly afraid to ask and shouldn’t have been but for which the answers really are pretty scary? The short answer—the scariest of all—is that Texas Monthly which will celebrate its fortieth anniversary in a few months is as bad as it looks, the journalistic equivalent of a 1950s Southern country club in which stories, ads and the staff itself are whites-only.
            Susan Sivek, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas, reviewed almost twenty years of issue content and concluded, not surprisingly, that despite claims of editors (Sivek actually interned at the Monthly and returned to conduct interviews for her dissertation) that more minority content was a priority but must be achieved carefully—to quote then-editor Evan Smith, changing to a more diverse, minority-friendly publication would be like suddenly swinging the steering wheel of a school bus, his analogy not hers, or mine, an incredibly risky proposition, Mr. Smith called it—Texas Monthly’s editors and owners actually have the market they want. “Its staff argues that they are attempting to diversify the magazine’s content so that their audience may be informed about the variety of people and issues in the state. The results of this study’s content analysis do not support that statement, demonstrating instead a strong focus especially on white people in the magazine’s content and advertising, and somewhat stereotypical tendencies in the magazine’s coverage of non-white individuals.” That’s a direct enough hypothesis to test, right? Pretend you're in grad school. Flip through the magazine and there’s certainly a prima facie case to be made that the premise, the theory, is correct. Let’s look at the numbers Ms. Sivek compiled that led to her unhappy conclusion:
            From 1990 to 2007, the period of her inquiry, the depiction of whites on the magazine’s covers actually went down from almost 80% to 67% after Texas Monthly’s acquisition by Emmis Communications in 1998. That number is misleading, however, as Ms. Sivek noted.
            At the same time the depiction of non-whites also went down, from 11% to 7%, a proportionately much larger fall. The slack was taken up by a jump in covers that did not show people at all—longhorns for example, or scenic drives or yet another picture of the Alamo—but when people were on the cover, guess what race they were? Apparently, according to Sivek’s research, it’s also easy to guess their gender. During the time span in question, when human beings were featured, women dropped from a 30% cover rate to 20.5%. In other words in a state that has been moving for years to majority-minority status, with blacks, Hispanics and other non-whites supplanting Caucasians—until today when seven out of ten births in the state are actually minority—and presumably half are female—Texas Monthly has remained the undisputed realm of white men.
            The period of this segregated content and graphics, the era that was studied, with bad demographics that continue today, coincided mostly with the leadership of Evan Smith who became editor-in-chief in 2000 and president of Texas Monthly Inc. as well, shortly thereafter. While Ms. Sivek’s content analysis notes that during Smith’s tenure (he was forced out in 2009 amid bad financial data since, holding all the strings of power, there was no one else to take the fall; Smith became editor of startup Texas Tribune) the number of entertainment covers dropped and political stories rose. Much of that change can be attributed to Smith’s view of politics-as-entertainment or as sport. Sivek’s analysis found, indeed, that news-oriented covers fell by almost one-third during the Smith years. There’s actually blame enough to go around—both for Evan Smith and for his predecessor as editor, Gregory Curtis. During the 18 years studied, spanning a good part of both men’s tenures, Hispanics were featured in only 1.8% of covers; blacks in 3.6%. Whites were featured on average 70% of the time, and Asians never. Blacks were most often shown as entertainment figures or athletes, if the portrayal was positive. Latinos got the “mariachi treatment,” usually on inside pages. Most worrisome of all is that minorities were featured as criminals 30 percent more often than whites when minorities were covered at all. Whites appeared as artists or writers twice as often as blacks and Hispanics. Women were almost never presented in positions of power, according to Ms. Sivek’s study. It’s hard to imagine that any publication could continue to put up numbers like these in the modern era. It takes hard work—that appears certain. Texas Monthly has always had a dedicated staff on both the business and editorial sides.
            The most powerful statistic about the magazine—and how out of touch the American media have become—is one that can also be crunched from numbers at the New Yorker, the Times (New York or L.A.), NPR or most any other American journalistic heavyweight—or school of journalism in the U.S. It is one that Ms. Sivek’s research did not capture. 
            In fact, there’s an acronym you should know, not a number, which must be kept in mind as you read about the big hole in American journalism and how one man, a Texas Monthly alumnus, helped dig it: NNNA.
            More about that later.

            From its inception in 1973 Texas Monthly has been all about an epic kind of narrative that’s intended to communicate the grandeur of the state—and like all good storytelling, doing so without troublesome details.
            The Texas myth—that’s what it’s been dubbed in the magazine’s pages—is the Anglos-only version of how the Lone Star State came to be. It’s an editorial mantra in Austin that the Texas myth, although just that, a myth—not true by any conceivable standard of equity or fact-finding—is nonetheless acceptable at a journalistic purpose because there’s something “special” about Texas that means the truth doesn’t apply and facts can be made up, or ignored. One of the more impressive stories of the state and best documented is arguably the founding of Texas Monthly itself—and only here, of all the stories of this great state, can it be proven that there really were no niggers or Mexicans present because that’s been the magazine’s editorial policy from early in its existence. Just not from the start. Not from the start.
            At the beginning, lo those forty years ago when a business grad from Dallas named Mike Levy had an idea, and borrowed the money to make it real, the story of the magazine itself has had the ring of history. Somehow, although the Monthly would be headquartered in capital city Austin, Mike Levy started his quest in Houston where he connected with one or more of the three men who would provide the founding editorial direction sought: Bill Broyles, now a screenwriter who was then working as a flak at the Houston school district; Paul Burka, a young lawyer who was serving as an aide to a state senator; and Gregory Curtis who, well, it’s not clear what Curtis had been doing up until that point, but he was a writer. In fact all three men were writers, all Rice University graduates who had done work for the college newspaper, the Thresher. Curtis and Broyles were roommates at Rice. As it was explained to me more than three decades ago—just think of me as this narrative’s ingénue, a sensitive journalistic soul recording the ambitions of the important white men around me—at the Thresher, Broyles was the serious one, writing who knows what deep shit one would have written at an American college newspaper in the 1960s, while Curtis was the artist, the poet, and Burka was the sports editor working in a field where he learned how to judge a winner from a loser and later carried that insight to politics. This version of The Beginning would be offered to me a few years after the magazine’s birth by one of the three men himself but because it didn’t seem important at the time, nothing more than late-night gossip in an editorial office that then employed me, there may be an error here, some shading of the facts that’s not totally accurate. For that an apology at the start. But, basically, it’s correct—that's the backstory of the magazine’s founding. After Rice, the three friends/acquaintances went their separate ways: Burka to law school, Curtis to San Francisco (to write poetry, or to edit comic books, depending on who’s talking) and, the most important voyage of all, indisputable and completely verifiable by none other than the United States Department of Defense, Bill Broyles went to the then-Republic of South Vietnam, an all-expenses paid trip sponsored by the U.S. Marine Corps. Broyles’ stint in Vietnam is the keystone of the story of Texas Monthly's founding (and, according to my belief at least, helps illustrate what’s wrong with American journalism today.) 
            This may sound condescending but it’s okay coming from me, an African-American: the Bill Broyles who founded the magazine had a feel for minorities. He wasn’t afraid of us and he wasn’t uncomfortable around us, at least not in the way many of the editors and writers at Texas Monthly seemed and seem to be. Through the years, having met plenty of white people especially in journalism who have not been comfortable with non-whites or who find black people’s breath too warm or our touch too hot it’s an important point for me to make. The United States military, after all, has been one of the great agents of desegregation in American society. There are no racists in a foxhole or very few who survive and despite the depredations that the U.S. military has done to foes and allies alike, something good has come out of American bellicosity in the latter half of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. People like William D. Broyles Jr. have been shaped. My theory is that Broyles either had his butt saved by a nigger, off in a rice paddy somewhere—or was pulled out of one of Charlie’s tunnels by a chulo or that just living day after day in a rifle company where there were probably more minorities than whites—literally eating and sleeping with blacks and Latinos and Asians—harassed by gunfire, trying to make sure the B-52s didn’t drop a load on his ass by accident—made Broyles the man he was. After that Austin was no sweat. After that, running a magazine was no strain. Broyles had personal courage—which is probably what took him to Vietnam in the first place. Paul Burka, who has served through the decades as Texas Monthly’s political editor, the only one of the original three still riding the same horse today, has said that time abroad—Broyles’ military service—was held over everyone else at the magazine by the then editor-in-chief. It made Bill Broyles first among equals even if his title did not. Maybe that’s true and, well, maybe it should have been. Broyles was not afraid of life or life’s circumstances. He had proven that by embracing service while others were trying to escape it which doesn’t mean that the cause was honorable in Southeast Asia, only that some of the people were. That's how America became desegregated—by people with courage—people who were not afraid to do something, to buck or even to embrace a system, and it’s my view that had Broyles stayed at the magazine those statistics Ms. Sivek collected decades later would have been far different from what they are today.
            Texas Monthly was a huge success, one of the first in what would be a wave of city and regional magazines. Broyles was becoming a big deal in journalism—and like most important people he didn’t open his own mail. He had somebody to do that for him. The only African-American at the Monthly at the time was a woman named Gwen Craddick who was Broyles’ administrative assistant. Gwen actually opened my letter and put it under her boss’s nose. My exact pitch eludes me now, years later—me having just completed twenty-three painful months at the Austin daily and at the moment covering night cops for the soon-to-be-defunct Houston Post, an existence as close to hell as you can imagine and still be writing for a living—well, Bill rescued me. He called me to Austin for an interview. 
            Broyles and Gregory Curtis saw me a few days later and gave me the job—not at slave wages either but $16,000 a year which was a lot of money at that time. The interview was pretty much pro forma. They didn’t ask any real questions, Broyles just wanted to get a look at me, you could tell. Even before the interview the decision had almost certainly already been made but Broyles was no fool and he wanted to see what he would be getting for his money. The point here is not the money even though it was nice but that the critical action was not mine, nor Bill Broyles’ either. Certainly my letter was necessary as was his offer of employment—but without Gwen Craddick nothing would have come of it. So, today when the New York Times or National Public Radio or the New Yorker leadership talks about diversity in journalism, you can be pretty sure it’s just that, talk, because those editors, whether it’s Jill Abramson at the Times or David Remnick at the New Yorker or NPR’s Gary Knell—as managers—each knows this truth: that unless you hire minorities you will never hire minorities. Unless we, blacks and Hispanics and Asians are in the newsroom we’ll never be in the newsroom. It’s kind of like sex—despite the high-minded rhetoric, despite the beautiful words—at some point you just have to start fucking. And they don’t—hire black people, that is—which is where this is going, yes. The rhetoric is grand. But the practice is something else.
            And these managers will apologize, certainly. They will explain. They will talk about how difficult it is to find “qualified minorities.” They may use the word “meritocracy” to explain how journalists are hired at their particular publication or news network. In an era today in which there are actually fewer minorities in print journalism than there were when Bill Broyles opened my letter, somebody is equivocating. Someone is lying. Hiring means . . . hiring. It’s not a tautology either, it’s a fact that Bill Broyles understood instinctively almost four decades ago. You will never hire blacks, Latinos or Asians unless you hire blacks, Latinos and Asians and when you don’t, in this multi-cultural society, it’s discrimination.
            It’s called seg-re-ga-tion
            It’s called maintaining a segregated work environment. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

            The single most important editor at Texas Monthly during my short tenure, then and for years thereafter—and even now as an influence in journalism—was not Broyles, Burka or Greg Curtis. It was Nick Lemann.
            The name Nicholas Lemann will be familiar to you if you follow the American media as an institution. Lemann is soon-to-be former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia who, for the last ten years or so, as eminence grise and heavy thinker—staff writer at the New Yorker and head of the Pulitzer and National Magazine Awards committees—has been first among equals in journalism, the go-to guy on etiquette, ethics and practice. At the time, at TM, back in Austin, Lemann became by default the go-to guy in the editorial department of the magazine as well.
            We arrived at the same time, more or less, me and Nick, or Lemann came a little afterwards if my memory is correct—one day he was just there and his title was executive editor which got my attention. Texas Monthly was enjoying great success but was about to enter a tumultuous time with the purchase of New West magazine in California. Bill Broyles who was always a restless soul would soon be spending more time in L.A. than in Austin: transforming New West into California magazine and attempting, ultimately unsuccessfully, to create the West Coast version of Texas Monthly. Lemann filled a deep management hole. He had been at the magazine a year or two earlier as a writer and whatever quarrel anyone may have with his decision-making—there was and is good reason to object to Lemann’s “insiderism,” his reliance on cronyism as a management tool—or his vision of American journalism which despite noble rhetoric has been white—his writing was excellent. He was a reporter at the Post before his first go-round at the Monthly and he was, simply, very good: if you don’t mind a journalist whose management practices do not fly anywhere near as high as his prose or if you don’t mind someone who not only doesn’t walk the walk but whose actions are in pretty much direct conflict with his or her words. That was Nick in a nutshell.
            There were two overriding rules at Texas Monthly at the time, and one would affect Lemann’s future while the other would affect, however improbably, the magazine’s relationship with the minority community of the state. Would, in fact, make it worse, if that were possible. Both were rules about race—although only one explicitly mentioned ethnicity. Both have since been rescinded due to new management, new owners and new realities but it’s hard to discuss the present Texas Monthly without mentioning the old TM and those two “regulations,” such as they were.
            The first was to limit stories about Austin. Unlike the cosmopolitan, quiche-eating, artsy metropolis we now know, Austin at the time was just another leftward-leaning college town/state capitol. Everyone compared Austin to Madison, Wisconsin except our River City is a good deal warmer. Although the Texas capital has outgrown its Midwest twin the roots of the cities were the same, Austin was sleepy and in some sense an alternative dimension, unreal or untroubled by the rough realities of the Lone Star State. On a municipal level, Friday at 5 p.m. downtown became deserted and stayed that way until Monday morning at eight. There were only big two banks, a couple of bakeries, which was important to me, and Bubba and Billy Bob were frequent visitors to the central city because they were living, with their hunting dogs—chopping cedar trees to make a living—in a trailer just outside town. The fear in the editorial department was that because the magazine was headquartered in the capital city that the tendency would always be to run more Austin stories than could be justified by the city’s size or advertising importance, even when the Legislature was in town. In recent years Austin has become the real center of Texas, in many respects, the capital city in fact as well as in name—chi chi and incredibly affluent, an influence in the state and nation, where VIPs work and make their homes—mentioned in the same breath with San Francisco and Boston, both high tech and high brow. Wasn’t that way then. A few decades ago Austin was a small town known only for the state capitol and a state university and as home to Willie Nelson.
             The second rule at the Monthly was also unwritten but was still official and laid down by the publisher, Mike Levy (who together with Broyles owned the magazine): No Jew would get the top editor’s spot.
            The logic of this “rule,” as it was explained to me at the time by Lemann himself—who was not in agreement, to say the least, Nick being a white Southerner, yes, but from an affluent New Orleans Jewish family—was that because the publisher was a Jew and there were so few Jews in Texas, having the editor from the same “tribe,” so to speak, was potentially unrepresentative and would be problematic for editing and story choice. Might eventually, God forbid, turn off advertisers. In defense of Levy it’s important to note that the kind of stories the magazine featured (the King Ranch, for example, the Alamo redux, or the ten best chilis—basically the same kind of thing running now in TM’s pages, in the umpteenth iteration) were not the sort of writing or reading you would normally associate with my Jewish brethern. Lemann was not happy about the decision, he made that clear. Because Nick was there—he didn’t tell me this, but it was obvious in the context and at the time—to supplant Greg Curtis in the top spot as Bill Broyles’ visits to Austin became fewer and fewer, as time passed, with Broyles’ eventual selection—as California failed—to be editor of Newsweek. As Broyles’ absence became a reality Lemann not Curtis became the power behind the throne. He just didn’t get the title. Mike Levy was adamant. This doesn’t mean that management’s decisions were passed to me in a memo but it was a small staff though and you heard things just being there—even if my official tenure at the magazine had actually ended by the time some of this ethnically-suggestive intelligence reached my ears.
            Nick, as a person? 
            He was cool enough, kind of a bespectacled Jewish intellectual, old school, unlike the more muscular version you see today. Very very smart and like many intellectuals he was largely unschooled on or by the outside world—his knowledge base was what he had read and in Nick's case that was a lot. He seemed to be fascinated and repelled by niggers at the same time. He must have seen us in New Orleans and D.C. but it's not clear how close he got, you had the sense that if you asked him about his exposure to black people up until that point he would have talked about his maid back home or his “black friend” at Harvard. (A little self-disclosure: my older brother actually knew Nick at Harvard, they worked on the Crimson together, but my brother followed in a long family tradition by flunking out; he had applied to Harvard just when the Ivy League began to open its doors to blacks, which made Nick and my big bro contemporaries but not friends by any means.) Unlike Broyles, Lemann had apparently never much dealt with ordinary people on an equal footing. When we hooked up at the Monthly even though there was no more than a year or two difference in our ages he saw me—this is just a guess—as a supplicant for his patronage, a potential member of his in-house team (Nick was planning, it seemed, a palace coup, to take over the editorship by taking over the editorial staff, forcing Levy’s hand, which was cool with me personally, not having any management ambitions myself and not really giving a shit, personally, who had the big office—as long as whoever it was hired blacks and Mexicans. A simple decision set, that’s my pleasure, the joy of being a one-issue guy.) Nick’s editorial office marching order, as it turned out, became untenable for a black person of my age and upbringing: this was the pre-Obama era, it must be noted, me part of the last generation of American blacks to have known segregated schooling, for example, or to have known the lash, so to speak. While Nick may have seen writing and editing jobs as a patronage, to me it was all about equity and reality, especially in a state with as large a minority population as Texas. While Nick’s views apparently haven’t changed neither have mine. For me it was and is all about equity which is a way, isn't it, of saying it's all about reality? My view of him—you’re reading that, aren’t you? But, again in a few words he was another white Southerner who thought he knew more about black people than he did. He certainly wasn't the first and won't be the last. That’s cool. Some people just like to read. My grandfather, who was the son of slaves from a small town between Austin and Houston used to say, "Reading can be a way of doing nothing," and by extension, so can writing, right? Just because you write about black people doesn't mean anything, necessarily, does it? Behavior speaks louder than bibliography, it seems to me and Grandfather would have agreed. 
            Still, to draw a distinction, you could compare the Nick of the time to another Monthly staffer of that same period, Lawrence Wright, who like Lemann is now a much-feted journalist at the New Yorker. Although Larry was a white Southerner too, from Dallas or New Orleans, can't remember which, or having gone to school there, in N.O., at Tulane maybe, can't recall, Larry Wright was much more in the Broyles mode—and for the same reason. After college, Wright had gone abroad, to Cairo, for a couple of years, before beginning his journalism career seriously. Whatever the reason Wright was more relaxed around different kinds of people and had the sense to realize something that Lemann did not—that minorities may have similar aspirations to whites but not necessarily the same interests: that in journalism we weren’t just bacteria under the microscope lens, that we have our own agendas and our own stories to assign and to tell. As smart as he is Nick never seemed to understand any of that, never made any of those connections. To him "the story" was inextricably linked to who got to write it and that was decided by patronage. These errors are ones you see at Texas Monthly even today: the belief that blacks and Hispanics are simply white people with darker skin and quainter customs who can be explained to the readers by white writers. A big mistake, what can you say? It's thirty or forty years late for me to raise the issue formally, which for writers means in print, but better late than never, if that's okay? What exactly Nick did not understand at the time—the equality part or the different part—is unclear. 
            Nick was always the brightest guy in the room, you could say that certainly, especially at the monthly editorial meeting and to his credit he managed to use his intellect without being overbearing. He had a great sense of humor and a fundamentally ironic view of life that a lot of Jews seem to have going on, with the concomitant understanding that, whether life is fundamentally sad or not—a zero-sum game or a deadly roll of the dice—there are still opportunities to take advantage of, deals to be made especially with gentiles and, in my case, the occasional Negro. If this were a Hollywood screenplay or a New York Times bestseller Nick would have ended up finding his “inner humanity”—finding his inner Blood, his nascent Negro—marrying a black chick or taking a bullet for a brother. Dream on. This was modern American high-power journalism and there wasn’t much sentiment or emotion involved, at least not that you could see. That’s cool, after all—that’s my view too, now, a few decades late. Like gangsters say right before they cap somebody, “this is business,” nothing more. There’s the journalism that is produced, and the production of journalism itself—the inner workings of the publication or news channel, which can be as fucked up as any bad news story itself. Both require a dispassionate eye that Nick had even then but comes to some of the rest of us later in life. This is business. It’s nothing personal. 
            Nick Lemann as an editor? 
           Also very good if you're not considering the moral grounding of the journalism produced, if you don't consider his part in running a publication that has chosen to airbrush out more than half the population. Nick taught me a trick or two, some of what not to do—actually only one thing that was useful in a really positive way but was in fact, very very useful. He was the first editor to ask me what my theory was before telling me to sit down to write a story. That may sound dumb. This may sound amateurish but no one had ever asked me before. Coming from the mid-market newspaper world, well, we didn’t deal so much in theories at the Austin American-Statesman, the copy was more fact-driven, you usually forgot the story the day after publication. If you asked me now what’s the difference between daily journalism and magazine work my answer would be—this may seem obvious to those better-educated and better-trained, those Columbia graduates Nick has been producing—but you don’t look for patterns so much at newspapers, you look for "stories," hopefully scoops, while at magazines you develop a theory and then go look for facts to support it. Neither approach leads to a particularly accurate representation of the world—eventually we'll all just be crunching data and won't have to think at all—but those were the only choices back then. So, theory-formation became my new mantra. That’s what Nick taught me to do. Form a theory. Unfortunately one of the first theories developed in my growing journalism consciousness was that Texas Monthly's new leadership—that is to say Nick Lemann and Gregory Curtis—had very little use for black people or Mexicans in or out of the editorial offices. In fact it seemed to me—this was my theory—that at about that very time the airbrushing of blacks and Hispanics from the magazine's pages ceased to be a matter of convenience and became policy.
            This is history we're talking about, you should be reminded, like Hillary’s book we were living history as pretentious as that may sound. Texas is a southern state and Austin is a southern city—how southern is sometimes forgotten, Martin Luther King and Brother Malcolm were not long dead, at least not as long dead as they are now, and there were still a lot of un-reformed un-Reconstructed white people walking the streets of the capital city and in public office in the Lone Star Statepeople who make Tea Party members of today look like Commies by comparison. The Texas Rangers were still breaking Latino heads in the Rio Grande Valley and the ominous saying about minorities arrested by the Houston Police Department was that you might beat the rap in court, sure, but you might not survive the ride to the station, as my grandchildren would have heard by nowif the Lord had blessed me with children"It was harder to be a nigger back then." Pre-Osama, in the era before Al Qaeda, a Negro with a weapon or, worse, an idea, was the biggest threat to the white race. Somebody even made a joke about it at one of the Monthly's editorial meetings: "What are the three things a native Texan fears most?" This is absolutely true—and moderately funny. The answer: "A Mexican with a knife, a black man with a gun, and a Yankee with a U-Haul." Before the laughing stopped, someone corrected him: It's actually, we were told, a Mexican with a chainsaw who is most feared. Anyway, in the decades since, the magazine's view of blacks and Hispanics hasn't changed much—a "native Texan" at Texas Monthly has always been defined as a white Texan—but the view of Yankees has softened.
            On the up side, at the time, Barbara Jordan of Houston, the first African-American woman to serve in Congress from a southern state had just left office after a career, like Obama’s, in which she had done just about everything right. Broyles did a cover story on her, the only black woman to be so featured at the magazine until Beyoncé. But as in most history, outcomes were determined largely by personalities and the key personality of the era at the Monthly was Nick Lemann. He was smarter and more able than anyone else in the room wherever that room happened to be. What can you say, you have to give a motherfucker his due. But intellect and "knowledge" are not necessarily the same thing, are they? Another one of the theories that Nick taught me to form: intellectuals go through phases just as teenagers do—in fact there are probably quite a few similarities between intellectuals and kids—not the least of which is what neuroscientists call plasticity, the ability to change one’s views or mindset. At the time Nick was going through his neoliberal phase and it was not always a salubrious turn of events for those around him. 
            Political fashion like literary theories has mostly escaped me, thank God, my canvas is smaller, but from what people told me at the time neoliberals were new and improved—more realistic, more hardcore than traditional liberals, less “wet,” as the British might say, but somehow magically stopping short of conservatism. Neoliberals were better endowed with a sense of “realpolitik,” as Kissinger or Bismarck might have called it. Whatever. You didn’t have to be able to define the words, neoliberal or realpolitik, but you did need to watch your ass. Because Nick’s worldview was surprisingly influential: People in the editorial department began talking about who was “on the tit,” for example, and who wasn’t. Let’s consider this particular issue for a moment, the tit, as it related to Texas Monthly and minorities in journalism.
            Talking about “the tit” didn’t have much currency with me at the time because it didn’t have much relevance for most black people. Nick had gone to a private day school and Harvard where he had apparently seen people waste their trust funds or embarrass their birthrights—but, suffice it to say, for most minorities “the tit” is a source of nourishment that helps one grow in addition to having a certain erotic appeal and so being "on the tit" was not a bad thing and, for us, lacked the negative connotation it had for Nick and his neoliberal followers. Whites, it seemed to me, were more concerned by "the tit" because they were more accustomed to titty being used for non-nutritive purposes. See the difference? My own goal, for example, for a good part of my life now has actually been to get on the tit, the bigger and more milk-filled the better, a juicy nipple just for me. So, at the time my only way of judging Nick’s theory was how it related to the one overriding issue that interested me, integrating the magazine. It was there, regarding hiring, in the context of "the tit," that neo-liberalism and hypocrisy became synonymous for me.

            Nick’s two favorite words at the time were “merit,” which he used as both a noun and a verb and “meritocracy,” used only as a noun, but said with great respect, almost religious fervor as when he solemnly informed me one day, “Texas Monthly is a meritocracy” and that blacks and Hispanics—although at that time already approaching majority status in the state—but almost completely unrepresented in the magazine’s pages or on staff—would be appointed writers and editors when we “merit[ed]” those positions. The thing is, in the more than three decades since Lemann uttered those fateful words no black writer has yet been employed at the magazine, and despite dozens and dozens of hirings in the editorial department there has only been one other black employee. That’s what Ms. Sivek missed in her otherwise exceptional work. The only Hispanic editorial staff (two Latinas) have both been recent additions, as well. So, the meritocracy is obviously now, in light of historical developments, not the correct analogy for the magazine’s hiring practices. And that was apparent at least to me even then. It wasn’t about merit, it was about something else entirely. Cronyism? Race? That was my suspicion. Still is.           
            The first three hires at Texas Monthly after Nick’s ascension were indeed names that would become well-known in modern American journalism: Peter Applebome, Joe Nocera and Dominique Browning. Applebome arrived, like me, from daily Texas journalism and was hired as a writer, as was the then mostly-inexperienced Nocera; while Dominique Browning was an editor. Except for Applebome, none had any ties to or knowledge of Texas. All three were originally from the East Coast: New York, Rhode Island and Connecticut respectively. Browning—who had been an associate editor at Esquire—was the only one with really impressive magazine experience. She was the only genuinely “qualified” applicant from a technical standpoint but she knew little about Texas and, to her credit, seemed horrified the more she learned. More similar hires followed and like the first three they all had something in common: Each was white, usually Jewish, and tied to Nick Lemann and the East Coast journalism establishment. Browning was Nick’s girlfriend, soon to be his wife, which in no way means she was unqualified but her employment began what became the standard operating procedure at the magazine: the importation of East or West Coast Caucasians, people who knew nothing about the state and who had varying levels of skills but were somehow still preferable to hiring blacks or Hispanics, with varying skill levels, who actually knew Texas or who knew the varying communities of interest in the state—a black from New York, for example, if you really have to hire someone from New York—who might be able to get a feel for the big African-American community in Houston, or a Hispanic from California who spoje Spanish and could write about the Rio Grande Valley. These minority journalists were not hired, were not considered, because they did not fit the chosen mold or the favored theory. Browning, Applebome and Nocera fit Nick’s ideal of the meritocracy at work. Nocera especially was a kindred political spirit for Nick: another employee told me of hearing Nocera and Nick having a serious discussion, at the time, of whether Nick should sign the "Neoliberal Manifesto." Apparently they were serious. Certainly these journalists, Dominique and Joe and Peter, like Nick himself proved competent. But to believe that they alone were fit for their positions is to believe that non-whites could not have done the same job, which is not true unless you believe race is a determinant of competence. There is no alternative theory. Or at least that’s my theory. 
            Nocera, now a New York Times columnist, has said in interviews that he learned reporting at the Monthly which means that he didn’t know the ropes when he got there which means he profited by being given an opportunity to work there by his friend, Nick. But somehow, under Lemann and succeeding editors, blacks and Hispanics have not been given that same opportunity. Because “the meritocracy,” as Nick defined it, has never applied to us. Not to be radical or anything but it could be a Hispanic—a Latina, for example—sitting in Nocera’s office right now at the Times and doing just as good a job as Joe, had she gotten a chance in Austin, or for that matter sitting in Jill Abramson’s chair in the editor’s office. But that’s not how things shake out with a meritocracy. As the system works now—in this "meritocracy" whites still get all the jobs, just as was the case under Jim Crow, but now there is a firm theoretical foundation for why you don't hire the Negro. And that is, frankly, Nick’s legacy in Texas and in the nation. The meritocracy. Nick believed in one-color-fits-all coverage and that color is white. Just earlier this year for example Texas Monthly’s leadership, while admitting that there have been some holes in their coverage, yes, related to the state's minority community, yes, said that the present lack of diversity on staff was due to hiring constraints attributable to the poor economy. Informed by email recently that this posting was being written, Nick asked, still with that old sense of humor—we haven’t seen or talked to each other in 30 years, he wouldn’t remember, but the last time was like 1982 or ’83, my God, it was in Houston, we had an early dinner and it only sticks in my mind because Nick picked up the check, which was very gracious of him—he asked me in the email if we should talk, you know, by phone, “or are you just giving me my day in court?”
            Which is funny. Like, what he was really asking—my translation—was that nothing he said would really make any difference? My response to him was, yeah, consider it your day in court. But looking at it now, just thinking about it over the last couple of days, it’s not even that, is it? It’s more like he was right. It’s more like, up against the wall motherfucker. 
            Because the day in court, we can skip that. No trial is necessary. We can skip the defense entirely. Like, what more is there left to say? Everything was said three decades ago and it didn’t make any difference then either. No one was going to tell Nick Lemann or Mike Levy or Gregory Curtis who they had to hire. Levy in particular made his refusal to integrate sound like a state's rights issue, Gov. Wallace standing in the schoolroom door, no one was going to tell a Texas business owner who he had to employ. In the succeeding years Texas Monthly has received several National Magazine Award nominations and prizes while practicing Jim Crow in print and the “meritocracy” is still hiring white people in this end of the magazine world, at the Times (New York and L.A.), the New Yorker and even at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. The issue of diversity has been completely under the radar for ten years, Nick’s tenure in the top job, longer when you consider his time in Texas. In fact there’s a pretty good argument to be made that “the meritocracy” has become a codeword for hiring whites in journalism. In his exit interviews in the dean's office at Columbia, Nick has proclaimed rather self-contentedly that American journalism is doing quite well. Depends on where you sit, my brother. The meritocracy, it's such bullshit—perpetrated by bright people who think everyone else is dumb. Nick has been cool with that.
           The "meritocracy," yeah, cream rises, where have we heard that before? He copyrighted the phrase, you could say. At Columbia he's been all about the new media and new technologies. The best spin you can put on it, the most diplomatic explanation, is that diversity is not one of the issues the Dean has seen fit to push.
           “NNNA,” in case you’re curious, stands for “no niggers need apply,” an acronym used by people of color regarding our chances for employment or housing rental. Apparently it applies in the newsroom as well.           
           More on that later.

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