Viewpoints: Race, Russian bots and the angst around #AustinBombings

Five bombings in the past three weeks, with two dead, four injured and the culprit still at large, is plenty to put all of Austin on edge. But another incendiary layer to this saga is playing out on social media.

The hashtag #AustinBombings has been trending on Twitter in part because of all of the media coverage — and in part because of complaints about the perceived lack of media coverage, even as the bombings have dominated the Statesman’s online and print editions, not to mention all of the reporting from local and national TV and radio outlets.

Yes, there’s the obvious: Some people aren’t exactly keeping up with the news, especially in their self-contained social media bubbles.

But go deeper, and you’ll find real anxiety about race and distrust of the media.

Go deeper still, according to NPR, and you’ll find Russian bots amplifying the whole thing.

The first three bombs killed two African-American men and injured a Hispanic woman, raising the specter these might be hate crimes, particularly because the two slain men belonged to prominent East Austin families connected to Wesley United Methodist Church. The Statesman has provided extensive coverage of those bombings and the growing investigation, including the latest explosion that injured two white men in Southwest Austin and the early Tuesday explosion of an Austin-bound package at a FedEx facility in Schertz. But for some observers in other cities who, for whatever reason, initially heard little about these bombings, the storyline tapped into longstanding concerns that the media does not cover tragedies in communities of color with the same vigor as calamities affecting whites.

“In general, people don’t trust the media,” Mia Moody-Ramirez, a University of Texas journalism grad and Baylor University professor specializing in media and race issues, told me by phone this week. “They think some stories will be highlighted more than others.”

These reactions reminded me of the social media outrage in 2015, when some indignant posts asked why the terrorist attacks at a Paris concert hall and restaurant drew far more media coverage than did the  slaughter of 147 people in a Kenya school attack. Only the facts didn’t bear that out. Every major news outlet did cover the Kenyan terrorist attack and in great detail.  

Some critics don’t understand why the Austin bombings haven’t drawn the same kind of round-the-clock national TV coverage as other big stories, such as Hurricane Harvey or the contentious 2016 election, Moody-Ramirez said. But these bombings are the subject of an intense investigation that has produced very little information to sustain the cable news channels’ attention.

The American-Statesman has memorialized the victims of these bombings, chronicled the anxiety of a community, illustrated how other bombing suspects were eventually caught and questioned the Austin Police department’s early efforts to tamp down fears by suggesting the first bombing was an isolated incident.

But we don’t know who’s unleashing these attacks and why, or how the victims were chosen — if they were purposely chosen at all.

“I think regarding the bombing, people want a different kind of coverage,” Moody-Ramirez said. “They want answers the media can’t give right now.”

And thanks again to social media, what would normally be the complaints of a few become retweeted and “liked” tens of thousands of times with the help of another divisive force.

NPR’s national security editor Philip Ewing reported Monday evening that some of the activity on Twitter “appears initially to be connected with the Russian social media agitation that we’ve sort of gotten used to since the 2016 presidential race.”

How can we tell?

“There are dashboards and online tools that let us know which accounts are focusing on which hashtags from the Russian influence-mongers who’ve been targeting the United States since 2016 and they, too, have been tweeting about Austin bombings today,” Ewing reported.

And as they did after the Charlottesville protests, last year’s Alabama Senate campaign and the tug-of-war over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem, Ewing said, the Russian bots are jacking up the volume on social media debates to make Americans feel even more bitterly divided. All of this comes amid new reporting on the alleged Facebook abuses by Cambridge Analytica to potentially sway elections.

When people distrust reporters and feel overwhelmed by the conflicting noise on social media, some tune out altogether. Jena Heath, a former Statesman editor who now teaches journalism at St. Edward’s University, is glued to current events, but she can understand why some people opt out.

“We live in a surreal time,” she said. “I think people feel bombarded, I think they feel overwhelmed, less in control of the levers of their society, less able to affect change. And so when people feel this way, they pull back, they stop participating.

“Then something really directly relevant to their lives happens, and there’s a sense of, Why didn’t anybody tell me about this?

Commentary: Why East Austin article inflamed, hurt Latinos and African Americans

For more than 50 years, East Austin was a neighborhood, home to the overwhelming majority of Austin’s African American and Latino families. Schools, community newspaper offices, barbecue and taco joints, beauty and barber shops, clubs, Mexican restaurants and storefronts that sold everything from hair supplies to groceries, filled out neighborhoods with brick and wood-frame homes, libraries, public housing and shot-gun shacks. And goodness knows, there were churches on nearly every other corner.

East Austin had its problems with crack houses, drug markets and other crime as the city and police department looked the other way and steered resources west to prevent crime and vice from crossing Interstate 35. Nonetheless East Austin was home to vibrant neighborhoods with people who looked out for one another, held block parties and crowded into churches and parks on weekends.

I know because I moved there in the late 1980s as a single parent with my children. Though I have moved north, I still attend church in East Austin.

But you wouldn’t know that East Austin, given the description in a advertorial neighborhood profile appearing in the Homes supplemental advertising sections in Saturday’s print Austin American-Statesman:

“A decade ago Austinites would rarely dare to venture to the east side of the I H 35 corridor. Though the city has never been home to truly seedy or sinister areas, going east of the highway prior to the mass gentrification of downtown was not advised. However, now that the neighborhood has been purchased by California investors and trendy millennial homeowners, East Downtown is one of the city’s most desirable locales.”

With that, another knife was plunged into an open wound. It’s no wonder social media blew up with criticism:

“Dear Austin American-Statesman: You need to do A LOT better than this. I know you’ve had staff reductions but surely someone there knows that following the City of Austin’s 1928 Master Plan, by law Blacks and Mexican-Americans were forced east across what is now the I-35 corridor. There have been families and businesses there long before it was “East Downtown.”

That was posted by A.J. Bingham, founder and principal at The Bingham Group, an Austin-based government and public affairs consultancy.

Such advertorial or “content marketing” articles are commonly published by newspapers in advertising supplements such as the Statesman’s Homes section. In some cases, the articles are paid by a specific advertiser, such as by a subdivision looking to sell homes. In this case, it was one of a series of neighborhood profiles in the Homes section and not tied to a specific advertiser. To keep the editorial and advertising efforts independent, advertising supplements are run by the advertising department, while news and editorial coverage is handled by the editors and reporters in the newsroom.

Regardless of how it came to be, the newspaper apologized for the article via social media on Saturday night and in print on Monday.

I can’t speak to the creation of this particular advertorial, but I can speak to why such words cut so deep.

It starts with understanding the city’s history and its part in displacing people of color with policies, such as the city’s infamous 1928 zoning initiative referenced by Bingham that moved African Americans out of neighborhoods, such as Bouldin Creek, Wheatsville and Clarksville, as well as the Sixth Street business district by essentially forcing them to move east of I-35, mostly north of Lady Bird Lake.

That was enforced by denying black people city services, such as utilities, unless they lived in East Austin, and imposing restrictive covenants to ban them from other neighborhoods.

Redlining and other similar discriminatory policies also led to barrios for Hispanic families.

In the past two decades as Austin’s growth exploded, East Austin suddenly became valuable real estate because of its proximity to downtown, walking distance to the Capitol, downtown hotels, bars, shops and businesses.

So the city and its powerbrokers, helped by local and out-of-state developers, turned their sights on East Austin, moving swiftly to buy out landowners and build new houses, businesses and condos, forcing out out many longtime residents who could no longer afford skyrocketing property taxes.

Many properties that owed back taxes were sold on the courthouse steps for far less than their market value. Other homeowners,  unknowing of the city’s and developers’ plan to create “East Downtown,” sold out — tired of living in an area neglected by the city, Austin school district and business leaders. In selling out, they aimed to give their families a better life in neighborhoods with better schools, parks and city services.

Ironically, the old Johnston High School campus, now Eastside Memorial High School, a predominantly Hispanic and low-income school, is slated to house the mostly white and affluent Liberal Arts and Science Academy if the school district’s $1.04 billion bond election is approved by voters in November.

Gentrification — or the second mass displacement of Austin’s people of color — has been in full swing for about two decades with much success. Many community leaders now are trying to save what little they can of East Austin as mass media continue to erase and rewrite the history of Austin’s black and Hispanic residents.

The Statesman’s advertorial inflamed those conflicts and deepened the hurt of people facing a white-out of their culture and history in this city.

And for the record, it’s not “East Downtown” or “The East End.” It’s East Austin.

 

Note: This blog was updated  to correct the date the advertorial ran in print.

Trust in media rises as Trump’s popularity declines; who knew?

With all the fallout over the firing of FBI Director James Comey and the public blowback regarding the U.S. House’s repeal and replacement of Obamacare orchestrated by President Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan, the news has generally been bad for the president. And his poll numbers show it.

FBI Director James Comey gives the keynote speech at the Intelligence in Defense of the Homeland symposium at the University of Texas at Austin on Thursday, March 23, 2017. The symposium is held by UT Austin’s Intelligence Studies Project and Business Executives for National Security. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

That message was delivered in poll numbers released this week by the independent Quinnipiac University poll.

“American voters, who gave President Donald Trump a slight approval bump after the missile strike in Syria, today give him a near-record negative 36 – 58 percent job approval rating,” a statement said, in explaining the national poll released on May 10.

“Critical are big losses among white voters with no college degree, white men and independent voters,” which make up a significant section of Trump’s base.

Trump’s job approval rating has gone down since an April 19 survey conducted by the university that found a negative 40 percent to 56 percent approval rating. April 4, however, was Trump’s lowest approval rating since he became president with a negative 35 to 57 percent score.

“There is no way to spin or sugarcoat these sagging numbers,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll.

He added: “The erosion of white men, white voters without college degrees and independent voters, the declaration by voters that President Donald Trump’s first 100 days were mainly a failure and deepening concerns about Trump’s honesty, intelligence and levelheadedness are red flags that the administration simply can’t brush away.”

The slide in Trump’s approval ratings was stark among independent voters and white men:

  • Negative 29 – 63 percent among independent voters, down from a negative 38 – 56 percent April 19;
  • A split among white voters with no college degree; 47 percent approve and 46 percent disapprove, compared to a 57 – 38 percent approval April 19;
  • White men go from a 53 – 41 percent approval April 19 to a split today, 48 percent approving and 46 percent disapproving.

But with his popularity numbers skidding to record lows, Trump has managed to do something great for the news media: Greatly improve the public’s trust of the news media. Who knew?

As his job approval numbers have tanked, the media’s have spiked upward.

According to the poll, voters trust the media more than Trump to tell the truth about important issues by 57 percent to 31 percent.

It wasn’t all good news for the media. The poll also found that American voters disapprove of the way the news media covers Trump with 58 percent disapproving to 37 percent who approve. But, voters also disapprove of the way Trump talks about the media, 65 percent to 31 percent.

The poll surveyed 1,078 voters from May 4 – 9, nationwide with a margin of error of +/- 3 percentage points. Live interviewers called landlines and cell phones, the survey stated.

It will be interesting to see whether the shifting stories by the White House will continue to erode the president’s popularity or credibility.

Initially, White House aides and Vice President Mike Pence said Trump fired Comey based on a memo written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein that sharply criticized Comey’s job performance, including his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.

But that explanation was Trumped, when the president downplayed Rosenstein’s role, telling NBC News anchor Lester Holt that he had for some time planned to fire Comey because he was a “showboat” who lost the confidence of his employees and the public.

Stay tuned. This is just 112 days into the Trump presidency.

 

Austin’s first step to combat graffiti

Is graffiti art or vandalism? That is a question that has long been debated.

According to a recent American-Statesman story by Nancy Flores about a group of artists and community organizers dedicated to restoring and preserving street art and graffiti murals, it appears that in Austin some types of graffiti indeed equate to art. (Disclosure: I’m among those who appreciate street art and see value of its presence in our communities.)

But with a recent proposal sponsored by District 7 council member Leslie Pool to tackle graffiti, it made me wonder if graffiti as art could change in this city.

The Austin City Council members approved the proposal on consent which left me with more questions.

The proposal asks that the City Manager review the city’s current graffiti abatement strategies, study nationwide best practices, and recommend changes to the city’s graffiti abatement strategies. In particular, the proposal aims to reduce is graffiti markings such as “initials, slogans or drawings that are written, spray painted or etched in any manner on property such as a sidewalk or wall of a building without consent of the owner.”

Sounds like a something anyone could, and perhaps should, stand behind. But what would happen to the plentiful pieces of Austin street art that have reached iconic status? Would the proposal make it more difficult for any such pieces to exist in the future? And why was this resolution even necessary? After all, city data collected shows that requests for graffiti abatement has dropped significantly from 3,124 in 2011 to 1,171 in 2015.  And, Pool’s district is not one of the districts with the highest request for graffiti clean-up in 2015, the top three districts are Districts 1, 3 and 9 — all located in Central Austin or east of Interstate 35.

Most importantly, how much would a comprehensive plan cost taxpayers? (This question “will be answered when the city manager comes back with recommendations,” officials told me.)

I reached out to Pool to get more details. Below are the answers she provided by email:

1.  Now that the resolution has been approved on consent by the council, what is the next step?

Next, the City Manager will bring back his recommendations and Council will decide how to act on those recommendations. We also plan on looking into whether there are resources in the budget that could be used to expand our the graffiti abatement services offered through the Health and Human Services Department, which have been at the same level for at least a decade.

2. What prompted the resolution?

We’ve heard a number of concerns from the community about graffiti vandalism – especially about graffiti that lingers for weeks. The response time is very important because from what our research shows, individuals who engage in graffiti are more likely to re-tag areas where the response is slow. Those individuals often stop tagging in areas where graffiti is removed rapidly. When we started looking into the city’s programs, we realized that the city had been using largely the same strategy at similar service levels for years, and that other large cities seemed to have more comprehensive programs that incorporated things like mural arts and other strategies, as well – so we wanted to ask the City Manager to research nationwide best practices to make sure our efforts are as effective as possible.

3. Why has doesn’t Austin have a comprehensive strategy in place?

The city’s massive growth has presented the city with a number of important challenges, and our city staff has done an excellent job working on those issues. In this case, the city has had a policy of graffiti abatement, and seemed to handle that in the traditional way, by removing graffiti where it exists. However, our city has been growing very rapidly, and I think it is time for us to revisit our current programs and examine what other big cities have done to fight graffiti vandalism.

4. How does the number of 2015 graffiti service requests compare to the three previous years?

Requests have declined thanks to better use of preventive measures and materials by our departments. This is certainly a key part of any graffiti abatement strategy, but it is not a silver bullet. The city still receives hundreds of abatement requests per month and our graffiti abatement team in the Austin Youth Development program has been at the same staffing levels for at least a decade, despite the large growth of our city. I would like to make sure that we’re implementing a program based on best practices that encourages positive forms of expression, prevents graffiti vandalism, removes it quickly when it occurs, and maintains quality of life for our communities.

5.  Could there be any overlap in the Austin Youth Development requests numbers with either Municipal Court and/or Parks & Rec requests?

Staff indicated that they coordinate who responds to what requests and route them to the appropriate department accordingly.

6.   How will the city determine what graffiti will not be allowed? As you know, some spontaneous graffiti has become iconic to the city.

This is really aimed at graffiti vandalism — unwanted graffiti that harms our community, such as foul language, lewd images, or things that have been sprayed on your property without your consent. The city already has a policy of removing this graffiti, it’s just that our massive growth has made it difficult to follow through, which has impacted our communities. We want to improve our ability to follow through on policy the city has already set.

7. What is the expected timeline — beyond the Feb. 17, 2017 recommendations deadline — to have a program in place?

My hope is that we’ll be able to organize and coordinate our existing programs and resources in a way that allows us to move forward quickly once the City Manager brings back his recommendations.

8.  The graffiti that would be targeted for removal is would be graffiti NOT approved by the property owner, correct?

Correct. We’re targeting unwanted vandalism, not art.

9.  How will the city address unsolicited ‘positive’ graffiti on city property?

City property belongs to the public — so use of public property in that way should be a community decision.

10. As you’ve pointed out, the number of requests for graffiti removal have decreased and the total square footage to be cleaned has also decreased, but the days to clean up has significantly increased. Is there an explanation to why it takes longer to clean less space than it did 5 years ago?

Regarding the decrease in the number of requests — much of the decrease appears to be due to the city’s increased use of preventive materials on the front end. This is very important to the overall strategy, but it is not a silver bullet…

Regarding the increase in the time spent cleaning — there are concerns that the data reporting several years ago was not as accurate as it could have been. Since that time, the data reporting has improved in accuracy, and we believe the current statistics are a more accurate portrayal of the time it takes to respond to requests. Currently, the average request takes, on average, about two weeks to abate.

Editor’s note: Updated correct districts — 1, 3 and 9 — with the highest clean-up requests. 

 

Dallas’ deadly shootings: What others are saying

A Dallas police officer covers his face as he stands with others outside the emergency room at Baylor University Medical Center, Friday, July 8, 2016, in Dallas. Snipers opened fire on police officers in the heart of Dallas on Thursday night, killing some of the officers. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
A Dallas police officer covers his face as he stands with others outside the emergency room at Baylor University Medical Center, Friday, July 8, 2016, in Dallas. Snipers opened fire on police officers in the heart of Dallas on Thursday night, killing some of the officers. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

be a peaceful gathering to protest the recent deadliest incident for law enforcement in the U.S. since 9/11. Two civilians also were injured.

The attack on police in Dallas has left many speechless and fearful. Others, however, are putting voice to our worries and fears. Here is a sampling:

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“There are problems that our society has no idea how to fix — and the issues of race and policing are fall in that category. Body cameras help; better training helps; community policing helps; but these are not complete solutions.
Ridding ourselves of these senseless shootings requires a degree of honesty about cultural bias, white privilege and perceptions about black and brown people that I’m not confident our society can muster. And as long as the immediate — and human — instinct is to draw a weapon in the face of fear, it is inevitable that an officer will eventually shoot to kill without cause.” — Tara Doolittle, Viewpoints editor

—————

“(Dallas) Mayor Mike Rawlings’ assessment was tragically correct: ‘Our worst nightmare happened.’
Now we must wake up and unite. If we lead with anger, nobody wins.” — Dallas Morning News Editorial Board

—————

“As Thursday night melted into Friday morning, Facebook began to send messages: So-and-so is wondering if you’re OK during The Violent Crime in Dallas, Texas.
No, I’m not OK.”  — Robert Wilonsky, Dallas Morning News city columnist

—————

“Because it’s what the heart demands when it aches, we tend to search for brightness among unimaginable darkness. Sometimes the darkness is so dark the search is unimaginably difficult.” — Ken Herman, American-Statesman columnist

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“Yes, the good guys need our support. And I, for one, still believe in good guys.
They are the ones who ran toward the gunfire, who scrambled to get innocents out of the way, who stood in salute of fallen brethren outside the Parkland Hospital ER.
They are the only thing standing between us and the cowards who attack from comfortable perches on a peaceful Dallas street.” — Lisa Falkenberg, Houston Chronicle columnist

—————

“Dallas knows what comes next.
People will talk about guns, and hatred, and race, and Texas.
Everyone will have a hero, and a villain, and a solution, and a way to blame some political opponent.
And none of that will mean anything at all.
Because what happened Thursday night in Dallas will leave us with no easy solutions — just nightmares to haunt us for years after a bloodthirsty ambush attack on police officers of all colors who were guarding peaceful protesters of all colors.” — Bud Kennedy, Ft. Worth Star Telegram columnist

—————

“This horrendous attack on the police and the two killings this week demand sober reflection by the nation’s political and law enforcement leadership….with killings happening in cities, suburbs and rural communities, there needs to be leadership in every police department in the country that insists on cultural and attitudinal change. Credible civilian oversight of the police has to be a factor if community trust is ever to be restored. The latest ghastly images show how much has not been done, two years after Ferguson.” — New York Times Editorial Board

—————

“Brown commands more than 3,500 sworn officers, who patrol Dallas’ 1.3 million residents spread over 385 square miles. He knows, day after day, that his department is one gunshot, one overreaction, one dubious decision from becoming the next national story.
And even when they don’t, when they do their very dangerous jobs with skill and professionalism, when they run toward the gunfire to keep the rest of us safe, it might not matter. It didn’t Thursday night. And that’s the world we now live in.” — Mike Hashimoto, Dallas Morning News editorial writer

 

Haruka Weiser’s death and the right to know

A University of Texas police officer stands nearby as students gather at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center near Waller Creek to lay flowers and pay their respects for slain student Haruka Weiser. RODOLFO GONZALEZ /AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN
A University of Texas police officer stands nearby as students gather at the Etter-Harbin Alumni Center near Waller Creek to lay flowers and pay their respects for slain student Haruka Weiser. RODOLFO GONZALEZ /AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN

 

As we at the American-Statesman have reported on the death of University of Texas student Haruka Weiser, we’ve received some pushback on social media and in story comments from readers who think we’re going too far.

Last night, Statesman reporter Tony Plohetski was the first to report that Weiser had been strangled and sexually assaulted. The report, based on carefully vetted sources whom we did not identify because they were not authorized to publicly disclose these details, answered one of the basic questions surrounding the case a week after Weiser’s death. It also raised the possibility of additional charges related to sexual assault, pending DNA results.

To us in the Statesman newsroom, this was a newsworthy development. Some readers weren’t so sure, as this story commenter put it:

I hope at some point in time the press and media will stop sniffing for yet more and more information about this woman’s demise to blab to the purient public.  If necessary, pls put all such information in supermarket rags or TMZ and not in legitimate press.  It is no one’s business other than officials and family about the grisly details of how she died.

We understand such concerns, of course. We have those very same discussions in the newsroom. We take the public’s right to know seriously, and we’re not just talking about a “prurient public” interested in horrific details. We’re talking about public safety, university security, law enforcement and prosecutorial accountability and, yes, even ensuring that the rights of the accused are protected. Manner of death in a high-profile homicide is the most basic of questions — one that had been asked by our readers for a week.

We understand that reading about any case will be difficult for the victim’s family. Like you, we feel for their loss. But we also have a responsibility and a mission to inform, and, unfortunately, that sometimes means reporting information that the victim’s family will not want to read. In a case like this, that will happen countless times as the case goes through the legal system. We took that into account with Tuesday’s story, making sure that law enforcement had a chance to notify Weiser’s family before our story published. We also exercised restraint in which crime-scene details to publish and which to omit at this time.

Today, some on Facebook took offense to our posting of an interactive timeline tracing the events outlined in Meechaiel Khalil Criner’s arrest affidavit. Others have requested that we not run Criner’s mugshot. Of course, those are the basics of a story that will continue to be reported out and followed by media not just here in Austin but around the world.

We understand that the details are not pleasant, but we believe that pursuit of those details is vitally important.

— John Bridges, managing editor