We live in a golden age of investigative journalism.
Not just the renaissance of political reporting at the federal level. But in-depth articles and investigative packages cascading from newspapers such as the American-Statesman, as well as other local, regional and national media.
The Molly Awards celebrate the some of the best work in this renewed civic era. At the same time, the semi-dressy affair at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin raises money for the nonprofit Texas Observer. Much of the attention every year goes to late namesake Molly Ivins, who edited the Observer before moving on to wider prominence at the New York Times, Dallas Times Herald, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, syndicated columns and brainy, brawling books on politics.
The fact that an unabashedly liberal publication gives out these awards obscures the fact that the winning stories show no clear partisan or ideological favoritism. Abuse of power is abuse of power.
Honorable mentions were accorded Seth Freed Wessler (The Investigative Fund, The New York Times Magazine) for exposing a “floating Guantánamos” system of extrajudicial detention of fishermen by the U.S. Coast Guard way outside the usual patrol zones; and Nina Martin, Renee Montagne, Adriana Gallardo, Annie Waldman and Katherine Ellison (ProPublica/NPR) for their “Lost Mothers” series on the death rates of pregnant women in the U.S.
Now, once ceremonial beer steins are distributed, it’s time for red meat. This year’s frank, funny and at times outrageous speaker was Joan Walsh, national affairs correspondent for The Nation and a political contributor on CNN. She pulled no punches going after President Donald Trump and crew.
A nattily dressed young man in the elevator afterwards: “Oh, that was soooo nonpartisan!”
Me: “Agreed. But the awards really are. Corruption is corruption, no matter who commits it. Right?”
Kathy Blackwell, most recently editor-in-chief at Austin Way magazine, has been named executive editor overseeing the features portfolio at the venerable Texas Monthly by the statewide magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Tim Taliaferro.
“She will bring new ideas, new expertise and a great eye to our storied lifestyle and service journalism,” says Taliaferro, who has signaled a fresh emphasis on lifestyles, events and digital reporting at TM. “Kathy has the experience and judgment to meet Texas Monthly’s high editorial standards, and to help us extend our offerings digitally and in live events.”
“It’s a dream to call Texas Monthly my journalistic home,” Blackwell says. “Few publications offer as clear a window into a place, especially one as grand and complicated as this state. It’s an honor to be able to show how Texans live — and to reveal the possibilities for what it means to be a Texan — in a way that complements the hard-hitting, long-form journalism that makes the magazine so vital.”
A native of South Carolina, Blackwell previously served in various reporting and editorial capacities at the Austin American-Statesman, including as senior editor with special oversight over an award-winning features section, while helping to oversee the newsroom as a whole. (Perhaps unnecessary disclosure: She was my editor for a good while.)
Blackwell led editorial efforts on two of the newspaper’s former magazines, Glossy and Real: Authentic Austin Living.
Blackwell is known not only for inventive story ideas and precise editing, but also for staging social events that connect different communities, such as the highly regarded Austin Way Women of Power Dinner at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum.
She lives in South Austin with her husband and son.
“Kathy has has been a superhero of lifestyle journalism for as long as I can remember,” says Evan Smith, CEO and co-founder of the Texas Tribune and former editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly. “As a reader, I’d follow her anywhere. I’m looking forward to seeing how she does for Texas what she did for Austin.”
The father and daughter team of Roy and Courtney Spence — a crew that translates into a lot of energy and creativity — put together a very short but powerful Hurricane Harvey relief appeal featuring five ex-presidents in just six days.
Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all contributed to the crisply warm call for donations to One America Appeal.
Roy is best know as the restlessly inventive co-founder of GSD&M, an Austin-based advertising firm, while Courtney is founder and CEO of CSpence Group and has garnered much attention for her Students of the World project.
Roy and Courtney co-produced public service announcements with Presidents George H.W Bush and Clinton for the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund and recently so-produced PSA work with Matthew McConaughey for the Baton Rouge floods.
The highest and best calling of journalism is investigative reporting. It’s absolutely essential to take the time, guts and resources to shine a bright light on great and systematic wrongs.
The American-Statesman does it well. For three of the past four years, it has been judged the best newspaper of it size in Texas, in large part because of our crack investigative team.
Among the other media in our state that does it well is the Texas Observer.
While the Observer and other independent media set themselves up against traditional media, such as daily newspapers, our missions are actually complementary, as Slate political correspondent Jamelle Bouie graciously acknowledged as part of a keynote chat during the Molly National Journalism Prize dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel.
Bouie shared the stage with Molly Prize winner Shane Bauer and Observer publisher Michael Kanin. They tried to untangle the role of the independent media in the Trump era. Since the guests at the sold-out event — a benefit for the nonprofit Observer — leaned conspicuously leftward, almost every mention of the president was met with audible gasps or chuckles.
At the dinner, co-chairs Katie Cukerbaum and Abby Rappaport introduced Robert Frump as winner of the Bernard Rappaport Philanthropy Award, then Observer editor Forrest Wilder gave out the Molly Prizes, named of course for late firecracker Molly Ivins.
Honorable Mention: Sarah Ryley, ProPublica/New York Daily News, for reporting on how the New York Police Department uses a nuisance abatement laws to close homes and businesses without due process. It was answered with significant action by City Council.
Why do I always have 100 to 150 good ideas for newspaper articles in the hopper? Because I go out and meet interesting Austinites and they tell me their stories. Those stories don’t usually appear in the short, timely social posts like this one, but they almost always land eventually.
Alice in the Afternoon for Ballet Austin Guild
Cutest party ever: To celebrate the upcoming Ballet Austin show, “Alice in Wonderland,” the Ballet Austin Guild staged a costumed tea party for several hundred guests at the Ella Hotel. For An Afternoon in Wonderland, selected youths dressed up as characters from the beloved story. Most guests simply wore their best spring attire, including an array of elaborate hats.
Every table inside the mid-sized hotel banquet room looked like a shrine to the British institution of high tea. What a stroke of hosting genius to include the kids, too, not so many that it became about them, but just enough to remind us that, in fact, it is about them. Don’t miss “Alice,” which opens at the Long Center on May 12.
Women of Power for Austin Way
Nina Seely has brokered some kind of secret deal with the weather gods. Not only was the evening exquisite for the Umlauf Garden Party — which I nevertheless missed this year — but also a few days later for Austin Way magazine’s third Women of Power dinner — which I made. Both were held under dusky skies at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Museum.
Everybody was raving about cover girl Brooklyn Decker, saying how the model, actress and wife of tennis great Andy Roddick, was so real, so down-to-earth. Well, we’ve known that about her for quite a while. We’ve also spent significant time with four of the five Women of Power — Jennifer Ransom Rice, Suzanne Deal Booth, Annie Burridge and Mela Sarajane Dailey — all hail from the arts. The fifth, a literary backer, Maya Payne Smart, is realively new to me. Profile?
Hope Awards for iACT
Want to feel lucky that you live in Austin? Listen to the stories of refugees. We heard several unforgettable ones at the Hope Awards for iACT, an interfaith group that last year served more than 1,000 of the 1,700 new refugees in our city.
At the Bullock Texas State History Museum, we were impressed with fifth-grader Ali Saleh, whose family is from Somalia, but who fled to Saudi Arabia, then Syria, then Turkey, then the United States. He introduced running guru and humanitarian Gilbert Tuhabonye who shared his own harrowing refugee memories from Burundi.
Receiving Hope Awards were the Austin school district, its refugee coordinator and three schools: Doss Elementary, Murchison Middle and International High. Also, the Bullock for its annual World Refugee Day, the Glimmer of Hope Foundation Austin, St. John’s United Methodist Church and student volunteer Mehraz Rahman.
In a few simple words, Issa Noheli, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, thanked Austin — and the American-Statesman’s Season for Caringprogram — for his new leg and the power of locomotion.
The Austin parties are picking up again. We attended three fine ones recently.
Dell Seton Medical Center Big Reveal
Have I mistakenly entered a luxury hotel? That’s the first impression one receives in the ground-level guest areas of the new Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas.
For the Big Reveal at the $300 million teaching, charity and research hospital, which goes fully operational in May, numerous top citizens sipped bubbly, nibbled on delectables, then set those aside to tour the seven-floor state-of-the-science facility that will take the place of University Medical Center Brackenridge.
Fortuitously, among our first contacts in the comfy cafe was Pete Winstead, the Austin power broker who led the charge to raise $50 million for the hospital, along with his charming wife Tomi Winstead. By the way, as State Sen. Kirk Watson, author of the 10-point regional health plan that includes this new medical center, pointed out: No taxpayer money was spent on facility. Jesus Garza, retiring CEO of Seton Healthcare Family, and Christann Vasquez, president and CEO of the medical center, were also on hand to salute the sleek new building, filled with natural light and brightened with fine art.
This whole series of medical structures along Waller Creek are so much more pleasing than the old Brack complex and the blocky government buildings that bank up against them. But it’s how the hospital works that keeps one transfixed with such wonders as a hybrid cath lab and OR and a design that will facilitate care of the worst-off patients that impresses the most.
Too much spent on the hotel look? Vasquez explains that they chose less expensive materials for the backside and inside of the place, but they wanted people to feel relaxed and at home during traumatic times. And after all, Dallas spent $1 billion on its charity hospital redo and San Antonio $500 million. So Austin’s $300 million looks like a bargain.
Tailwaggers for Austin Pets Alive
As promised, the Tailwaggers “non-gala” or “neo-gala” for Austin Pets Alive at the Umlauf Sculpture Garden & Museum was gloriously liberating. A perfect April evening. Unhurried strolls through the lovely gardens to find stations with drinks, animal welfare info or pledge options.
Almost every top social in town — thanks to chair Mary Herr Tally and her team — was present, along with young couples who we’d never met before. Plus some pets.
The program was short. The Big Band music was romantic. An errant buffet line put the only crimp in the evening, although once self-served, the fresh, healthy food was excellent. I’m not even going to try to list the social movers and shakers who attended, because the list would go on into next week.
We’ve got another signature Austin event on our hands.
Ribbon Cutting for Briscoe Center
“We are not a museum,” said longtime director Don Carleton about his research archives, the Briscoe Center for American History. Well, just a little bit. Along with a first-rate reading room and new gathering spaces, the renovated ground floor of the center — located across the plaza from the LBJ Presidential Library — is quite a bit of exhibition space. As Carleton says: “Now we can share some of our treasures.”
And we are grateful for it. We’ve been digging around the Briscoe since it was named the Barker Texas History Center in the 1980s. It’s a superb collection overseen by top-notch professionals. And it always bugged me that its historical shows were staged in the hallway to the restroom. (I have the same problem with the admittedly lovelier hallway at the Austin History Center.)
At the recent ribbon cutting for the refabricated center, Carleton welcomed UT bigwigs such as President Gregory Fenves and Provost Maurie McInnis, who said that archival material: “Makes the past real in a way that just reading about history does not.” He also thanked major donors, such as the family of late Gov. Dolph Briscoe and expert on early UT history, Clyde Rabb Littlefield. Also present were Dan and Jean Rather, Kathy Cronkite, Ben Sargent and former U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson.
We’ll deliver at fuller report on what’s inside the new Briscoe very soon.