I am proud to loan this space to guest blogger Valerie Wexler!
As the Boston bombing suspects led police on what would become a citywide manhunt, word spread first via the internet, but national and cable news quickly caught up. Tuesday night, a story less violent but equally riveting (and one that could affect the lives of millions of Texan women) unfolded on the floor of the Texas State Senate. That story also attracted widespread attention on the internet but it was not picked up by one cable news channel.
Instead more than 180,000 people watched one livestream of state Sen. Wendy Davis filibustering Senate Bill 5, a bill that would ban all abortions after 20 weeks and put strict new regulations on abortion providers, forcing most clinics in Texas to close. The filibuster was briefly mentioned on evening newscasts but it was Twitter and the internet that kept the world informed into the night.
The tweets came not just from citizens or protesters on the ground but also from local reporters who knew the Texas legislature and the people in it. Like the Boston Globe during the manhunt, The Texas Tribune and its reporters consistently provided solid information through Twitter and their liveblog. (It should also be noted that The Texas Tribune was founded by nonprofit sponsors and is cited in Out of the News as an example of strong nonprofit journalism.) As Davis’s filibuster was challenged and points of order and issues of germaneness piled up, local reporters tried to provide explanations while links to the Texas Senate rulebook were passed around on Twitter.
No cable news cameras were there when, in protest to the halting of the filibuster, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (who had rushed back from her father’s funeral) did the parliamentary equivalent of dropping the mic, asking, “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over her male colleagues in the room?” And no national news anchors were present to witness how that moment triggered 10 minutes of sustained yells and screams from the protesters filling the building- long enough to delay the vote on the bill.
But that statement, and those yells, made their way across the internet in seconds, as local reporters and citizens tweeted, posted on Facebook, and clipped and shared on YouTube. News was happening whether the “mainstream media” acknowledged it or not. Once again we were depending on those on the ground for accurate information.
Not only did major media largely ignore the story, what they did report they got wrong. Just as CNN got crucial information wrong in Boston, the Associated Press reported minutes after the midnight deadline for the end of the special legislative session that SB5 had passed, when those in the Capitol were still unsure what exactly had happened. Many major news outlets were then quick to echo the AP (if they were not still ignoring the story altogether) leading one person to tweet, “AP and CBS calling it passed. Twitter is calling it bullshit. CNN calling muffins fattening.”
Unlike the national news outlets, regional reporters continued to wait for the facts and refused to guess. Becca Aaronson wrote for The Texas Tribune’s liveblog, “It’s still unclear the exact time that the Senate voted and approved Senate Bill 5 — and whether that vote is valid.” More than an hour after the AP declared that the bill had passed, Mike Ward, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman tweeted that the Senate was going into a closed door caucus. The Texas Tribune, along with others online publications quickly uncovered and reported that the time stamps on the vote record had been changed in an attempt to make it look like the vote on SB5 had begun before midnight: “We took these screenshots from the Legislature’s own website. The first one shows the last actions on SB 5 taking place after midnight. And the second, taken 9 minutes later, shows the dates changed to 6/25.”
It was not until Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst emerged from the caucus and declared the vote invalid at nearly 3 am central time that The Texas Tribune or any local reporters reported that the bill was in fact, dead. Even then the national news outlets were behind on the facts, The New York Times tweeting a few minutes later at 4:16 am eastern, “Texas Abortion Bill Appears to Win Final Approval” (you can see the actual article has since been changed).
The story in Texas is not yet over. Governor Rick Perry has already called for a second special Senate session, and it is yet to be seen whether the media will be more attentive the second time around. It should matter and be disturbing to us that so many leading media outlets got this story wrong the first time. But it also matters that the public is coming to discover that they don’t have to depend on these major news sources as the only way to get the facts anymore. When news breaks outside the Washington beltway, New York or Los Angeles, it has always been regional on-the-ground reporters who have had the best information. But now those reporters don’t necessarily have to go through the national news conglomerates to get that information to us. Last week my mom mourned the loss of regional reporters to budget cuts and downsizing. Regional reporters are indeed losing their jobs right and left, but those who are still around might have a much wider audience then we first realized- the entire internet. The biggest challenge now might be holding that audience’s notoriously fickle attention.
*Updated to add that CJR has a good blow-by-blow of the filibuster, which also points out that that one livestream everyone was watching had been secured and provided by The Texas Tribune.
Valerie Wexler is a researcher and writer, and currently her mom’s editor.