By DAVID HELVARG
Not surprisingly this year's SEJ Conference in Austin, Texas, was overshadowed by a singular but all too predictable disaster, the lack of affordable booze at SEJ events.
Ironically, the last really boozy SEJ conference was in New Orleans where I recall Mark Schleifstein ominously predicting that someday we'd end up meeting in Texas. If only we'd listened to his warnings.
I was a day late arriving and so missed the usual tours of "Cancer Alley," Sprawl Zones, Coal and Oil pits, impoverished, polluted communities and other sites designed to assure us that we'll always have work. I'd really hoped to participate in the "Birds in the Hood" tour, "I'm a raptor" being my favorite song. "I'm a raptor, I fly through the sky, I'm a raptor, owl tell you why, hawk, hawk, hawk, hawk. If your Mama is an eagle then to shoot her is illegal, if your Daddy is a vulture, that's a whole other culture…"
I also missed Molly Ivins' talk where she expressed sympathy for Tom DeLay's legal difficulties in much the same way my late cat expressed sympathy for injured birds and rodents (like Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, my cat considered the Geneva Convention "quaint.")
I put up at the La Quinta motel (translation: "Next to the Denny's") and made my way over to the Omni where I ran into the Used Car Lot of the future. Here anxious salespeople offered to give me test drives in hybrids, diesels and natural gas pickups with optional longhorn hood ornaments. I opted for the most advanced ride – a $2 million Honda hydrogen fuel cell car that had the smooth feel and sleek look of a 1982 Civic. That evening I cruised the receptions given by various groups seeking to educate environmental reporters and was amazed to learn that the British Embassy can mix a good margarita. By the third one I was loudly wondering about the wisdom of the IRA's disarming in the face of Protestant intransigence.
Austin's Sixth Street turned out to be less a bastion of outlaw country music than a traditional college town tribute to rock and roll cover songs and binge drinking.
The bats, quite frankly, also turned out to be something of a disappointment. The fact that the largest urban bat colony in the United States is made up of Mexican short-tails, reduced to living under a bridge and eating insects, does not speak well to our sense of social equity.
SEJ's Opening Plenary was a lively and engaging post- Katrina reflection on whether journalism is dying or just gagging and why the fake news is doing better reporting than the real news. Jay Harris suggested that media consolidation is a threat to democracy while Merrill Brown saw it as an opportunity for individual journalists to become more entrepreneurial. As a longtime freelancer I certainly appreciate how you can creatively generate extra income with just a few pencils and a tin cup.
During Q&A a 20-year-old journalism student got up to say that she spends hours a day online and only reads a newspaper because her professor requires it. Inspired by what smart, promising young people can teach us, I immediately went out and got my eyebrow pierced.
Over all, this storm-inspired session reminded me of how there's nothing like massive human tragedy to restore journalists' sense of hope and optimism.
Many of the conference sessions were held at the UT Thompson Center (and I'm sure Hunter would appreciate both the honor, and the Gonzo-like Temple of Doom Architecture). The hurricane panel was as wide-ranging as, well, the hurricane. The Climate Change participants made some good points but there was also a lot of hot air. Thirsting for more, I attended the desalinization panel, though I skipped the one on nanotechnology and pollution. I just don't see it as a big issue.
I also thought the Christians and environmentalists panel could have had more spirit. Someone said the natural gas panel stank (someone else claimed it just lacked color). As for the dead zone panel, that one was too obvious. For the first time in years I missed SEJ's annual business meeting. How could I have known this time they'd be doing the election game with the tequila shots, the live rattlesnake and the silk cowboy shirt?
The next day Representative Richard Pombo explained how the best way to respond to Hurricane Katrina is to abolish the Endangered Species Act. Among the endangered species he finds most offensive are moderate Republicans.
At lunch we were served a hybrid meal in which rubber and chicken were genetically fused, and a Bill Moyers sermon in which he asked us to use evangelical, poetic metaphorical language to reach out to faith-based folks. From there his speech rose like a heavenly bat flitting into a better world of tasty but sustainable bugs and big-haired Texas nesting habitat.
Moyers was also quite hopeful about the future of Public Broadcasting if the public you're referring to is Serbia's around 1995.
Among the afternoon tours I was tempted to go on was one to the LBJ Library and Dinosaur Museum except that sounded redundant. Instead I ended up on the Green Building tour that included a meeting with one of the pioneering geniuses of the genre who's used hay, fly-ash, rock and rebar to design the perfect party house. I was disturbed to think how Texas's draconian drug laws might have denied us this kind of original thinking.
That evening at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum however, I was forced to consider what happens when destructive addictions are allowed to run unchecked. Clearly abuse of air-conditioning can only end tragically in hypothermia and death, which, given the generic sounds of the evening's mall-based entertainment, had a certain atavistic appeal. Actually by this point I was hoping Texas might again declare independence so we could bomb it. Luckily someone's cousin was, if not an actual musician, at least the drummer in a C&W band playing at the Broken Spoke. About 20 SEJers made it to this famous two-stepping Texas dance hall and saloon where Rob McClure best expressed the spirit of many an intrepid reporter when confronting a new zone of experience, "I feel like we're going to get beaten up."
In fact people proved dang friendly in a "You're my little buddy, s'cuse me I think I gotta puke," sort of way and a fun time was had by all (though Kevin would have made it more so). It's hard for me to believe this was my 11th SEJ conference and, with the many good friends and colleagues I've made over the years, I'm still not getting paid for these columns. Oh well, maybe next year I'll get a free hemp pocket protector and some maple sugar candy in the shape of a moose.
David Helvarg would like you to know he's the author of the forthcoming, revised "Blue Frontier: Dispatches from America's Ocean Wilderness" and "50 Simple Ways to Save the Ocean." And no, Lake Champlain doesn't count.
**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Winter, 2005 issue