TYC media origin story

“That bastard Nate Blakeslee!” — on the phone, the first thing Dallas Morning News reporter Doug Swanson (playfully) says about the Texas Observer

freelancer who scooped him and broke the Texas Youth Commission sex-abuse and cover-up scandal ... by two days.

“Yeah, we were planning our story for the Sunday paper, and the Observer put their story on their website just ahead of us” on Friday, said Swanson. “Ruined my weekend.”

Blakeslee, a senior editor at the Texas Monthly and an Observer contributor, trumped Swanson’s months of reporting when the Observer, a biweekly publication, dropped “Hidden in Plain Sight” in a special web-advance copy on its homepage this past February. The story detailed the now widely publicized incidents of sexual abuse and administrative apathy surrounding a West Texas state school named Pyote: up until then, there had been no media mention of these
sexual-assault claims beyond a 2005 Midland TV news segment that heralded the arrival of Texas Rangers to investigate allegations made against Pyote’s superintendent and principal, Blakeslee told the Current.

The cameras stopped rolling and the fourth estate, which even French tyrant Louis the 16th recognized as the profession with the greatest ability to frame and prioritize society’s issues, gave the abuse claims the same inattention as the county prosecutor who let the Rangers’ Pyote report languish on his desk for two years.

Today, a good portion of Texas’s newsrooms are devoted to the rapidly unfolding TYC story: Eight Dallas Morning News staffers are working this beat, including the reporter that broke the news second, Swanson, whose work a fellow staffer describes on the DMN blog as a “magnificent and thorough butt-kicking … deliver`ed` every day to the TYC over the rape and sexual abuse of minors in the state’s care, it makes one proud to be part of this newspaper.”

“It was my own fault,” Swanson says about not being first. He’d gotten a tip in November 2006 about “strange things” going on at various TYC facilities, where some 4,700 youth offenders ages 10 to 21 are incarcerated. He planned to take his piece public at the end of February, near the beginning of the 80th legislative session. “Then I heard Blakeslee was sniffing around, so I sorta sped it up, but not enough.”

Swanson’s not playing Salieri to Blakeslee’s Mozart (more like Frank Rich to his Sy Hersh): the two TYC media catalysts had a happy meeting in Austin last week: They were honored at a Texas House ceremony for bringing the need for juvenile-justice reforms into the cosmos of our consciousness (alongside legislative aides and juvenile-justice advocates who also acted as synergists). This story ranks at the same level or even higher than the governor’s HPV-vaccine executive order or the furor about banning toll roads in terms of the lege’s moral outrage and responsiveness, said Representative Jerry Madden (R-Richardson), Corrections Chair and Co-Chair of a joint select committee, specially created this year to address the TYC’s operation and management.

“It was unusual that just a coupla stories caused this really huge explosion. My experience at the Capitol is rarely do you see the Legislature move so fast on something,” says Blakeslee. “It’s not like every investigative story you do all the sudden some committee at the Legislature is going to spring into action. Partly, I guess it was because the Legislature was in session, so that was fortunate.” 


Farewell to another (all-too-brief) legislative session, and all its players, from your followers at the Current.


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