'Observer' at 30.
It just goes to show that a great tradition is hard to kill. And in this instance the tradition is a tribute to one man, the amazing Ronnie Dugger, and the cohorts of extraordinary journalists he has inspired. Dugger, who had returned from postgraduate studies at Oxford University to work in Washington and had just resigned from a Federal job as the result of a brush with McCarthyism, was hired as the paper's first editor. He was 24 years old.
The paper's liberal backers got more than they had bargained for: not a partisan broadsheet but a real newspaper the likes of which Texas had never seen. Few states have. Here was an inexperienced kid doing more to expose graft, corruption, conflicts of interest and apathy in state government, and brutality in the prison and hospital systems, than had ever been done by the entire Texas press establishment. As a result of Dugger's magnificently detailed exposes of land and insurance scandals, quite a few state officials resigned, went to prison or fled the country.
Sometimes Dugger had an assistant, but mostly it was a one-man operation--long stretches of twenty-hour days on an almost nonexistent budget. His successes were sometimes mixed. He crusaded against illiteracy, publishing statistics showing that 800,000 Texams couldn't read or write. The legislature, tired of being berated as hardhearted, appropriated enough money to teach 10,000 of them. After years of calling for a law to control loan sharks, Dugger saw one pass--allowing interest rates of up to 320 percent.
Sometimes Dugger was reckless. He went to East Texas and gathered enough evidence to persuade Federal officials to open an investigation into the killing of a black man. The local sheriff, enraged at Dugger's nosiness, accused him of suppressing evidence because he had taken away the casing of a bullet he had found at the scene of the crime. Dugger went back, scratched around, unearthed some bullets and gave them to the grand jury.
Always he was cocky. His confidence came partly from knowing he was accountable to no one for his editorial views or his personal quirks. He was once spotted on a street corner in downtown Dallas hollering at the top of his lungs, apparently for no other reason than to make a kind of animal protest the existence of such an awful city.
The editors who followed him have had their individual styles, strengths and weaknesses, but The Observer remains a hallowed, sometimes hated, journal of dissent. It continues to be (it has no rivals) the conscience of Texas. Once when the paper was turning up the highest piles of bureaucratic dirt, Allan Shivers, the reactionary Texas Governor, was asked what good it had done. He replied, "So far as I'm aware, The Texas Observer has never done anything good for the state at all."
Happy Birthday, Texas Observer. We hope you continue your good-for-nothing ways for many years.