Austin American-Statesman, astroturfed twice by Democrats, doesn't give a damn?

The story of “Ellie Light” and “Robert Stephenson” astroturfing has still not made my Austin (TX) American-Statesman, even though it’s one of the newspapers involved.

Robert Stephenson appears to be a real person who writes DNC astroturf.

Here’s what the Austin (TX) American-Statesman published from Robert Stephenson on September 20, 2008:

He (Sen. Barack Obama) believes that the most effective means of increasing opportunities for our families is a high-quality, well-paying job. Obama is committed to expanding economic opportunity to all Americans and creating the new jobs of the future

The Democratic Party believes in balanced budgets and paying down our national debt. Republicans continue to put huge burdens on future generations by borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars from foreign nations

Here’s DNC talking points–from 2006(!):

Democrats believe that the most effective means of increasing opportunity for our families is a high quality, good paying job. We are committed to expanding economic opportunity to all Americans and creating the new jobs of the future.

Fiscal responsibility. The Democratic Party believes in balanced budgets and paying down our national debt, while Republicans continue to put huge burdens on future generations by borrowing hundreds of billions of dollars from foreign nations.

Here’s a November 16, 2009 Robert Stephenson letter in the Austin American-Statesman:

After nearly a century of false starts, this was the first time a chamber of Congress has ever passed comprehensive health insurance reform.

Representatives who voted for this bill deserve thanks for resisting tremendous pressure from the insurance industry lobbyists and standing up for their constituents.

On Monday, Jammie Wearing Fool showed that this language comes directly from Barack Obama’s own website:

After nearly a century of false starts, this is the farthest we’ve ever come to enacting real health insurance reform. These are historic accomplishments.

Representatives who are working hard to pass reform deserve thanks for resisting tremendous pressure from the insurance industry lobbyists and standing up for their constituents.

The letter has already been scrubbed from Organizing for America’s BarackObama.com.

The Austin American-Statesman loves Robert Stephenson so much, another letter was printed a mere two months later, on January 15, 2010, against a Republican (of course), Texas Governor Rick Perry:

Perry not for Texas


Perry is not working for Texas. He is putting politics ahead of the people of Texas.

We need new leadership — someone who cares about Texas and Texans. We need someone who cares about our schoolchildren and our teachers.

The astroturfing story stops here. The Austin American-Statesman may finally do the right thing, or it may not.

For the record, the full, agonizing story of what I’ve been through is below.


I’m the only one on my block who subscribes to the Austin American-Statesman. My wife thinks it’s crazy, after all I’ve been through. It’s a long story and something the Statesman should be ashamed of.

I gave it a day and waited for the Statesman’s story on the “Ellie Light” astroturf letters. The Statesman has been a part of that story, accepting at least two astroturfed letters from the same person and printing him twice within two months. Is this not a story because it’s Obama astroturfing? If the evil Republicans astroturfed 100 U.S. newspapers, don’t you think the A.P. (and you and a hundred other newspapers) would be on that story? How could you not now publish something simple and honest–just state the facts, admit a mistake, and try to do better in the future?

There is a theme to all of my work and it’s about finding the truth. (I’m a noted penniless etymologist who finds the “true words.”) My other theme is that those in the media and in government just don’t give a damn anymore about their subscribers/viewers/citizens. If these “royalty” respond to you at all (merely their job)–and respond without being bribed to do so, or forced to do so by citizens with torches and pitchforks–they’re doing what my late father would call “a favor.”

I was born in New York City and never really thought I’d leave it. In 1992, Professor Gerald Cohen and I solved why New York City is called “the Big Apple,” tracing it to a horseracing writer buried in an unmarked grave, who heard the term from a black stablehand in New Orleans. Our work went through the American Name Society and the American Dialect Society (I’m a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary, Historical DIctionary of American Slang, and Dictionary of American Regional English), but whenever I’d approach someone in the media or in government, no one would even respond. I’m just one person, just a citizen, just a subscriber, and that’s just not important to them.

It took me twelve years for the story to make The New York Times! (The Times has since then credited my other work every few months or so.) I spoke to a NYC newspaper editor on the phone, who told me, “That’s just not news!” On the cover of his newspaper that day was a story about a teenage whore from Long Island named Amy Fisher and her pimp, Joey Buttafuoco. The “Big Apple” story never was printed in that newspaper (New York Newsday), which has since gone out of business. When I dedicated “Big Apple Corner,”, no one showed up–no one from the media, not a politician, not a friend. I then took a bus upstate to visit my dying mother, telling her the sad news. And through all this experience, waiting years for even form responses that would never come my way, I felt like telling the Manhattan Borough President and Manhattan Borough Historian, for example, “You’re not doing a favor for me if at some time in the future you ever respond to me! I solved ‘the Big Apple”! I’m doing a favor for you! I’m a good citizen! I volunteered! I did something no one has ever done! Thanks a lot for your help!!!”

In 2005, I ran unsuccesfully for Manhattan Borough President and met my wife doing it. In 2006, her uncle was murdered by a car in a Manhattan crosswalk (no one was ever charged), and that was the last last last straw, and we left NYC and moved to Austin, Texas.

My first priority was to have a beautiful son and daughter, and we’ve done that. My other goals were to help Austin and Texas in wonderful and unique ways. I wanted to do a “Lone Star State Dictionary” and there’s one at the bottom of my popular website, not that any Statesman reader would know about it.

One important goal was to do an online historical placename directory of Austin and the Austin area. Another goal was to start a Texas Museum of Food and Drink (either in Austin or San Antonio), similar to the new Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFAB) in New Orleans. As usual, I’d be working thousands of hours to do these things for Austin and Texas, receiving no compensation whatsoever.

In 2006, NewspaperArchive.com began digitizing the historical Statesman archives, something essential to my work. Then everything suddenly stopped and all the Statesman material was removed forever. NewspaperArchive.com told me to write to the Statesman for an explanation.

I wrote a letter to the editor (not an astroturfed letter, but a real letter from a real subscriber) stating that I have to know what’s going on with the Statesman, I’m a scholar who’s going to spend thousands of thankless, penniless hours researching the history of Austin, please tell me what’s going on. There was no response.

So I wrote a second letter to the editor saying look, I’m a Statesman subscriber, and I know that’s not too important to you guys, but I have to know what’s going on with the historical Statesman archive, and I’m Barry Popik, and I’m famous for the origins of the Big Apple and the Windy City and hot dog and the hamburger and the bloody mary and I’m a member of the ANS and the ADS and a contributor to this and that and PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, ANSWER ME! Again. no one from the Statesman answered me.

So I wrote to the Statemans “answer man” Peter Mongillo, who wondered why I was writing to him and said he had no clue about the Statesman’s archives. And I told him that that just wasn’t good enough, someone at the Statesman just removed all material at NewspaperArchive and I had to know what’s up. Mongillo said he thought the Statesman was going with ProQuest (like the NY Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Washington Post, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Boston Globe, Detroit Free Press, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and others). ProQuest didsn’t respond to me. The great Kelso told me he has no idea what I was talking about. I asked “Digital Savant” Omar Gallaga, who sternly told me that it wasn’t his deparment and he had no clue. Gallaga gave me the wrong phone number to the Statesman library, then the right number, and the Statesman library was kind and said they’d call me back right away, and they never did. The head of the Austin History Center didn’t have a clue, but told me that he really loved the historical Dallas Morning News (online for years). I got in touch with features editor Kathy Blackwell, and ONE YEAR LATER I finally got a Statesman response that they’re not going with NewspaperArchive or ProQuest or anyone–the Statesman’s historical newspaper archive (since 1871) will simply be unavailable to scholars, perhaps forever.
What a way to treat a subscriber! Austin placename project–killed!

About a year ago, the Statesman newspaper was officially taken off the market. I contacted the folks at the University of North Texas, who have the Portal to Texas History and are digitizing old newspapers as part of the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America. They told me that they’re digitizing Austin newspapers pre-1870 that should be available in the spring of 2010 (watch for some amazing historical discoveries soon), but that they had no plans to digitize the Statesman. Google has since digitized the entire historical St. Petersburg (FL) Times (your PolitiFact partner) and many other newspapers. I outlined it all to you again in 2009, that every newspaper in the whole United States was being digitized with the exception of the Austin American-Statesman, and wrote to Kathy Blackwell again saying that the Statesman should be doing these things. Blackwell said that I’d receive a response from someone else soon, but of course, I never did.

In late 2006, just as I’d arrived in Austin, John Kelso did a piece on the upcoming legislative session and the ridiculous “Home of the Hamburger” bill, stating that Fletcher Davis of tiny Athens (East Texas) had popularized the hamburger for the first time at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. I wrote in to Kelso that I was, in fact, the world’s leading scholar on the “hamburger” and that this origin story wasn’t true, but Kelso did no follow-up. I wrote a letter-to-the-editor to the Statesman containing wonderful stuff; as usual, no one contacted me about its contents and the letter was not published. I wrote to the chairman of the proper Texas House committee, stating that I’m an editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America and an expert on the “hamburger” and I live right here in Austin, and I’d gladly give my testimony and research work for free, but please tell me how and when I could speak on the bill. No one ever replied to this simple constituent request, Rep. Betty Brown (the sponsor, from East Texas) gave ridiculous testimony that also stated that “french fries” came from Paris, Texas, and were also invented at the same 1904 fair, and the House committee passed the bill. I wrote again to the Senate committee chairman about how I wanted to testify, and he didn’t write back either. In fact, he had the senate vote to waive public notice and had his committee pass the thing the same day. I wrote directly to Rick Perry, saying that he invited guys like me from blue states to come to Texas, and I came to Texas, and the state motto is supposed to be “Friendly,” and though I don’t have a bucket of cash or torches or pitchforks or tar or feathers or a tv camera, I just have the truth, he can’t possibly sign this bill. He signed it. In August 2009, Texas Monthly did a cover story on the “hamburger” and said the tale was absolutely true. I wrote a letter to the editor of Texas Monthly that was not printed or acknowledged. After a Patrick Beach profile of editor Jake Silverstein in the Statesman, I wrote to Beach and Silverstein. Silverstein wrote back that all I’d been through was really funny and he got a laugh out of it.

In 2008, I solved the 120+-year-old mysterious origin of the name of the West Texas city of Marfa, tracing it to a MICHAEL STROGOFF novel by Jules Verne, as admitted in an 1882 newspaper clipping. The old Dostoevsky name origin story had never made any sense, as his works weren’t even in English at that date. In 2008, a Statesman story appeared about movies that were filmed in Marfa (NO COMPANY FOR OLD MEN and THERE WILL BE BLOOD), and of course, the origin of “Marfa” was wrong. I wrote in a letter-to-the editor to the Statesman and, of course, it wasn’t printed. I wrote in again and was told that someone was considering profiling my story into an article, but that was the last I would hear.

In May 2008, I wrote to Omar Gallaga and told him about my website and the “Lone Star State Dictionary” for his “Masters of Their Domains” local websites series. He told me that he’d put me on his list, but that I’d have to wait four months. He said that I wouldn’t get any special consideration because of my year-long Statesman digitization travesty into hell. I said, by all means, no special favors! In October 2008, I wrote to him again and said it’s been four months. He said that he never guaranteed four months; I’d have to wait many months more. The Texas legislature was in session and this was kind of time sensitive and I thought a piece would help me in some small way to get the Texas Food and Drink Museum tentatively off the ground. In May 2009, I contacted Gallage again and said it’s been a year, I’m ready for the “Masters of Their Domains” feature. Gallaga said that he didn’t like my attitude about the thing and that I could never be profiled in the Statesman, ever. Omar Gallaga’s last “Masters of Their Domains” feature (December 2009) was about the Cowboys Syndicate, a bulletin board about cowboys, that just started up in September 2009. Those guys had to wait, I’m guessing, about thirty days.

I have wonderful stuff about the true origin of the name of Austin’s Mount Bonnell (the Statesman got it wrong), the true origin of the name of the city of Buda, the origin of Round Rock’s Hairy Man, and much more.

I honestly don’t know what year I can give away for free so Statesman readers can see it.

No subscriber should go through this hell. Not for a week, not for a month, not for a year, and not for four years.

Everyone has a philosophy or a “bias” of some sort. The Statesman has a liberal bias. I don’t like that, but I’ll still read through it, just as I read The New York Times.

I’ve written letters to the editor that Ben Sargent must be fired, that George W. Bush as a chimp is just as offensive as Barack Obama as a monkey, and that Sargent has been incapable of a single critical Barack Obama cartoon. My letters weren’t printed, of course, but Sargent has since retired.

Recently, I wrote to you that Alberta Phillips had used Rush Limbaugh fake quotes that Limbaugh never said. I have said that Alberta Phillips must be fired for either outrageous bias or gross incompetence. Your readers were never told the full story. She had used Limbaugh’s fake “slavery” quote two days after he had gone on air denying that he ever said the “slavery” quote. Phillips wrote a “corrected’ column, with a mere “my bad,” stating that other quotes were correct, and that Limbaugh advocates “segregated buses.’ He doesn’t! Limbaugh said that the statement was obvious sarcasm, taken out of context by an agenda-driven Media Matters. Phillips got away with defaming a person in the Statesman! It does not reflect well on Phillips–who I don’t read anymore–or the Statesman that publishes her.

FINALLY: “Ellie Light” is your ultimate truth test. The Statesman is part of the story. Blogs mention that you’ve published a guy who’s astroturfed yoiur newspaper TWICE. A few newspapers in Wisconsin have offered simple and prompt “Ellie Light” apologies.

You can do the right thing and run the story, telling your readers your involvement in it. Or you can say, Barry Popik, he’s a mere subscriber, he doesn’t have the torches and pitchforks yet, so why should I do him a “personal favor” and do the right thing?

The story ends with you.

I hope you’ll fight for truth, fairness, and Austin’s history as I have, but the choices are yours to make.

Barry Popik
Round Rock, TX
“The Straight Dope” 1999 story, with cartoon