Board member blog post: From Molly Ivins, to JAWS: Straight talk and fun

Image courtesy of Texas Observer

By Pamela Moreland, JAWS Board Member

Molly Ivins continues to give JAWS something to talk — and think — about. That’s one of the biggest take-aways from a gathering of 30 Bay Area JAWS members and their friends at the Berkeley Rep production of “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.” Kathleen Turner, the Academy Award and Tony Award nominee, starred in the one-woman play written by the Engel sisters, Margaret (better known as Peggy) and Allison, both JAWS veterans.

Going to see Turner channel Ivins has become a JAWS tradition: Earlier this year, JAWS members in Washington, D.C., saw Turner’s star-turn in the play, and others saw her in Philadelphia in 2010.

Beginning in the 1970s, Molly Ivins was one of the nation’s foremost political reporters and commentators. The West, especially Texas, was her focus.” Politics in Texas — finest form of free entertainment ever invented,” she wrote.

What set Ivins apart was her sharp wit and how she parlayed that wit into her well-researched, well-written work. She was a data-driven, investigative reporter who made you laugh while boldly taking on the establishment.

“Molly Ivins skewered politicians, especially Texas politicians,” Kay Mills wrote in 2010 for the JAWS blog. “Nobody had a right to be that smart, that engaged, that devastatingly barbed.”

“Red Hot Patriot” follows Molly’s rise from her beloved Texas Observer, the Austin-based based bipartisan publication known for being the watchdog of Texas politics, to The New York Times, where her plain-spoke writing style often clashed with the Times’s straight-laced, authoritative voice.

One Ivins vs. NYT episode in the play centers on Ivins’ coverage of a New Mexico “community chicken-killing festival.” As told to the play, the story she turned into the Times described the event as a “gang-pluck.” Eagle-eyed copy editors changed her words into more family-friendly fare and reported her to the top editor, the fabled Abe Rosenthal.

Rosenthal rebuked Ivins for the reference, telling her she was trying to get readers to think “dirty thoughts.”

“Damn if I could fool you, Mr. Rosenthal,” Ivins responded.

A year later, Ivins left the Times to begin her search for a publication that was unafraid to speak truth to power and would give her free rein to do so. She returned to Texas, where she worked for the Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News and the Fort-Worth Star Telegram. She eventually became an independent journalist whose syndicated columns appeared in nearly 400 newspapers.

“Molly was a big supporter of independent media. She left all those big news outlets for the same reasons I and many others did,” wrote Linda Jue in an email thread that weaved its way through the JAWS members who attended the play. “She frequently spoke at conferences and gatherings in support of not only independent outlets, but for true journalistic independence, risky as that can be.”

“It’s terribly unfortunate that we don’t have her with us today to carry that torch as we navigate the muddy media waters,” Jue added.

Molly Ivins was 62 in 2007 when she died after an eight-year battle with breast cancer.

Ivins was a Friend of JAWS. In 1992, she was a featured speaker at the annual conference, at Teton Village in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. According to Kay Mills’ report, she “wowed everybody.” After her appearance, Ivins became a JAWS member and regularly donated money to the organization.

Ivins continues to wow JAWS members today and makes us think about how to continue her journalistic mission.

A “question came up after the play and Q&A about how we can continue the standard of reporting Ivins and other JAWS women set: Well-reported, fiercely written, truth-telling work,” Angela Woodall wrote in the post-theater email thread.

One way of answering the question is to find what stories have yet to be told well and honestly so that the people responsible for the policies are held accountable, Woodall added.

The Q&A Woodall refers to was with the playwrights, Allison and Peggy Engel. Allison is the associate director of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities at the University of Southern California. Peggy is the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Alicia Patterson Foundation. Both have a long history of reporting and writing in newsrooms across the country. Both kept their day jobs while writing “Red Hot Patriot.”

This wasn’t the first long-distance collaboration for the Engels. At the Q&A, they told JAWS members they have written three books together: “Food Finds,” a series that focused on regional food producers. The books were turned into a TV series that ran on the Food Network and the Travel Channel.

“Technology has made it much easier for us to write together while living in different states,” Allison told the group.

“Because we’re twins, we don’t have to be polite to each other,” added Peggy. “Some of our conversations are short. We can say ‘Change this,’ ‘Do this.’  And then hang up.”

How would Ivins challenge current JAWS members? This Ivins quote may provide an answer:

“Keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce.”

With the help of “Red Hot Patriot, “ a new generation of Molly Ivins fans are ready to take up her call.

“I’ll certainly be thinking how to bring Molly’s humor and straight-talk to my own work,” wrote Emily Beaver, JAWS Bay Area Regional Captain.