Texas Observer editor Ronnie Dugger with President Lyndon Johnson. Photo by Yoichi Yokamoto. Source: LBJ Library and theRagBlog.com
Backstory and Context
The Texas Observer is an independent liberal newspaper established in 1954. The paper is dedicated to truthful reporting about state and national issues and has often served as a watchdog on issues of injustice. Though the paper is certainly liberal, it is intentionally independent and unaffiliated with any party.
The liberal political scene that emerged on the UT campus during the late 1950s and early 1960s provides an important backdrop for understanding the nature of the Observer’s reporting. Many of the young reporters who ended up at the Observer had experience at the Daily Texan (the official student newspaper at UT). These student journalists watched as liberal professors struggled to have academic freedom at a university controlled by conservative regents. The students working at the Daily Texan frequently clashed with the regents and administrators on issues of free speech and this informed their perspective on state and national politics. As a result, these students used the Texan as an entryway into the Austin political scene, where they interacted with other influential writers and citizens, such as Frankie Randolph.
Frankie Randolph wanted to create a newspaper that covered issues typically ignored by the major daily newspapers in Texas. She bought the State Observer and merged it with the East Texas Democrat. Randolph founded the Observer partially in response to the liberal dislike of Governor Allan Shivers, who was an outspoken supporter of Senator Joseph McCarthy and Dwight Eisenhower. Frankie Randolph was an important resource because she was willing to financially contribute to liberal causes. She worked together with Ronnie Dugger in order to start the Observer, the ultimate supporter of the liberal causes she embraced.  On the night of its founding, a group of Texas Democrats were meeting downtown in Austin. Randolph brought in Dugger, former editor of the Daily Texan at UT, as the founding editor. Dugger was planning to leave for Mexico soon to write a book about fishermen and a shrimp boat in Mexico, but instead he received a call from an East Texas lawyer, Jimmy Strong, asking him to join the Observer. Dugger quickly wrote a letter describing his vision for the Observer and the type of stories it would cover - his big ask was to have exclusive editorial control. Although the Daily Texan had a liberal voice and the ability to cover many stories, Dugger seeked a more independent platform and he saw that the Observer was a perfect fit.
Beginning with Dugger, the Observer would report and comment on both statewide and national issues. The Observer was founded with the intention of reporting doggedly on Texas and national politics and the first issue was printed on December 13, 1954. The front page included a quote from Thoreau: “The one great rule of composition is to speak the truth.” Another page in the first issue included a statement that became the paper’s manifesto: “We will serve no group or party but will hew hard to the truth as we find it and the right as we see it. We are dedicated to the whole truth, to human values above all interests, to the rights of humankind as the foundation of democracy. We will take orders from none but our own conscience, and never will we overlook or misrepresent the truth to serve the interests of the powerful or cater to the ignoble in the human spirit.” This statement has remained an important part of the Observer credo and culture since that first issue. In the early issues of the paper, Dugger devoted editorial space to outlining the principles and purpose of the Observer. As Dugger put it, “Telling the whole truth…is the indispensable requirement for an effective democracy.” All of this is to say that the people in control of the Observer were committed to being honest journalists who could look critically at policy and politics.
Randolph played an important role in the history of the Observer and its ability to comment fiercely on political and social issues. Dugger was committed to covering issues that did not appear in other state newspapers and was willing to alienate subscribers if it meant reporting the truth. In fact, he quickly lost many subscribers when he reported prominently on the murder of a teenage African American in East Texas and put a large photograph of the corpse on the front page. This fiery and blunt reporting was characteristic of Dugger’s reporting style, particularly when it came to issues of injustice.
In August of 1964, as the Vietnam War began to receive backlash from the American population and students of the University of Texas were returning to school for the beginning of the fall semester, the Texas Observer released its back-to-school issue. On the front page appeared a comic of Barry Goldwater and the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan pushing over the world. A quote by Barry Goldwater in his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination accompanied this comic stating, "Anyone who joins us in all sincerity we welcome. Those, those who do not care for our cause, we don't expect to enter our ranks in any case". The Texas Observer was not afraid to reveal the truth about right wing politicians and groups by putting such a statement of a comic and quote on the front page of their newspaper. Within the same newspaper, the Observer placed one article criticizing the new politicians of the Republican party, one article covering a rally in Selma, Alabama, and the racial hostility occurring in Mississippi. Since then, the Observer has continued to report stories in a bold and critical manner.
After Dugger, the Observer cycled through different editors, though Dugger remained involved as a publisher and the paper remained committed to fierce and blunt reporting. Eventually, in 1994, Ronnie Dugger transferred ownership of the Observer to the Texas Democracy Foundation, a non-profit organization that was established to publish and promote the Observer.