February 19, 2021

Did Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas really hop on a plane with his family and go to Cancun, Mexico, while millions of people in his home state were without power during one of the worst winter storms to ever hit Texas?

And did he really think the media wasn’t going to get to the bottom of it all?

OK, so it’s not Watergate or the Pentagon Papers, but when the media gets a sniff of a story, it usually gets to the bottom of it. In this case, they sniffed out the insensitivity of a senator who headed for the beaches while his state was frozen over.

There were photos of a masked man who looked like Cruz at the airport and then on a plane headed from Houston to Cancun on Wednesday night. Fox News’ Tyler Olson and Paul Steinhauser confirmed on Thursday morning that, yes, Cruz did go to Cancun. The Associated Press’ Steve Peoples and Jake Bleiberg confirmed the report.

Then Cruz himself admitted it in a statement. Saying he wanted to be a “good dad,” he accompanied his daughters to Cancun so they could go on a trip with their friends. He made it sound as if his plan all along was to return Thursday, and he did return to Texas on Thursday. Whether that was Cruz’s original plan or he returned early from his trip after all the backlash is a topic of controversy.

And, of course, journalists jumped on the story and did some reporting.

NBC News’ Peter Alexander tweeted Thursday afternoon, “Ted Cruz booked his return ticket from Cancun to Texas at 6 a.m. today, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. Cruz was initially booked to return on Saturday.”

Then on Thursday evening, The New York Times’ Shane Goldmacher and Nicholas Fandos reported they had obtained text messages sent by Cruz’s wife, Heidi, on Wednesday to neighbors and friends proposing a trip to Mexico, including a specific hotel that had good prices and security.

This is not a good look for Cruz.

On ABC’s “The View,” co-host Meghan McCain said, “I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of media waiting, asking questions, but to literally flee your home state while people are freezing to death to go to Cancun is very Marie Antoinette. One of the worst optics I could come up with in an era where there’s been a lot of bad political optics.”

On Fox News’ “The Five,” Jesse Watters said, “I mean this is kind of Day One stuff if you’re a politician. If there’s a weather disaster in your state, you don’t go on a tropical vacation.”

Appearing on CNN, Chris Turner, a Democrat in the Texas State House, said, “Just when I think Ted Cruz couldn’t disappoint Texans more, he finds a new way to do it. As far as I’m concerned it’d be fine if he remained in Cancun. He doesn’t do anything for us.”

The best dig of the day, however, might have come from veteran journalist and Texas native Dan Rather, who tweeted, “There’s an old Texas saying: When the going gets tough, the tough go to Cancun. (No, there actually is no such saying).”

And, oh, here’s CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski and Em Steck with “Ted Cruz has repeatedly slammed politicians for vacationing during crisis.”

See, the journalists always keep the receipts.

Rush to judgment

A final thought on the death of conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. The movie “The American President” popped into my head as I was exchanging emails with a reader about Limbaugh.

In the big speech near the end of the movie, President Andrew Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas, talks about a rival senator from the other party and says, “He is interested in two things, and two things only: Making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections.”

And it dawned on me that that’s how you become one of the biggest talk-radio stars ever. Because making you afraid of something and telling you who’s to blame for it was exactly what Limbaugh did for much of his career.

A staggering number

Andrea Mitchell interviews Dr. Anthony Fauci on Thursday’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.” (Photo courtesy of MSNBC)

Here’s some sobering news: Life expectancy in the United States fell by a full year during the first half of 2020. The Washington Post’s Lenny Bernstein described it as a “staggering decline.”

Life expectancy dropped from 78.8 years in 2019 to 77.8 years. Life expectancy among Black Americans declined 2.7 years.

Appearing on MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said, “Right now COVID-19 is the leading cause of death in the United States, which is just extraordinary. It’s sad and it’s tragic. And actually, when you look at the decrease in the life expectancy … it’s absolutely real and directly related to COVID-19. The differential among people of color versus white again underscores the disparities.”

There is some hope, however. The New York Times’ Sabrina Tavernise and Abby Goodnough wrote, “Still, unlike the drop in life expectancy caused by the long-running, complex problem of drug overdoses, this one, driven largely by COVID-19, is not likely to last as long because deaths from the virus are easing and the population is slowly getting vaccinated. The last time a pandemic caused a major decline in life expectancy was 1918, when hundreds of thousands of Americans died from the flu pandemic. Life expectancy declined by a whopping 11.8 years from 1917 to 1918 … bringing average life spans down to 39 years. But it fully rebounded the following year as deaths eased.”

Fauci on schools

Another note from Fauci’s appearance on “Andrea Mitchell Reports” — he talked about the reopening of schools.

Fauci said, “The issue with vaccinating teachers, obviously, we will make and want to make the prioritization of teachers’ vaccination very high. But I think to say that you’re not going to open up schools until every single one of the teachers get vaccinated, namely, making it a sine qua non of opening, I don’t think that we can go there. Otherwise, it would be very difficult to get the schools open.”

Tofel retires

For this item, I turned it over to Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds.

Richard Tofel, ProPublica’s first employee and its top business executive since the nonprofit investigative site’s inception in 2007, announced Wednesday that he plans to retire. He will stay on until a replacement is found.

Tofel, who turned 64 this week, is among a group of understated executives who put together the nation’s most potent and influential digital site. Like others, he stayed to see ProPublica through smart expansion — 175 employees expected by mid-year, a $35 million budget, 43,000 donors in 2020. Its journalism deservedly wins prize after prize, year after year — including a share of last year’s Public Service Pulitzer partnering with the Anchorage Daily News.

Tofel is a longtime professional friend and a mensch to the legions of digital-era nonprofits that have followed and now constitute a significant and flourishing journalism sector.

With plenty of achievements to pick from, I would highlight the following as special Tofel-led best practices with wide application.

First, coming out of the gate, ProPublica understood the need to build out business functions such as tech and fundraising. At smaller organizations, eager journalists often are tempted to put all their effort and money into reporters and editors. Wrong — and a formula for faltering in the third or fourth year. Building out the right kind of business-side capacity — even if profit is not the objective — is essential.

Now there are entire support organizations, including the ambitious American Journalism Project, which are all about taking early stage nonprofit ventures down the road to sustainability.

Second, lots of people talk about transparency these days; far fewer actually do it well. ProPublica provides a model here, too. Its site includes a staff list, ethics code, full financial disclosure, and more. All that takes time and hard work — and stands to be overlooked — but newspapers and other for-profits now are seeing the wisdom of doing likewise with a payoff in audience trust.

Tofel came to ProPublica’s startup party after serving in top business roles at The Wall Street Journal, where founding editor-in-chief Paul Steiger (also retired now) had been managing editor.

I queried Tofel by email about his retirement plans. Characteristically, he got back to me in seven minutes with a crisp reply:

I hope to do a number of things: Consulting, likely for publishers or the people who fund them. Have set up an LLC for this purpose, with a basic site here. Perhaps teaching, something I have done before and very much enjoyed. Writing, including this new Substack, of which the second issue is out today.

More detail and praise can be found in ProPublica’s news release.

What’s new(s) in Australia?

Media observers are still trying to sort out what’s going on in Australia with Facebook, Google and the news — as well as whether something similar can happen in the United States.

CNN’s Brian Stelter has a good recap: “Large publishers, led by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, have been pushing to get paid by Google and Facebook, since the tech platforms profit by running ads alongside links to news content. The tech companies have been objecting, saying this payment plan would break how the web works, but they’ve come up with alternatives to compensate some news producers. Some of their allies have likened it to a shakedown.”

The New York Times’ Damien Cave reported this week that Google is already striking deals to pay to license content from Australian media companies, including Murdoch’s media empire.

However, on Wednesday, Facebook announced, “In response to Australia’s proposed new Media Bargaining law, Facebook will restrict publishers and people in Australia from sharing or viewing Australian and international news content.”

So what does it all mean? It’s a complicated issue and still in its infancy, especially when it comes to how (or even if) this might end up impacting media and tech companies in the United States.

Here are a few pieces to keep you in the loop for now:

On assignment

(Photo courtesy of MSNBC)

Richard Engel will host a new episode of “On Assignment” on MSNBC that focuses on new COVID variants and their impact on the vaccines. The show airs Sunday night at 10 p.m. Eastern. It will include interviews with a number of medical and science experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci; Ugur Sahin, the CEO of BioNTech and the Pfizer vaccine inventor; intensive care nurse Lisa Malpiedi; and many more.

Slacking it

The New York Times’ new app for Slack. (Photo courtesy of The New York Times)

The New York Times has launched its first app for Slack — a workplace chat and messaging app used by many businesses. In announcing the new app, the Times wrote, “Over the last few years, The New York Times Audience team began paying attention to how Times journalism was shared in private messaging spaces like text, email and other chat platforms. The team began thinking about how to deliver our journalism that fit our readers’ needs.”

The Times went on to write, “The Audience team — which sets our audience strategy and oversees search, social and community, as well as data insights and analysis in the newsroom — connected with our Audience Product team to build a Times app for Slack that would do three things: 1) Help Slack users connect to the Times stories their colleagues were sharing and discussing; 2) Allow Slack users to save Times articles to read later; and 3) Offer a single great read of the day, selected by our editors.”

For more on how to use the app, check out this explainer from The Times.


Fox News’ Harris Faulkner. (Photo courtesy of Fox News) — a financial, wealth management and lifestyle magazine — has come out with a new list: “Groundbreakers 2021: 50 Women Changing the World.”

The list includes many women in media, including Simon & Schuster publisher Dana Canedy, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” head writer Ariel Dumas and Reddit COO Jen Wong. The list includes one on-air TV journalist: Fox News anchor Harris Faulkner.

In a statement, Faulkner said, “It is a tremendous honor to be included on Worth’s Groundbreaking Women list. It takes every voice and idea to pull us through tough times. These are exactly the women I want to be with to usher in the post-COVID sunrise that we all are looking forward to in 2021!”

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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