We need your support.
We aim to double our monthly support. Today, we embark on a fundraising drive to expand our work and to continue the advertising-free articles that you have come to expect. I am sharing a report that explains why this work is so important and necessary to advancing a more vibrant, more informed, and more inclusive future for the land and the people of Louisiana.
The Bayou Brief has been a labor of love for all of us, and you have shown your love in return by sharing our stories widely.
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I. The Brief’s Interruption: How We Have Changed the Conversation
Considering we have published more than 500 original reports since our launch two years ago, it is somewhat of a challenge to select only a handful of stories as a way of illustrating how we have changed the conversation, contributed to the social welfare, and advanced a more informed and engaged public discourse.
For example, our reporting on the environment, which has been largely led by Sue Lincoln, concerns what is arguably the most important issue of our time. We have published reports that revealed a previously unknown but officially declared environmental emergency in DeSoto Parish, the consequence of the woefully- if not negligently- under-regulated fracking industry.
When the Plaquemines Parish Council considered passing a resolution that sought to drop a lawsuit seeking environmental damages by a series of oil and gas companies, many of which have already acknowledged liability, we reported on how several parish council members had significant conflicts of interests, which should have required them to recuse themselves from voting on the resolution. Ultimately, one member did just that, citing the Bayou Brief’s reporting for calling the issue to her attention, and as a result, the resolution failed to pass.
In February 2018, we conducted the very first extensive interview with Paul S. Ryan, the D.C.-based lawyer and campaign finance watchdog who filed the very first complaint with the Federal Elections Commission about an adult film star named Stormy. Ryan alleged, among other things, that President Donald Trump and his then-personal attorney Michael Cohen violated campaign finance laws when, during the final month of the 2016 election, they paid Baton Rouge native Stormy Daniels $160,000 to remain silent about the sexual encounter she had with Trump. Today, Cohen is serving time in federal prison on after he pleaded guilty to a number of crimes, including campaign finance violations; the court named Trump as an “unindicted co-conspirator.”
More recently, our reporting about U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham’s Arab-American heritage was featured by WGNO shortly after Abraham, during his gubernatorial campaign, made what many have characterized a bigoted and xenophobic comments about four of his colleagues in Congress.
Perhaps ironically, one of the biggest stories the Bayou Brief reported in the past ten months had nothing to do with Louisiana; instead, it concerned comments made by Mississippi’s Cindy Hyde-Smith, the Republican candidate for a seat in the U.S. Senate. The Bayou Brief exclusively obtained video footage of Hyde-Smith making a bizarre statement, ostensibly intended as a compliment to a supporter, about being on the first row of the man’s public hanging. Within minutes after sharing the video on Twitter, the story went viral, and after we followed up that video with another one, in which Hyde-Smith “jokes” about the need for voter suppression on college campuses, the Bayou Brief became a prominent part of hundreds of reports from across the country.
Today, as Louisiana prepares to vote on who should lead the state as governor for the next four years, the Bayou Brief’s investigative reporting on Republican candidates Eddie Rispone and Ralph Abraham has been read and shared thousands of times and referenced in at least one statewide commercial. Our reporting has also helped inform the campaign for state Insurance Commissioner, and if you are driving down Interstate 10 near Jennings, Louisiana, you may notice a billboard that cites reporting from our most comprehensive investigative series of the year.
III. The Bayou Brief’s 10 Most Consequential Reports and Columns in 2019:
1. Wrecked: How Auto Insurance Takes Louisiana for a Ride
Our 12-part investigative series on the car insurance industry in Louisiana uncovered the most significant reasons drivers in our state pay some of the most expensive premiums in the nation. We worked with Douglas Heller, a nationally-acclaimed insurance expert, in order to better understand how the industry operates in Louisiana. What we uncovered was astonishing: Companies routinely discriminate against widows, combat veterans, and people with poor credit scores, charging them significantly more money.
In Louisiana, these companies are provided with a license to discriminate, and as a consequence, many of our most vulnerable and marginalized communities are disproportionately burdened.
Earlier this year, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI), with the assistance of the insurance industry, brazenly attempted to push through a bill, which was dishonestly titled “the Omnibus Auto Premium Reduction Act of 2019,” that would have made it significantly more difficult for injured drivers to hold insurers accountable in the courts and limited a person’s right to access the justice system, spuriously arguing that these so-called “reforms” would have resulted in a reduction in the price of car insurance.
LABI called the legislation “the most important bill” of the 2019 legislative session. Unfortunately for LABI, however, there was zero evidence that any of its proposed reforms would decrease premiums. It was, instead, a somewhat transparent attempt to pass a series of so-called “tort reforms,” with the ultimate goal of tilting the scales of justice in favor of big business.
Although the bill sailed through the state House, by the time it reached the Senate Judiciary-A Committee, its supporters and sponsors struggled to answer many of the basic questions informed by our reporting.
However, before rejecting the bill outright, the committee first requested that the state Legislative Auditor provide a fiscal note, because while the bill’s proponents argued it would not cost taxpayers any additional money, it soon became clear that there was a price tag attached. Once the auditor’s office confirmed the legislation would likely cost millions of dollars to implement and create additional burdens for a court system already overwhelmed, LABI’s most important bill of the year, which was effectively a gift to one of the wealthiest industries in the nation, was defeated.
2. The Bumper Crop: How U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham Has Made a Fortune Farming for Government Subsidies
Throughout his tenure in Congress and during his campaign for Louisiana governor, Dr. Ralph Abraham, a farmer, physician, and veterinarian from the small town of Alto in rural northeast Louisiana, has continually disparaged families who rely on government subsidies to help them afford basic necessities like health care and food.
His antipathy toward those on “welfare” is prominent part of the message he hopes to sell to voters and a common refrain among conservative Republicans.
However, as the Bayou Brief uncovered, Abraham and his family have received a staggering $2.6 million in federal farm subsidies, including money from a program that pays people not to farm certain crops. While Abraham often presents himself as the owner of a small family farm, his operation has received more in government subsidies than 99% of the farming operations in the entire country.
3. Clementine’s Hunters: The Extraordinary Life and Afterlife of Louisiana’s Most Consequential Artist
In this five-part series, the Bayou Brief tells the remarkable life’s story of Clementine Hunter, a nationally-celebrated painter and the daughter of slaves who spent nearly all of her 101 years living and working in Melrose Plantation in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
Hunter, who never learned how to read or write, picked up a paintbrush relatively late in her life, and she immediately proved herself to be a brilliant artist whose seemingly simplistic depictions of plantation life often belied much more sophisticated and complex messages about racism, religion, oppression, redemption, and the patriarchy.
After she was “discovered” by François Mignon, a man with his own incredible backstory, famed writers, artists, and reporters from all across the nation would make pilgrimages to Melrose Plantation to meet Hunter, who had been known to sell her paintings for as little as 25 cents. Today, many of Hunter’s paintings are worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Hunter’s story does not end with her death, however. It actually ends with the largest FBI investigation into art forgery in the nation’s history.
4. Eddie Rispone Relies on Controversial Program That Outsources Jobs to Foreign Workers
Eddie Rispone, the mega-millionaire co-founder of an electrical installation company and a Republican candidate for Louisiana governor, outraged many in Louisiana, especially those in New Orleans, after taking out a full-page ad in the pages of the Times-Picayune that smeared immigrants as nothing more than dangerous criminals.
However, according to documents uncovered by the Bayou Brief, at the same time during which Rispone was settling three different lawsuits for wage theft from nearly 100 of his former employees (the majority of whom were Latinx), he and his company were also applying for three H1-B visas. The controversial visa system, which some have compared to indentured servitude, allowed Rispone to hire foreign workers to perform skilled jobs at his company.
5. Listen To The River: A Change Is Gonna Come
Lydia Y. Nichol’s lyrical and riveting debut column explores the complicated and often perilous relationship between New Orleans and the Mississippi River, the ways in which planning around the river has often disproportionally affected the marginalized and communities of color, and the importance of allowing the powerful forces of the Mississippi to guide and inform how we sustain and protect the city’s future.
6. The Erector Set
An ongoing series currently comprised of thirteen stories and reports, the Erector Set reveals the small cabal of enormously wealthy builders and contractors who have quietly wielded more power and influence over state government than anyone else in Louisiana.
7. The Dark and Forgotten Fate of the Florinda
Troy Gilbert’s absolutely riveting and true story about crew of New Orleanians who departed the city on the ship Florinda in 1849, hoping to strike it rich during the California Gold Rush. The Florinda had vanished completely, but then, 26 years later, the story of their voyage took an unexpected twist and, for a brief moment, captivated the attention of the entire world.
8. National News Coverage of Tropical Storm Barry Is Its Own Disaster
Easily the most read story in the Bayou Brief’s two years, publisher Lamar White, Jr. excoriates the national media and parachute reporters for brazenly misreporting the on-the-ground reality as the city of New Orleans and the residents of coastal Louisiana prepared for Barry’s landfall. The
9. Why Alexandria’s New Festival Drowned in the Red
In Central Louisiana, taxpayers sank a small fortune to rebrand an award-winning festival. Spending doubled, attendance cratered nearly 80%, and an event intended to unify the community resulted in division and disappointment.
Relying on a trove of public records and nearly a dozen interviews, this report reveals exorbitant and potentially illegal spending and an event that was beleaguered by incompetency and a complete lack of oversight.
10. The Rainbow Means Never Again Another Flood Of Hate
Dylan Waguespack’s stirring call to action for members and allies of the LGBTQ to “name and claim Louisiana for the future of all.”
IV. From Day One:
Our very first featured report on the Bayou Brief was Nick Pittman’s 6,000 word story about a massacre in 1873 in Colfax, Louisiana. I imagine, for some people, it may have seemed like a mad way to introduce ourselves to a brand new audience, but it was a calculated risk.
I had spent the previous eleven years writing a personal blog, CenLamar, which eventually became a part of my public persona. I can’t count the number of times people have addressed me as “CenLamar” or how many times I have been referenced as a “Louisiana political blogger.” So, it was important, immediately out of the gate, that we introduce the Bayou Brief as something entirely different. This wasn’t a revamped iteration of my blog. From the very beginning, the Bayou Brief has been a digital platform for a wide variety of voices on a wide range of subjects; the only “rule,” which we’ve broken only a small handful of times, is that the stories we publish be directly connected to Louisiana.
It was also important, from the very beginning, to signal our belief in publishing the stories of places in Louisiana frequently overlooked or completely unknown to those outside of Baton Rouge or New Orleans. Colfax certainly qualifies as one of those places.
Nick Pittman wrote a damn good story about a massacre that pretended to be a riot, and though I am well-aware that very few people managed to read all 6,000 words, I am grateful to him for helping set the Bayou Brief into motion.
After two years, we are now hitting our stride. We publish stories and news reports that you won’t find anywhere else. We’re not a news aggregator, and we’re not in the business of recycling someone else’s work as a ploy to generate clicks. Although we have been able to build a robust and loyal readership, we’re not in the business of monetizing anyone’s personal data either; clicks are not nearly as important to us as content.
NEXT: A NEW MODEL FOR STATEWIDE JOURNALISM