The Texas Tribune Festival was back in person this year after being virtual for two years. The Texas Tribune took over Congress Avenue from September 22 to 24 and held more than 160 sessions (double what it had held the previous year). Attendees lined up outside the Paramount Theater and other venues to hear in-person sessions from journalists and politicians. Attendees could still take part in the festival virtually this year, and some sessions were offered online only.
“It’s a completely different experience,” said Natalie Choate, communications director for the Texas Tribune. “While you might encounter some of the same topics or the same speakers, witness that spark on stage, and feel the buzz on the pitch, that’s something you can’t replicate in a virtual setting.”
COVID-19 precautions have been taken, with masks and hand sanitizer readily available, but overall the festival was very much like how it was before covid. TribFest has flourished as a campaign stop for many politicians this election year, such as gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke.
The festival has been held annually since 2010. A variety of programs were available, including one-on-ones with Liz Cheney, Ted Cruz, Dr. Fauci and others.
“You never know who you’re going to bump into at the event…we’re thrilled to be able to offer this,” Choate said.
Panel discussions highlighting both politics and the media were at the forefront of the festival and covered issues such as infrastructure, criminal justice and education.
“I think the biggest theme we saw this year that made its way across many panels, regardless of what topic was initially indicated, was the fight for democracy.” Choate said.
This theme was reflected in the festival’s headliner, Liz Cheney. Cheney has been in the spotlight for leading a House committee to investigate the former president’s role in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Cheney has promised to campaign for Democrats against candidates like Kari Lake, who are Holocaust deniers.
“I’m going to do everything I can to make sure Kari Lake doesn’t get elected,” Cheney told TribFest attendees.
This theme continued in a panel titled “After Roe” moderated by Ana Marie Cox, columnist for The Cut. During the panel, concerns about democracy, gerrymandering and voting rights were raised. The panel included Planned Parenthood president and CEO Alexis McGill Johnson, state Rep. Donna Howard and former state senator Wendy Davis, who organized a 1 p.m. filibuster in 2013 to block a bill rrestricting access to abortion in Texas.
“I’ve watched the systematic way Republicans have come to power and created a system that allows them to hold power in a way that doesn’t reflect the majority of people who live in this state…and the root of this evthese are (infringements of) the right to vote, the root of this evil is gerrymandering,” Davis said.
Whether it was a one-on-one panel with a leading politician or a panel discussion on current mainstream discourses, the conversation always seemed to come down to the fundamental question: the state of the American democracy.
The importance of journalism, particularly in relation to audience engagement and its vitality in maintaining democracy, was also emphasized throughout TribFest.
The crucial role of public broadcasting, local engagement, documentary and long-form journalism was discussed during a panel titled “The Power of PBS,” and it featured Brian Stelter, a former CNN anchor ; Judy Woodruff, anchor and editor of PBS Newshour; Raney Aronson-Rath, editor and executive producer of Frontline; and Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS.
“Journalism is a record,” Woodruff said. “We’re posting this for people to see. Call it an oral history of our time.
Other panels have covered issues specific to Texas. Panels titled “What Happened in Uvalde,” “Power Struggle,” and “Below the Line” discussed school safety, the power grid, and poverty in Texas. These are the main issues in the upcoming elections in Texas.
Apart from publications and politicians, students and organizations were also present at the festival. students love Hairuo Yia junior at the University of Texas and the DNI editor of the Daily Texan, were present. Yi, also a member of Students for Planned Parenthood, was particularly interested in the parts of the festival related to the politics of reproduction.
“I always wanted to be involved in more politics and politics,” Yi said.
The organizations set up booths all along Congress Avenue, reaching out to thousands throughout TribFest. The Supermajority, which works to mobilize women across the country to vote and get politically involved, attended the festival to reach out to the crowds.
“TribFest is where you meet the political future of our country…we saw who was coming to speak and knew we had to be a part of it,” said Jessica Herrera, director of communications and marketing for Supermajority.
The return of TribFest means a return to large community gatherings. Looking forward to next year’s festival, The Texas Tribune will continue to provide audiences with the information they need.
“We view TribFest as an extension of the Texas Tribune’s mission to inform the public and hold those in power accountable,” Choate said. “It’s also a place where we can all come together and take part in civil and informative discussions. Every year, there’s something for everyone at TribFest.