By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
A bigger Belo
The top brass at A.H. Belo Corp. cut a low personal profile.
In early 1994, the management of WWL-TV in New Orleans brought some visitors through the station's offices. "They were nice looking, well-dressed, pleasant," reported the New Orleans Times-Picayune. In fact, according to a station executive interviewed by the newspaper, "most people on hand thought the visitors were insurance inspectors."
A few weeks later, they learned the truth: it was the top management from Dallas' A.H. Belo--including CEO Robert Decherd and broadcast division chief Ward Huey. The Texans were there to work up a deal to buy the top-rated New Orleans TV station for $110 million in cash.
Belo's second TV acquisition in 1994--KIRO-TV in Seattle, for $162.5 million in cash--has had a less subtle effect. According to a January 6 story in the Seattle Times, Belo's agreement to buy the station dictated a maximum staffing level, requiring seller KIRO Inc. to do some dirty work--lay off about 50 employees--before the transaction could close. Last week, less than a month after the pink slips were handed out (a detail that never made it into the cursory coverage of the sale in the Dallas Morning News), Belo closed on the deal.
The purchases boost Belo's role as a major player on the national media scene. The company now owns three stations in the nation's top 12 TV markets (Dallas, Houston, and Seattle); Belo estimates its seven stations give it access to more than 8 percent of the nation's television households.
A richer Belo
Wonder why the A.H. Belo Corp. had to kill the Dallas Morning News' Sunday magazine? Curious why benefits for employees at Belo's Dallas-Fort Worth Suburban newspaper subsidiary were slashed? Wondering why your ad rates soared--and the price of your home subscription to Dallas' Only Daily climbed?
You're not the only one, after Belo's recent announcement of record profits for 1994.
Belo racked up a profit of $68.9 million last year, up from $51.1 million in 1993. That's a jump of 35 percent.
Despite the broadcast acquisitions, newspaper publishing--predominantly the Morning News--accounted for about 48 percent of the paper's operating profits in 1994.
The A.H. Belo Corporation--whose Morning News sentimentally pitches its content as "the story of all of us"--is a "special interest group."
Who says so?
Wayne Slater--Austin bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.
In a January 16 front-page installment in a series on "money and politics," Slater listed some of the "special interest contributors" to politicians on both sides of the ongoing battle in the Texas legislature over tort reform.
The pro-reform forces prominently include a pair of business groups, Texans for Lawsuit Reform and the Texas Civil Justice League. The Civil Justice League, the News itself has revealed, includes such corporate giants as Exxon, Dow Chemical, Halliburton--and A.H. Belo.
In fact, Belo CEO Robert Decherd was in Austin earlier this month, inappropriately lending his personal clout to the tort-reform movement.
The problem with this isn't that the civil-justice system in Texas isn't in need of change. It surely is--though the business lobby's undiluted solution isn't the answer.
The problem--as BeloWatch has opined in the past--is that Decherd is continuing to extend his personal political power-brokering, both in Dallas and throughout the state. And in the process, he's following in the unfortunate old-school tradition of newspaper magnates pulling strings behind the scenes.
In doing so, Decherd compromises the appearance of fairness his newspaper and TV stations seek to maintain in covering important issues--such as the legislative debate over tort reform. In fact, employees of Channel 8 and the Dallas Morning News, by corporate policy, are barred from involving themselves in political campaigns, giving money to candidates, or taking sides publicly in controversial issues--specifically to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest.
Decherd, however--the 800-pound gorilla--has apparently exempted himself from this corporate policy. (The Belo CEO did not return BeloWatch calls for comment.)
Thus, his personal contributions to U.S. Senate candidate Richard Fisher; his private visit (as part of a small delegation of powerful businessmen) to Mavericks owner Don Carter, contemplating whether to take the team to the suburbs; and his public testimony, on February 2, before the Texas Legislature on the issue of tort reform.
The News, to its credit, has disclosed Belo's membership in the Civil Justice League; reported Decherd's testimony in print, without giving it excessive play; and generally covered the issue in a relatively even-handed manner. (It has also editorialized repeatedly--and strongly--in favor of tort reform.)
But that doesn't make Decherd's involvement--the resulting appearance of bias by his newspaper and TV station; the implied threat of journalistic retribution against legislators who don't do his side's bidding--any more appropriate.
Or any less uncomfortable to the reporters and editors who work for him.
Decherd's testimony before the Senate Economic Development Committee, according to a copy of his statement obtained by the Observer, warned that the "current legal environment" threatens the welfare--and even the existence--of small and large businesses alike. "Few companies, including my own, can afford the risks of major litigation in Texas as long as there is the possibility of absolutely unpredictable punitive damage awards," Decherd declared.
Punitive damage awards are often excessive. And, as the Observer has reported [see "Tilting the scales," January 6, 1994], the civil process, by essentially allowing plaintiffs to file wherever juries award humongous verdicts, encourages outrageous manipulation.
But the big-business lobby is also hard-pressed to prove its dire warnings that the Texas business climate is uninhabitable.
And Robert Decherd is a clear example. Less than a month before testifying in Austin, the Belo CEO announced that his company--despite the burdensome Texas civil-justice system--had achieved record profits for 1994.