By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The truth awaits
Channel 8's report on its stormy undercover foray into Sunset High School has been pushed back another week.
Station news director John Miller told BeloWatch on Friday that Valeri Williams' story about security in the Dallas public school--originally scheduled for last week--has been slowed by "the editorial process." He declined to elaborate.
The station infuriated Dallas school officials--from principal Michael Stiles to school board chairman Sandy Kress--by sending an undercover cameraman into Sunset to surreptitiously film security procedures there. The cameraman, 21-year-old Darrell Sparks, was discovered, placed under arrest, and ticketed for loitering during his second day in the school, but refused to identify himself during extensive questioning.
Williams was escorted out of the school after--according to Stiles--blocking the doorway to his office in an attempt to keep DISD security officers from taking the station's confiscated hidden-camera equipment downtown.
The incident spurred DISD board chairman Kress to place a phone call to Robert Decherd, chief executive officer of A.H. Belo, WFAA's parent company. In an interview, Kress told BeloWatch he believes Channel 8 has no legitimate story to report.
Asked whether Kress' protests to the Belo corporate hierarchy had anything to do with the delay in the airing of Williams' piece, news director Miller on Friday said he had "no comment," but added "the story is scheduled now to run next week."
Williams, a much-honored investigative reporter, has previously told BeloWatch she cannot comment on what happened at Sunset until after the story airs.
Will God be our co-pilot?
Oh Lord, lift BeloWatch up
and guide us through
these dark days
of media monopoly. Amen.
It has been opined that BeloWatch's account last week of how Channel 8's Valeri Williams and Darrell Sparks prayed in her car before entering Sunset--a sequence captured on WFAA's already rolling hidden camera and recounted verbatim here--was malicious, gratuitous, mean, and otherwise unfair.
The ironies in this situation are abundant. That the Channel 8 team was caught by its own hidden camera--a camera the station was trying to use to expose others--is foremost among them.
Was it embarrassing? Sure. Private moments, when disseminated in the media to hundreds of thousands, often are. But that, of course, is precisely what Williams--and other practitioners of hidden-camera journalism--do. The comments on the tape also raise questions about the journalists' attitude going into the story. Did Sparks really require the heavenly father's "protection on him," as Williams put it? After all, he wasn't stepping into Gulf War combat; he was walking into a Dallas public school.
With Williams and Sparks unwilling to comment on this matter, it is impossible to present their thinking. But BeloWatch readers can judge for themselves the appropriateness of seeking heavenly guidance and protection--not to mention using a hidden camera--for what appears to have been a ratings-month journalistic fishing expedition.
Tell folks what happened, and let them judge for themselves.
To BeloWatch, it sounds like what journalists at Channel 8 do every day. The only difference: they're usually not the subjects.
In this confusing world, BeloWatch is grateful to occasionally see the editorial page of Dallas' Only Daily--yes, the editorial page--serving as a voice of reason.
With its penchant for boosterism, big-business water-carrying, and slavish devotion to local sacred cows, it doesn't happen too often. So it's important to mark those special occasions with a rare BeloWatch kudo.
On Thursday, February 23, the News' lead editorial crisply scolded the new far-right majority of the Dallas County Commissioners for rejecting $400,000 in federal funds to fight sexually transmitted diseases.
The 3-2 commissioners court vote--with Republican County Judge Lee Jackson and John Wiley Price dissenting--followed a recommendation from the county's new Literature and Program Review Committee, stacked with appointed ideologues. Their primary objection to seeking the grant: it would fund training in safe-sex practices--as opposed to simply planting heads in the sand and preaching abstinence.
"If this indicates commissioners' grasp of public health issues, start worrying," wrote the News. The editorial noted that "similar grants have been approved for the last 15 years and put to good use."
"The larger issue, of course, is whether ideology should overwhelm public health objectives," noted the News.
Hamstringing prevention is "penny-wise and pound-foolish," the paper concluded. "Diseases don't vanish. You just wind up with sicker patients arriving at county clinics. Their care costs much more than the preventive programs."
The editorial hit the mark. On Friday, the commissioners reversed themselves and decided to seek the federal money after all.
Score one for common sense--and the News.
On February 3, News columnist Steve Blow devoted his metro-page space to Dead Serious, Inc., the twisted bounty-offering brainchild of Fort Worth's Darrell Frank. Frank has started what is ostensibly a private club, which he says will pay $5,000 to any dues-paying member ($10 per year) who kills a criminal in self-defense. (Merely wounding someone doesn't count.)
Blow's column covers the natural concerns such an asinine enterprise prompts. But in his once-over-lightly treatment, he makes the mistake of taking the credibility of Darrell Frank--the progenitor of a loony idea with clear scam potential--at face value. Writes Blow: "He's an earnest fellow, not exactly a Rambo type. He and his wife are cat lovers."
A day after Blow's column appeared, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published a page-one story revealing that Frank "is a twice-convicted felon who has served time in Illinois for assault and in Texas state prison for burglary. He has also faced four criminal charges in Tarrant County; they ranged from possession of a pipe bomb to felony theft. Three were dismissed and one was rejected by a Tarrant County grand jury." (BeloWatch full disclosure: the piece's author was S-T reporter Holly Mullen, wife of Observer managing editor Glen Warchol.)
Blow, five days later, acknowledged the new revelations about his "earnest" cat lover ("it turns out Mr. Frank has a couple of criminal convictions in his past...")--without, of course, crediting the Fort Worth paper, or admitting his sloppy failure to check before declaring Frank benign.