By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The next day, it was gone, wiped from Dallas nerds' essential reality without so much as an explanatory word.
BeloWatch is speaking, of course, about "Dilbert," the popular cartoon chronicling the random contemplations of a corporate techno-nerd and his overaggressive pet, Dogbert. Dilbert is one of America's hottest strips, the product of creator Scott Adams' daily reality; Adams is a 37-year-old applications engineer who works in a cubicle at Pacific Bell in Dublin, California. Dilbert now appears in 400 U.S. newspapers, including--on most days--the Dallas Morning News.
But Thursday, March 4, was not a normal day.
Dilbert disappeared from its usual space on the left side of page 9C; four other strips were spread out to fill its space in the column.
Angry readers who called the News were advised that editors had yanked the cartoon because they found it offensive in light of the bombing in Oklahoma City. Such a reaction was surprising. Rather than offering politically charged satire of current events, like Garry Trudeau's "Doonesbury," Dilbert usually gently lampoons the foibles of modern corporate culture. But in this case, a distant relationship to events in Oklahoma City was enough to prompt the oh-so-sensitive News to yank it.
BeloWatch wanted to reproduce the entire strip the News wouldn't let Dallas see. (It was published, as usual, in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and hundreds of other American newspapers without any massive outpouring of complaint.) But United Feature Syndicate, which distributes Dilbert, declined to grant permission--out of, well, deference to Dallas' Only Daily. "I don't want the Dallas Morning News upset with us," Amy Lago, managing editor of comic art, told BeloWatch. "I don't want them to feel that they're losing what they're buying."
Under the fair-use doctrine of copyright law--trust us, it's not worth explaining--BeloWatch is thus able to publish only one of the strip's three panels, and must describe the rest.
First the background: Dogbert, it seems, has decided to become a talk radio host, "to pursue my goal of world domination" and "promote my unique conservative viewpoint that people are idiots who deserve to be mocked."
The censored strip begins with Dilbert listening in his car to the resulting "Dogbert show," as Dogbert begins to discuss getting government "off our backs." The second panel appears below. (Its reference to alcohol, tobacco, and firearms is being interpreted as Dogbert's veiled attack on the ATF.)
In the third panel, Dogbert expresses his satisfaction with "anything" that "gets rid of people," and ends his comments by urging listeners to buy his book.
And that's it.
The strip was drawn in February, long before the Oklahoma City bombing, according to syndicate editor Lago. Its reference to the ATF is vague, its satiric echo of comments by G. Gordon Liddy obviously coincidental.
But offensive? On Friday, in response to a published letter of complaint from a self-professed "ill-coiffed, pocket protector-wearing, nerd engineer" from Plano, the News published an editor's note explaining its decisive action: "The Dilbert comic strip for May 4, which was drawn much earlier, inadvertently had a comment that could be seen as insensitive in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing."
Oklahoma City was the scene of a monumental American tragedy. But aren't we going a little far here? Is the News now going to yank anything that "could be seen as insensitive"?
Though the syndicate sent papers an alternative strip to use, in expectation that some might have a problem with it (the News apparently did not get the replacement in time), Lago says she is surprised at the News' decision. "Editors sometimes don't have faith in their readers being able to discern material," Lago told BeloWatch. "As a provider of a service, we want to help editors in their job. But by the same token, it's sometimes unfair to read reactions into readers that may not be there.
"To me, it seemed like the Dallas Morning News didn't have faith that their readers would be able to tell this was a sendup of talk-show hosts and had nothing to do with the Oklahoma bombing. But they're in Dallas, and I'm in New York. They had every right to decide that.
"In general," she added, "this country seems to be in an overly sensitive mode."
Cartoonist Scott Adams told BeloWatch he's received 50 e-mail letters from Dallas, most complaining that the News had censored the strip.
But that is the News' right, he noted. "That's a cold business decision. Would I have made the same decision? No, because I have a higher tolerance for controversy. If you're the editor of a newspaper, and your phone is ringing off the hook, you've got more basic things to worry about."
Some who read the strip have complained that he is a conservative-hating liberal, Adams added. In fact, he is intensely non-ideological; he says he is "pro-gun" and favors "the death penalty for double parking."
Dilbert is simply being misinterpreted, Adams concluded. "What I really am making fun of in the strip is that people get really excited and leap to conclusions without having the information--that people can demagogue without having a lot of information.
"There's a delicious irony."
Off the mark
How could the numbers be so wrong?
Six days before Dallas voters cast their ballots for mayor, the lead story in the Dallas Morning News reported Ron Kirk only modestly ahead of his two major challengers, Domingo Garcia and Darrell Jordan. According to the News' survey of 600 likely voters, Kirk was headed for a certain runoff, with 30 percent of the vote, compared to 23 percent for Garcia, 19 percent for Jordan, and 22 percent undecided.
The actual results, of course, were dramatically different. Kirk racked up 62 percent of the vote--twice what the News poll indicated. Jordan took 23 percent, and Garcia just 13 percent.
Was there a sea change within the electorate during the campaign's final days--an unforeseeable shift in preferences after the poll was conducted, as a result of dramatic campaign events?
Or did the News simply screw up?
The answer, in large part, is the latter.
Yes, Domingo Garcia took a pounding in the campaign's final days--with editorial criticism and unflattering stories in the media. Yes, Kirk snatched the editorial endorsement of Dallas' Only Daily after the poll results were in--a coup his well-funded campaign trumpeted in TV commercials.
But it is also clear that the News made critical mistakes.
The first involves the sample.
According to the News' April 30 story on its poll, 87 percent of its 600 respondents were white; 11 percent were black; and only 2 percent were Hispanic. The poll, noting "that the city keeps no official records of voting activity by ethnicity," assumed that those numbers would reflect actual turnout.
In fact, according to a post-election analysis for the News by respected independent demographer Dan Weiser, usual turnout in a Dallas municipal election is 70 percent white and 30 percent minority (far different from the poll's assumptions). But this year's turnout was 51 percent Anglo and 49 percent minority.
And, given the presence of viable black and Hispanic candidates for mayor, Weiser told BeloWatch, everyone should have expected an unusually high minority turnout. "I was predicting ahead of time," says Weiser, "that you'd get one of the largest black turnouts you'd ever seen--and also a [big] Hispanic turnout."
Another oddity: the News poll showed Kirk receiving only 70 percent of the African-American vote. Even Anglo Democrats receive more than 90 percent of the black vote "consistently," according to Weiser. With a strong black candidate in the race, it was reasonable to expect that he would receive an even bigger margin. Indeed, according to Weiser's analysis for the News, Kirk won 97 percent of the black vote.
Adding to the inaccuracy of the News poll, says Weiser, was an unreasonably large number of those surveyed who failed to state a preference; 22 percent were termed "undecided" and 4 percent "declined to answer." Additional questions would have produced more stated preferences, Weiser says.
According to Weiser, the News' survey suffered from being an inexpensive, "plain-vanilla" poll--done by formula, instead of taking into account through careful analysis the factors that would likely affect this year's results. "They were light on past history. There's an awful lot of science, and pseudo-science, which is based on [the notion that] tomorrow's like today which is like yesterday," he told BeloWatch.
"But there's a lot of times when you can tell tomorrow's not going to be like today."
"It makes a difference how you ask questions. You have to do them in depth. They're not set up to do that."
News research director Barbara Wells, identified as one of two poll supervisors, did not return BeloWatch calls for comment.
In the days after its poll came out, the News' ill-fated poll began to define campaign reality. The paper's political stories regularly spoke of Jordan and Garcia battling it out for the second position in a likely runoff.
After the results were in, the News offered no explicit reference to or explanation of the inaccuracy of its poll results. In fact, the only mention of the paper's survey was a comment that "Mr. Kirk was the front-runner in a poll conducted by The Dallas Morning News shortly before the election."
Well, they did get that right.
Last week's BeloWatch incorrectly reported that News 'Viewpoints' columnist Phil Seib is a political consultant. Seib has not done political consulting work for more than a decade. The item also should have identified him as a professor on the SMU faculty.