BeloWatch

Better not left unsaid
Sometimes The Dallas Morning News misleads by what it prints. And sometimes the News misleads by what it doesn't print.

Two fairly recent examples suggest how Dallas' Only Daily can skew its coverage.

The first involved the violence-tinged Detroit newspaper strike.
On Sunday, September 24, a 2,735-word report on the dispute, written by reporter Michael Saul, dominated the front page of the News' business section.

The story, which filled a full page inside, offered a distinctly pro-management tilt.

Understand, for starters, that the News experienced its own bitter labor dispute back in 1974, with striking union pressmen. Belo CEO Robert Decherd, then a mere management trainee with a sainted bloodline and a substantial bloc of company stock, was a key foot soldier in the company's successful bid to bust the union and replace its members with non-union workers. (The News now has not a single union.)

In short, the News has accomplished precisely what newspaper executives in Detroit appear well on their way toward doing.

Why should that affect Michael Saul, writing in 1995? Because stories--even routine ones--about the media receive extraordinary scrutiny from editors at Dallas' Only Daily. They are pruned, cut, and shaped, then sent to the executive suite, where orders are often issued for them to be pruned, cut, and shaped some more.

Saul declined a BeloWatch request for comment, citing the News' policy against reporters granting interviews without explicit permission from top management. Executive Editor Ralph Langer did not return a call for comment. As a result, the precise process that produced Saul's published account is unknown to BeloWatch. Saul might not have had a word changed. His draft may have never left the business desk. Or it might have been totally rewritten in the executive suite.

What is clear is what appeared.
In Detroit, six unions representing more than 2,000 workers went on strike July 13 against Gannett's Detroit News, Knight-Ridder's Detroit Free Press and the agency that runs the business operations for the two chains under a special federal antitrust exemption.

Saul's story, produced during the third month of the strike--a strike virtually ignored by the News to that point--is filled with detailed accounts of the "dramatic efficiencies" instituted at the papers' production facilities since the strike began (a result of eliminating antiquated work rules for manning presses and composition equipment). "Areas that required three people before the strike now require one as a result of a more experienced workforce, fewer coffee breaks and less chitchat," according to one manager.

Hard to be against that.
It notes the bitter unionists' vandalism ("squirting Krazy Glue into the coin slots of newspaper racks") and violence ("During a Labor Day melee at the paper's printing plant in Sterling Heights, police officers in riot gear fired pepper spray at striking workers who pelted them with auto parts and smacked them with their picket signs").

Hard to be in favor of that.
Bar graphs and charts chronicle the steady restoration of circulation toward pre-strike levels--and the steadily increasing number of workers on the job despite the walkout. Newspaper executives are portrayed as favoring workplace efficiency, youth, merit pay, modernization--and reasonable profits. Union members are portrayed as clichŽs: hanging out in a local bar, hurling insults and easily dismissed rhetoric toward the brave employees who have heeded management's call to cross the picket lines.

The News, of course, also offers the gloomy statistics about the deaths of daily newspapers, suggesting that union intransigence could still yet another pair of voices.

But what's not mentioned anywhere--not even in passing, among 2,735 words--is the strongest evidence of management's intransigence.

The story never mentions that the National Labor Relations Board in late August filed charges alleging that the strike resulted from management's unfair labor practices. It never mentions that the NLRB complaint, if upheld, would require the company to rehire the striking workers. It never mentions that the NLRB threatened to issue a complaint against management for bargaining in bad faith.

And Saul only fleetingly discusses what the striking workers were seeking in their pre-strike negotiations: avoiding layoffs and a share of the $46 million profits the papers enjoyed last year--with the help of worker givebacks.

In short, the truth of the Detroit newspaper strike is that there is plenty of ugly unreasonableness to go around.

But that, unfortunately, isn't the story presented in the pages of The Dallas Morning News.

This week's second tale of matters best not left unsaid involved a prize.
The National Preservation Honor Award in question was one of 17 that the National Trust for Historic Preservation handed out during its annual conference, held last week in Fort Worth.

But only one of the 17 prizes--actually announced two weeks earlier--was deemed worthy even of mention in the News.

That mention, however, was no mere minor listing in a briefs column--the sort you'd expect for such a prize.

This award merited a full-fledged, metro-front story in the October 13 News, complete with the kind of dull recipient-gets-the-prize-and-handshake photo that major dailies usually eschew.

The award actually went to the Texas State Preservation Board, and the woman in question--its former executive director--was merely accepting on the group's behalf. In fact, the National Trust's two-page press release on the award doesn't even mention the name of the woman who accepted the prize. Nonetheless, the story by Jacquielynn Floyd treated the woman--who presided over the $187 million restoration of the Texas State Capitol--in downright personally heroic terms. Beneath a not-exactly-honest headline reading, "Capitol restoration chief wins award," she wrote: it "might have been an impossible task....the work restored the spectacular building's 19th-century grandeur." The honoree, Floyd wrote, "managed as many as 500 workers a day on the project."

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