By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
News' child-custody saga
probes Wright and wrong
The January 21 edition of The Dallas Morning News contained an extraordinary story: the saga of Channel 5 anchor Brad Wright's messy, messy divorce and custody battle.
The Sunday piece, by Tim Wyatt and Howard Swindle, began at the bottom of the front page and filled more than a full page inside the paper. The lead was confusing, and not a single photo or illustration--just a large chronology chart--broke up the gray columns of text.
But the narrative was so compelling that even the News couldn't dull it up. Relying heavily on court records, Wyatt and Swindle detailed a five-year, $600,000 court fight involving three grand juries, two criminal trials, a $30 million civil suit, two families, six children, and allegations of child molestation.
Among the provocative issues it raised: how false sexual-abuse allegations can be used as a weapon in custody fights; whether attorneys knowingly exploit such charges to extract a favorable settlement; and whether Wright (who wrote at least one personal letter involving the case on Channel 5 stationery) abused his influence and high-profile position to aid his custody battle.
Reached on Tuesday, Wright called the News story "nonsense" and said he is meeting with his attorneys about it. He added: "If I had indeed done what the story alleged, it would be child abuse."
The News thinly wrapped its story in the high-minded overlay of "an occasional series of articles exploring the conduct of the legal system and issues of public trust." Those issues were powerfully present. But this was just a flat-out riveting tale that needed no pretext.
A few minor BeloWatch questions: Did the focus on a rival station's anchor boost the paper's uncharacteristic journalistic zeal? This story's intensity and focus were dramatically greater, for example, than the Swindle-Wyatt team's watered-down story last year on Democratic U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall. Would the News have done this story about a newsman at Belo-owned Channel 8 newsman?
Most important, why doesn't Dallas' Only Daily pull off such no-holds-barred journalism more often?
Both men, now in their early 60s, began working at the News more than four decades ago and became jacks-of-all-their-trade. Blair covered golf, college and pro football, the Olympics, and tennis, among other sports; Bowman wrote about movies, music, ballet, dance, opera, and television.
The reason for the departures: Both accepted an early-retirement package the News has offered some veteran employees to cut staffing. The paper has never said a word in print about the early-retirement program--apparently a budget-cutting measure--but simply left the vacant positions it created unfilled, BeloWatch is told.
One would expect the News, which usually celebrates its own history at the drop of a dusty paper, to somehow acknowledge in print the departure of two lions of the profession.
In the case of Blair, it did.
A January 7 "Sports Day Memo" began: "A funny thing happened to Sam Blair on his vacation. He decided to retire."
The item made no mention of the company's inducement to do just that, but praised the "distinguished writing career" of the 63-year-old Blair.
Bowman, however, disappeared without a printed trace.
The difference: While Blair accepted his six-figure settlement under happy circumstances, BeloWatch has learned, Bowman had previously filed a complaint against the paper with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging age discrimination.
According to BeloWatch sources, the EEOC complaint, filed in November, stemmed from Bowman's dissatisfaction with his treatment under "Lifestyles" Assistant Managing Editor Mark Weinberg, including Bowman's transfer to a job on the paper's Weekend Guide, the News' equivalent of Siberia.
Weinberg did not return BeloWatch calls for comment.
Bowman, 62, has not pursued the age-bias complaint after accepting the December early-retirement offer. He declined comment to BeloWatch about the matter, saying: "Things are amicable between me and the News now. I can't spend my entire professional life somewhere and leave on bad terms."
Keep your BeloWatching eyes peeled for Anne Belli Gesalman's forthcoming report on visiting judges in Dallas County.
Gesalman, according to a December 12 Dallas Bar Association memo obtained by BeloWatch, "is doing a story on the use of visiting judges in Dallas County." The memo says that several Bar Association officials met with Gesalman, but declined to give an "overall report card" on visiting judges.
The use of visiting judges is an interesting topic. Observer staff writer Miriam Rozen's November 25, 1993 cover story in these pages on the subject, "Have Gavel, Will Travel," won a certificate of merit in the American Bar Association's annual Silver Gavel Awards.
Though the mid-December memo advised to "watch for her article in a few weeks," the treatise has yet to appear. As her recent column in the "Today" section suggests, Gesalman presumably has been busy arranging for suburban bomb squads to fire bullets into unidentified baby presents left on her doorstep.