By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Buzz watched in wonder as Dallas Morning News executive vice president Ralph Langer made the rounds of television news shows over the weekend, defending his paper's blockbuster story on the alleged confession of Oklahoma City bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh.
In a copyrighted story printed Saturday--and posted on the Internet Friday afternoon--the News claimed to have obtained secret documents detailing McVeigh's confession to defense attorneys. The News story, by Pete Slover, named no source for its scoop, and McVeigh's defense attorney decried the report as irresponsible and its origin "a hoax."
In the ensuing media firestorm, the white-haired, gray-blooded Langer was sent out to face the cameras of inquiring television reporters. Buzz was particularly struck by Langer's comment that the Morning News would never, ever engage in sloppy journalism on a story this important. Or any story, for that matter, Langer declared, seriously upping the chutzpah ante.
Sorry, Ralph, but near-total hometown monopoly must be corroding your memory banks, or you'd realize that invoking a mantle of journalistic respectability for the News to defend the McVeigh story is a very iffy proposition. Texas journalists have been entertained for years by the News' propensity for rushing into print with totally fictitious "exclusive stories." Buzz, of course, has no idea if Slover's story will prove true; only time will tell. (Then again, the vague and sourceless nature of the story may make confirmation ultimately impossible.) But if the News has any tradition at all, it's one of completely screwing up on major news stories. The higher the death count, in fact, the more likely that the paper will come out with inspired, and copyrighted, malarkey.
Most famous was the News' fiction on the 1991 Killeen massacre. You remember, when George Hennard drove his pickup into a Luby's cafeteria and methodically mowed down 23 people? The worst mass murder by gunfire in U.S. history? The News printed an exclusive story saying that police found a movie ticket stub from The Fisher King in Hennard's pocket, and went on to speculate that the crazed gunman was inspired by the popular movie. There was no such ticket stub, and police eviscerated the News at a press conference for printing the bogus story.
Before that, there was the News scoop on the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion. Viewers around the world watched as television stations replayed the horrific deaths of schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe and six others. The DMN scored a beat on journalists worldwide by being the first paper to print a story blaming the accident on wind shear. It was a nice exclusive, except it had no grounding in reality. Can you say O-rings, Ralph?
Closer to home, the News made another gargantuan mistake covering the crash of Delta Flight 191, the worst aviation accident in Texas history. On August 2, 1985, a Delta L-1011 crashed while attempting to land at D/FW airport, killing 137 people. Within days of the crash, the News trotted out a story claiming that Flight 191 might have been able to pull out of its fatal plunge if its left wing had not clipped a water tank near the runway. That poorly placed water tank, the paper told readers, may have caused the high loss of life. Damned if federal investigators didn't see things differently. Powerful wind shear (maybe that's what led to the Challenger exclusive) downed the plane, investigators found. The tank may have actually saved lives--the water inside helped douse flames from the wreck.
Local plane crashes, in fact, are a particularly troublesome subject for News reporters. In August 1988, misfortune visited Delta again when Flight 1141 crashed during takeoff at D/FW, killing 14 people. For days, the News ran numerous stories reporting that the most likely cause of the crash was an inexplicable, almost simultaneous failure of both of the plane's engines, a fluke of astronomical odds. How mundane it was for readers to later learn that, in reality, the plane's crew had simply failed to set the flaps properly for takeoff.
Then there was the collapse of a discount clothing store in Brownsville in 1988. Fourteen people died when the three-story building came tumbling down during a torrential rainstorm. The News, once again, was out front on the story. A News reporter noticed that a transformer had fallen off a nearby telephone pole, and entertained readers with an exclusive story blaming the collapse on the transformer. While more than $30 million was paid out to settle lawsuits after the collapse, the transformer was never mentioned again.
All Buzz can say on the McVeigh story is good luck, Pete. May the source be with you.
--Glen Warchol and David Pasztor
Could KERA-Channel 13, formerly known as Richie's SCUBA Tours, really be considering, gasp, local programming? Nothing's being made public yet, but Buzz has it that KERA is showing a pilot of Between the Lines to focus groups with the possibility of resurrecting the Cross Fire-wannabe--featuring political consultant Rob Allyn, Clintonite Regina Montoya, and Star-Telegram columnist Bob Ray Sanders. Sanders tells us that "It's definitely a go" for April.
KERA is also looking at a local, independently produced series tentatively titled Woman's Work. The WW pilot, expected to be completed in mid-April, will feature profiles of women's rights activist and former Dallas Times Herald editor Vivian Castleberry and the city's first Hispanic city councilwoman, Anita Martinez, along with stuff of interest to working women.
Between the Lines was the last of KERA's local programming when it was canceled last year. If you remember, station manager Richie Meyers, who with $200,000 in salary and perks was one of the nation's highest paid, felt the mission of public television was to run British comedies ad nauseam and provide him and his wife with junkets to exotic diving locales. Meyers later left the station for a cushy fellowship in Taiwan. Bummer.
Despite its usefulness in curing insomnia--and Rob Allyn's inability to be half as droll as those Brits--we hope the return of Between the Lines will herald a golden, or at least bronze, age of local programming.