Unfairness doctrine

The heavy hand of the News' publisher tilts coverage of the Trinity bond proposal

A mini-revolt is brewing among Dallas Morning News reporters who believe the paper's coverage of the Trinity River bond election was dishonest.

At an angry newsroom meeting last week, reporters told top editors they felt the News' so-called "fairness" policy had become a "euphemism for watered-down coverage and kowtowing to the establishment."

Reverberations of the river coverage were still strong this week. "People are walking around saying, 'Oh my God, what kind of paper are we?'" a News staffer says.

The mood of insurgency was sparked a few days before the May 2 city bond election when News publisher Burl Osborne ordered late-night changes to a key story about former Mayor Adlene Harrison's criticism of the river plan.

Harrison, who is also a former regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, had held a news conference the Monday before the Saturday bond vote to urge its defeat. Harrison said the public was being seriously misled about the true nature of the billion-dollar project to develop the Trinity where it flows through Dallas.

In the first edition of the next day's Morning News, a front-page story by Robert Ingrassia gave equal play to Harrison's denunciation and to the unsurprising endorsement of the plan that same day by the Dallas Plan, a private booster group that maintains offices in City Hall.

Harrison's denunciation of the plan was newsworthy not only because of her long high-profile political career in the city, but because she had not been involved or visible on either side of the bond campaign before her news conference.

According to several sources at the paper, Osborne saw the first-edition story Monday evening and made an angry call to the newsroom, demanding that all mention of Harrison be moved off the front page in subsequent editions, to be re-inserted toward the bottom of the story on the continuation page inside the newspaper.

"Burl went nuts," a News editor said. "He was determined that only the Dallas Plan's endorsement would be on Page 1, come hell or high water."

No one from the paper would speak to the Dallas Observer on the record for attribution. Two reporters and an editor gave details of the situation on the condition they would not be named.

Sources within the paper said the only reason Osborne's actions became generally known among the staff was that Ingrassia, the city hall reporter who wrote the original story, balked at the changes Osborne ordered in his story.

Ingrassia, who was still in the newsroom that night when the call came from Osborne, insisted that his byline be removed from the story if Harrison's remarks were taken off the front page.

Ingrassia would not talk to the Observer, citing a Morning News company policy that reporters are not allowed to answer questions from the Observer. He referred the Observer to editor Ralph Langer.

The Observer called Langer's office for comment three days in advance of publication of this story and then faxed Langer a detailed description of the story, along with a guarantee that Langer's response, if any, would be included in the story without alteration or comment. Langer did not respond.

A reporter who witnessed the scene in the newsroom when Osborne's call was received said Ingrassia's demand that his byline be removed posed a significant public-relations dilemma for the News, both internally and externally.

"They couldn't run the story with no by-line, and they couldn't just stick somebody else's on it," he said.

A series of urgent negotiations ensued, eventually involving all of the paper's top editorial management. Late that night, Osborne agreed that Harrison's remarks could be mentioned on the front page, but not in the important "lede" or first paragraph, and that there would be no elaboration of why she objected to the river plan.

In return, Ingrassia, who was under intense pressure to back down, agreed to put his byline back on the story.

The late-night battle over the Harrison story caused so much unrest in the staff that Langer called a special newsroom meeting the next day to discuss it.

"Ralph admitted to the staff that Burl had 'overreacted,'" a source familiar with the meeting says. "He basically told the staff that Burl went ape-shit."

But the source says Langer's speech to the staff seemed to cause more anger and confusion than it relieved.

"Langer and the others started saying, 'Look, that was a rare occasion. That's not the culture of this place. Don't get it in your minds we won't let you do stuff.'

"They were telling us they didn't want to see anybody self-censoring themselves. They said, 'Don't self-censor.'"

It was at that point that reporters blurted out their frustrations. Staffers told their superiors they thought self-censorship seemed like the only sane response to the environment at the News and that all the News' vaunted policies on fairness were an excuse for suppressing hard-edged coverage of local issues and tilting the news toward friends of the paper's owners and publisher.

The Morning News gave strong consistent editorial-page support to the river proposal. In response to criticism that its news coverage had been biased in favor of the proposal, the News assigned several reporters, including Ingrassia, to cover all aspects of the issue.

Some News stories on the issue were incisive, such as Randy Lee Loftis' startling expose of severe pollution problems in the river. But like many of the paper's better-reported stories, the Loftis piece ran under a feel-good headline that seemed almost designed to deflect reader interest:

"A fluid plan," the headline said. "Proposal would pump cleaner tributary water to Trinity Lakes."

And none of the coverage seemed to get to what opponents felt was the core issue: that the basic design of the Trinity plan flew in the face of current mainstream wisdom on how to handle river flooding problems.

The Trinity River development proposal passed by 51.6 percent of 74,000 votes cast.

Harrison says she had no personal knowledge of the battle within the Morning News newsroom over her story and could comment only on the obvious differences between the first version, in the state edition delivered only to distant areas, and the compromise version that appeared in later editions delivered that day to Dallas area addresses.

"It distresses me a lot that, in a city where I was born and raised, I can't be heard because there's only one major daily newspaper," she says.

"I remember when the News finally won their victory over the Dallas Times Herald. In running the Herald out of town, they spent the first six weeks bending over backward promising everybody they were going to have fair coverage. Well, after the first six weeks, I can't see that they're being very fair."

Harrison says she thought the manipulation of the river story at the city's two Belo Corp. news outlets--the Morning News and Channel 8--had enabled Belo to corrupt the public process with its near-monopoly in the market.

"The Trinity issue was a legitimate difference of opinion, and they did everything they could to squash the opposition," she says.

Harrison says she thought the opposition to the Trinity proposal, a grassroots movement with a tiny war chest compared with the money spent by the boosters, could have won the election had it not been for Belo.

"It wasn't a fair fight," she says. "It's too bad the law doesn't protect the average citizen from a newspaper that uses its power to try to lead the voters in certain directions and doesn't give the opposition a chance.

"It's pretty hard to respect the so-called powers that be in this town," Harrison said.

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