Politically incorrect

News editors try to strong-arm the League of Women Voters over its stance on the Trinity

Dallas Morning News executives have threatened to halt publication of the Dallas League of Women Voters' election guide because of the league's official opposition to the Trinity River project.

The executives who summoned league leadership to a knuckle-rapping session over the river issue were from the paper's news side, not its editorial opinion page or business staff.

According to sources who were present at the meeting, News Executive Editor Gilbert Bailon and Managing Editor Stuart Wilk told league officers they were considering whether to cease publication of the League of Women Voters' Voters Guide because of the league's public opposition to the $246 million Trinity River bond issue.

The Voters Guide is compiled by the nonpartisan wing of the league as an educational service to the community. Major metropolitan newspapers around the nation traditionally have published the guide at no charge to the league as a service to readers.

According to league leaders, Wilk and Bailon professed to think it was illegal for the league to take advocacy positions on electoral issues because of the league's nonpartisan status. League officials explained to them that the league, a 75-year-old national organization that grew out of the suffrage movement, had looked to those issues long ago and had arranged itself so that it could operate legally as two arms--one nonpolitical and the other politically outspoken.

The News' confrontation with the league on the river issue--the subject of persistent rumors since it took place about a month ago--was confirmed in the September issue of the league's newsletter.

Although they had informed their members of their troubles with the News in the newsletter, local league officers were not eager to discuss the issue with the Dallas Observer, since Bailon and Wilk left them with the impression the News might still cease publication of the guide in the future.

The guide is a strictly nonpartisan inventory of candidates and issues. Part of the league's agreement with newspapers that publish the guide is that the newspapers not edit the contents in any way, lest the newspapers inject some element or tone of bias.

The incident with the News was especially sticky for the Dallas branch of the league, which took the position against the river plan, since it co-publishes the Voters Guide with Plano, Richardson, and several other suburban branches of the league. If the Dallas branch got the guide kicked out of the News, all of the suburban branches would suffer too.

"We value our relationship with the News," said League of Women Voters State President Julie Lowenberg.

Linda Wassenich, president of the Dallas chapter, said losing the support of the city's only major metropolitan daily newspaper would be a serious blow to the Voters Guide and to the league.

"We want to continue publishing the Voters Guide in the Morning News," she said. "Their distribution is greater than any other way that we could get the Voters Guide out to the public."

Neither Wilk nor Bailon returned repeated phone calls from the Observer.
League officials did say they were struck by the fact that the Morning News people who called them to the meeting were from the supposedly unbiased news side of the paper.

Lowenberg said she and other league officials present at the meeting took pains to explain to Wilk and Bailon that the league, like many nonprofit organizations, is divided into two legally distinct entities--an educational wing, which can raise tax-deductible donations but cannot take advocacy positions in electoral politics, and an advocacy wing, which is actually almost 30 years older than the educational wing and embodies the league's founding mission.

"I think newspapers are very analogous," Lowenberg said. While a newspaper's editorial page may take strong advocacy positions, she said, "the news side of the newspaper supposedly writes the news in an unbiased way."

But the Trinity River project has been a sore test of the News' ability to provide straight-up coverage on a controversial local issue. In the months before the project went to the voters, the paper's reporting staff had described almost all critics of the plan in terms that made them sound like hair-shirt environmental extremists.

When the league came out against the plan, it was the first serious indication that the plan might run into trouble within the political mainstream. Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk characterized the league's position as "abominable," but league members insisted they had taken the position only after long, careful study.

The league has about 430 members in Dallas, Wassenich said. Membership is open to anyone who wants to join.

The Trinity River plan is controversial because it is centered on massive construction projects close to the river--levees, highways, and parks--with an avowed purpose of spurring real estate activity near the river. Since the devastating floods along the Mississippi in 1993, national policy has been to discourage projects that constrict rivers or that encourage new development near their banks.

Opponents of the project received another major shot in the arm in the week before the election when Adlene Harrison, a former Dallas mayor pro tem and former regional chief of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, came out forcefully against the plan. But the News suffered a major meltdown in its coverage of that event.

News Publisher Burl Osborne demanded that mention of Harrison's objections to the plan be removed from the front page and be re-inserted at the bottom of a story on the day's river-related news. Robert Ingrassia, the reporter who wrote the story, demanded, in turn, that his name be removed from it, spurring a several-hours-long standoff until Osborne relented.

Later that week, news staffers were required to attend what apparently is becoming a regular event now at the News--a major group-therapy session for the staff in which senior news-side managers seek to reassure distraught younger reporters that their newspaper is still honest in spite of certain appearances.

The meeting with the league, called by Bailon and Wilk, came at least a month after the News had already won the battle on the river question. However narrow the margin or slim the turnout, the fact is that voters supported an enormous bond sale to pay for the city's share of what may be a $2 billion project before it's done.

Robin Yaklin, editor of the Voters Guide, said she was not surprised that two men in their positions, running the news operation of a major metropolitan daily newspaper, might not know how nonpartisan groups operate.

"You know how you can know something intellectually, but you don't really know it in your heart," Yaklin said. "I think this may have been something like that. We had two very intelligent men asking us intelligent questions, and the fact that they were asking us just didn't ruffle my feathers at all."

But members of the league who have been closer to the river issue took a more jaundiced view. For one thing, the News has shown no inclination to provide hard news coverage of the many objections to the plan being raised during the required environmental review process, including the fact the Army Corps of Engineers now admits the project will make overall flooding in Dallas worse, not better.

"Wilk and Bailon left it with us that they were signing off for now on continuing to publish the guide," said a member who spoke on the condition that she remain anonymous. "But they also said they still had unresolved issues with us. So that's supposed to be a shoe hanging over us, waiting to fall, if we get out of line again as this thing goes along.

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