To the rotten core

The Lipscomb trial took us where the News don't shine

The lesson that should have come out of the Al Lipscomb trial in Amarillo -- the unmistakable lesson for the jury -- is that Dallas is a profoundly corrupt city. But that lesson never made the daily newspaper here, because the daily newspaper is part of the corruption.

Lipscomb, our most venerable city council member and a civil rights battler in his youth, was tried and convicted in federal court of taking bribes. During the process of the two-week trial, The Dallas Morning News steadfastly refused to tell its readers that the underlying theme of the trial was an implied indictment of the moral political climate in Dallas.

Therefore people in Dallas on all sides of the Lipscomb issue, for him and against him, were equally in the dark and unprepared for the action of the jury in the Panhandle, where the case had been moved on a change of venue.

Dallas' upside-down moral political climate must have puzzled Panhandle jurors.
Henry Bargas
Dallas' upside-down moral political climate must have puzzled Panhandle jurors.

The Amarillo jury slam-dunked him. But Lipscomb was able to get away with coming back to town and telling people he was innocent and had been wrongly convicted by a jury of 12 white rednecks who slept through most of the testimony.

I was there. They weren't asleep. And it wasn't that they were white. It was that both sides of the case, even the defense, made Lipscomb look real bad, and he went down cold. Twelve federal jurors drawn from Amarillo and its surrounding rural counties deliberated only three and a half hours to convict Lipscomb on all 65 counts of bribery, corruption, and conspiracy.

I don't know what happened in the jury room. But in typical jury terms, three and a half hours of deliberation on 65 counts would break down to maybe half an hour to 45 minutes of everybody getting coffee and going to the bathroom, say an hour re-reading the indictment and going over the judge's charge, and then the rest of it would be barely enough time to go straight down the list of counts, vote straight-up guilty on everything without a word of real debate, get the paperwork together, and then call the marshal.

As defense lawyer Tom Melsheimer told the cameras afterward, "We weren't ever in the hunt."

But why weren't they in the hunt? What did the jury in Amarillo hear that made them so certain Al Lipscomb was 65 times a crook?

How about everything they heard -- from both sides.

First the government shows convincingly that the city councilman in question took a lot of money in cash in envelopes from a white guy who owned a cab company, in return for which the city councilman, who is black, turned his voting record 180 degrees and started voting to screw black independent cab drivers and other people of color right and left. He betrayed his own people for cash.

Then, when the defense does its case, some black people from Dallas -- a county commissioner and a rich-looking preacher -- come to court and testify that everybody black in Dallas takes money under the table from rich white people and works to keep it a secret from other black people. (Right about now you remember that you have never actually seen your brother-in-law do a pinkeye injection on a roped steer.)

Then a rich black lawyer who is the mayor of Dallas comes to court and testifies that, in Dallas, taking cash money in an envelope and voting against your own people is considered a virtue and evidence of the very highest, very very finest, very most extremely excellent kind of integrity. And finally Herb Kelleher, the red-nosed party-animal old guy whom you've seen on posters all over the airport and who runs Southwest Airlines, puts his hand on the Bible and tells you he thinks Al Lipscomb is one hep cat.

What are you thinking? Three things: Once again, I am very glad I don't live in Dallas; I have got to reach my brother-in-law by cell phone; Can I just leave my vote on a piece of paper?

The point is that the government's case in Amarillo and the defense case came together, both of them, hand in glove, one after the other, and painted the same picture of Dallas -- a deplorably corrupt place where people are so deep in moral compromise that they don't even know they're compromised.

That's the story the Morning News did not and would not tell. And the reason the News won't tell its readers that story is that the newspaper itself is a big element in the story.

In fairness, it wasn't necessarily the job of Michael Saul, the City Hall reporter who covered the trial, to tell that part. He could have done it, or somebody else could have done it. The what-it's-all-about story is not the same thing as the daily courthouse reporting that Saul was doing.

But in any accurate and truthful telling of the news, there is a next step beyond the daily scorecard stuff, and that's the step the Morning News did not take and never takes. In daily newspaper terms, it's called a "take-out." A take-out is a long piece, usually published in the Sunday paper, in which some reporter and his or her editors go back over a stream of daily reporting like the Lipscomb trial stories, summarize them, and then offer a synthesis and analysis that says, "This is what this stuff is all about. This is what really happened up there in Amarillo. Here is why they slam-dunked Al."

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