See No News, Print No News

The Dallas Morning News sends a crack team to make sure a big story doesn't get covered

Let me tell you a story. Sophia Dembling, a Dallas writer, sends The Dallas Morning News a letter a few weeks ago to make a point. She says in her letter that the words "bitch" and "whore," directed recently at Dallas City Councilwoman Laura Miller by speakers and protesters supporting Dallas police Chief Terrell Bolton, were not merely "'vulgarities,' as they are being described, but are more specifically slurs against women."

The Morning News editorial page sends Dembling a letter in return telling her they can't publish her letter because nobody can prove the protesters really said those words. "A rule of thumb here is we avoid having our letter writers be reporters," the News says in its letter to Dembling. The News said it was "unaware of any independent news outlet that has reported the exact words."

OK, I come into possession of some of this correspondence between Dembling and the News, and I call Dembling about it. To be honest, she is not thrilled that I have a copy of her letter, and she declines to characterize the News' behavior in any way, but she does confirm the authenticity of both letters. I am later able to authenticate them again from sources inside the News.

But why am I peeping at somebody else's mail, and why on earth am I telling you about it?

Because this is a case in which the words themselves mean everything. The words are the story. The story without the words--with the words whited out--is a deception, a sleight of hand.

On the morning of March 31, protesters appeared outside the Kessler Park home of council member Miller carrying signs and calling slogans through an amplified bullhorn. The signs called Miller a bitch and a whore and included other sexual slurs--"penis-envy," for example--questioning Miller's womanhood. The same picketers carried signs saying that a Morning News reporter who has been covering the police chief is a homosexual and that the resident special agent in charge of the FBI also is a homosexual (both claims apparently wrong).

The protesters were angry with Miller because she and council member Donna Blumer have been seeking information about an FBI corruption probe of Bolton, who is the city's first black police chief. The protest outside Miller's house was carried out by African-American picketers under the leadership of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and Lee Alcorn, former leader of the local branch of the NAACP. Alcorn was last in the news--national news, actually--because of a series of anti-Semitic remarks he made about the vice presidential nomination of Senator Joe Lieberman.

So here is the basic scenario: Well-known black leaders, supporters of the chief of police, go to the home of a public figure and carry out a sign-carrying protest, a ritual of the Civil Rights Movement designed to attract media attention, in which they espouse two alternate forms of bigotry: sexism and homophobia. They use terms so offensive that the words seem almost equivalent to the kind of language that certainly would elicit cries of hate-crime if painted on the homes of the protesters.

The Morning News and other major daily media of the city report none of this for several days. The Miller protest came along just as the powers-that-be in the city were trying to woo the Boeing Corporation here. Deep-rooted folklore among the power-wielders downtown is that Dallas lost out on the corporate relocation game in the 1980s because of racial discord on the city council.

As the protests continue over the next few days, people in Dallas slowly learn of them from sketchy television reports in which the bad words are blurred out. The Morning News finally reports the protests in the middle of the next week, but to this day the paper still has never told people about the words.

When I wrote a column about the words ("Dump Bolton," April 12), I received a flood of responses, a reaction unlike anything I've seen in 20 years as a columnist in the city, most of it dominated by a single theme. I am recalling a woman's phone message from memory without notes, but this is pretty close: "Thank you for your story on the protest in front of Laura Miller's house. When I first saw a report on TV about the protests, I thought, 'Laura Miller can dish it out, but she can't take it.' But when I saw the words they had used in your story, I was very shocked, and I realized that this was beyond politics."

Dembling's letter to the News was a more literate and measured statement of the same thing I had been hearing on the phone and in e-mail all week: People couldn't understand what the Miller protest story was about unless and until they saw the words.

This was about an African-American leadership in Dallas so tragically removed from the Civil Rights Movement, so totally out of touch with the teachings of either Dr. King or Malcolm X, that one of two terrible things has happened: Either the leadership no longer understands what bigotry is and so fails to recognize it coming out of its own mouth, or the leadership has surrendered to bigotry, admires it and wants to sign up.

In the latter case, what an exuberant welcome they will receive from people delighted to see them down on their hands and knees and out in the mud with the rednecks. That was the other side of the response I received: an outpouring of warlike joy from every white racist bigot who could make it out from under his rock that week to thank me for criticizing John Wiley Price.

Let's not kid ourselves about that aspect of the community. The minute you start thinking there's no racism in the Dallas Police Department and that the chief has nothing to worry about, go online and take a good long gander at www.undergroundcop.com, the unofficial chat room for a certain contingent of Dallas' white police officers. In this very ugly venue, African-American police officers are regularly referred to as "roids," short for negroid. In post after post, white people hiding behind the coward's coat of Internet anonymity accuse black officers of stupidity, dishonesty and sexual depravity because they are black.

The white cops will try to tell me, I'm sure, that they have nothing to do with this page, but there's way too much insider police department gossip on the page for me to believe that. The foul dialogue on this page matches the words paraded in front of Miller's house last month syllable for syllable in ignorance and immorality. That just makes it all the more tragic to see people who claim lineage from the Civil Rights Movement involved in precisely the same kind of foul play.

The words are everything. Without the words, it's all just noise. So here is what you need to know about the city's only daily newspaper, flagship of one of the nation's major media companies, and how it covered the first day of protest in front of Miller's house:

On the Friday before the Miller protest, the same picketers carrying the same signs appeared in front of the Morning News. Someone connected with the pickets informed the News that the picketers planned to appear the next morning in front of Miller's house.

That night at about 9 p.m., a Morning News editor called Miller on her city mobile phone and left her a message warning her that the News had information that protesters would appear at her house the next morning.

I have no idea why the editor called her that late on the mobile phone and not at her home number, which is listed. It occurs to me that having left such a message would cover the editor in case violence took place during the protests and the editor were accused of having failed to pass on the knowledge in his possession. I'm not naming the editor, because he didn't return my call; the News' managing editor, Stuart Wilk, who is supposed to handle inquiries from the Observer by company policy, didn't respond to a detailed faxed letter I sent him, and I was able to confirm only a portion of the editor's role in what ensued.

But this much I did confirm, from sources both inside and outside the Morning News staff: The Morning News had both a reporter and a photographer at Miller's house on the morning of the first protest. Photographs of one of the picket signs, which said "Miller Whore," were later blown up and displayed on staffers' desks in the Morning News newsroom.

Let me bring this into focus: The Morning News was privy to the planning of the Laura Miller protest. It gave Miller a technical warning of the protest, which she never heard until long after the protest was over.

The Morning News had a reporter and a photographer at her house that morning. Photographs of the placards depicting the words "Miller Whore" were on display in the newsroom.

But when Dembling tried to make the crucial point about the words in her letter to the Morning News, that these are not mere vulgar words but expressions of bigotry, the Morning News told her it could not publish the words because the words had never been published.

By it.

To this date, the Morning News still has never reported the words.

And what is the prize, again? Boeing? Even if they come, they're not coming to the city. And they're bringing no manufacturing, just corporate headquarters out on some low-rise suburban campus. It's all ego for the deal-makers and contempt for the city.

That's what you get for 50 cents these days.

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