Bad Blow

Why are the DMN city columnists so lame? Belo wants them that way.

Blow used to do this. When he started writing columns more than a decade ago, he wasn't afraid to call someone out. He was more qualified about it than I like my opinion-makers to be, but nevertheless he used his column to help expose, embarrass and discredit the defrocked TV evangelist Robert Tilton. It was a classic example of what a city columnist should do. The end to that style came with a column Blow wrote in the early '90s about County Commissioner John Wiley Price. Blow quoted Price as saying that he and African-American supporters would take "guns to the streets" if his concerns about the city's racist leadership and media weren't dealt with. The column caused an uproar.

Several reporters have told me over the years that it was this column that caused then-DMN overlord Burl Osborne to issue a proclamation that from that point forward no Morning News column would break news. The unofficial charge to the editors and writers was that, as one editor put it, "if we want strong opinions, that's what we have the op-ed pages for."

This is why defenders of Blow and his colleagues scrunch up their faces when you complain about their milquetoast ways. "They're great people who would like to be more hard-edged," one reporter told me after too many drinks one night. "But the men who run this place are scared of pissing readers off." It's why the patron saint of badass reporters, our own Schutze, grimaced when he saw that I was going to write about Blow. The point being: This is a group of well-meaning people, and you're attacking them for something they can't control.

Boy can't help it: Blow's defenders say his bosses ordered him to be tame.
Dorit Rabinovitch
Boy can't help it: Blow's defenders say his bosses ordered him to be tame.

True. And more full disclosure: I am quite friendly with Floyd when we run into each other at journalism functions. (Well, I was.) I don't know Ragland, Blow or Jeffers, but I'm sure they're all sweethearts. But to say they're blameless in this let's-all-be-hacks conspiracy is wrong. Metro columnists are not the third-string guards on the team; they are the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers, and with these star roles come the rewards and the responsibilities.

As one DMNer notes, "It's not like they're getting great hard-hitting columns shot down all the time. So we won't get people talking on the big issues. Where's the column that says [police Chief Terrell] Bolton should be gone? Nowhere. You'll never see it.

"Ragland is the edgiest of the three, but even he understands that there is a line you don't cross. You can dance up to it, you can jump around it, you can step on it, but never over it. Just the way it is. It won't ever change. So will the paper ever be a player? Will we ever have someone who is a must-read? No. We will have what we have: a group of very nice, congenial people who write some very nice features. And that's what management wants."

What it wants, it gets. What it gets is that the day after Laura Miller's mayoral victory, Steve Blow's Metro front-page column read as if it were written in 1993. It asked the question, "Am I the only one amused by the suggestions from my spell-checker? Or should the Mavs go ahead and change their name to the Mauves?"

That's right. It was a column about his spell-checker, which Blow praised. "If I type 'embarass,'" he wrote, "the computer tries to spare me some and suggests I spell it 'embarrass.'"

In fact, it should have been embarrassing, awkward and uncomfortable (my computer has a thesaurus!) that the column ran at all, especially on that day. Miller's victory was a shocking statement to the power structure of Dallas. Was there nothing substantive to say about it? Even The Associated Press wrote a story about it. The Chicago Sun-Times' Mark Brown wrote a column about it, albeit a lighthearted one. Shortly before that, the Star-Telegram's Bud Kennedy wrote a column on Miller that I completely disagreed with but loved because it took a stand.

It should be noted that the Star-Telegram has its own sacred cows (anyone with the last name of a common fish, for example). But its columnists prove that you can survive in a conservative town and still have guts.

Bob Ray Sanders, a Star-Telegram vice president and metro columnist, writes about big issues and forgotten people. Sanders is an unabashed liberal who writes about prisoners, the poor and minorities--but who is unafraid to go against any tide. As an editor there says, "Bob Ray may be the single most courageous columnist in the metroplex. He hangs it out there every day, knowing that 75 to 90 percent of readers disagree with him."

Sanders fights to expand the role of a metro columnist, not shrink it. "I went against our own editorial stance in the Love Field fight and said it was stupid for Fort Worth to sue Dallas," Sanders says, "so people say I favor Dallas. When the police do somebody wrong, I say they're wrong. Because the truth is, somebody has to do that. I couldn't just write a column about warm, fuzzy things because journalism to me is a calling.

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