By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Let's play Big City Newspaper Editor. I'll ask a question, and you try to answer it correctly--in other words, answer it the way a man in charge at, say, The Dallas Morning News would answer it. Got it?
Good. The question is simple: If you were an editor at a big-city daily newspaper, would you consider it in the public's interest to publish the following story?
Here's the story. It is true. Read, then decide.
On the night of April 30, 2000, two rich Highland Park philanthropists--Bill Barrett, then 76, and wife Angela Barrett, then 55--returned home from a party at 3:30 a.m. They had been drinking. They were quarreling. Angela Barrett wanted to go somewhere else. Her husband thought better of it and tried to stop her. She cut his hand with her keys, kicked him three times in the right leg and finished it off with a kick to the groin. She took off, he called 911, and she was later charged with assault--family violence, a class A misdemeanor.
OK, is that a story? What's the headline? Old woman kicks really old man's ass? Funny, but is it newsworthy? What if you knew that Angela Barrett was on the board of The Family Place? Would that change your mind?
Well, it shouldn't. Granted, it makes a funny story absolutely fabulous, but it does not change the newsworthiness of the tale. In other words, even drunk rich people deserve their privacy unless they do something that affects the public, right? So at this point, no, most of you playing along at home would not print the story, right?
Then why print it here? Because, of course, that's not all there was to the story.
See, shortly after his wife was charged with this spousal abuse, Bill Barrett decided he didn't want to press charges. In fact, he wanted the whole thing to go away. This is understandable. Granted, the man is in his 70s, but an ass-whuppin' by yer wife is still an ass-whuppin' by yer wife, no matter the rings on your respective and figurative trees. No one wants that made a big deal of in the harsh light of day. So Barrett did what you would do if you had given $2,000 to the past campaign of Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill: You would call up the district attorney's peeps and ask that this be made to go away. Some meetings occur, people in starched shirts nod agreeably to one another and the case is dropped. The record of this rather embarrassing episode is forgotten.
That is until a few weeks ago, when a person who was running against Hill for the elected office of district attorney decides to make this an issue. He and other folks who have it out for Hill provide the police reports to a writer at The Dallas Morning News, who calls about 20 defense attorneys and asks a simple question: Is this sort of action normal? In other words, can non-filthy-rich hubbies who get their butts kicked by their wives get the charges easily dismissed by making a phone call or two? They all said, in effect, no. Certainly not when the district attorney's office has talked about having "no tolerance" when it comes to prosecuting all types of domestic abuse. Even though the outcome of the case would have most likely been the same had it gone through proper legal channels, that wasn't the point. This clearly looked like favoritism.
Now is this a story? Once your reporter turns in his copy that details all of the above, do you, the big-city editor, run it with a headline saying, "DA gives favor to political backer"?
Before you answer, consider the following.
Bill Barrett has for the past four years made a $50,000 kickoff contribution to the annual Dallas Morning News Charities drive. He is scheduled to give another $50K for next year's drive as well.
What's that? You think that, ethically speaking, financial contributions to the charitable arm of the newspaper shouldn't matter when considering whether the editors would run a story that could displease Mr. Barrett?
For the editors at the DMN decided that this story was not worthwhile, and they killed it. The reasoning of the two people in charge--high chief big dog editor Bob Mong and No. 2 man/evil sidekick Stuart Wilk--was that the case against Ms. Barrett would have been dismissed eventually anyway. This was, to them, not a clear-cut case of favoritism.
If you said, then, that you would not run the story, you win. You think like a big-city editor. More accurately, you rationalize like a big-city editor, because anyone who believes that Mr. Barrett's relevant contributions and general big-shot status had nothing to do with the decision would be considered a dupe by those same editors.
OK, let's play another game. Let's play Sniveling Snarky Media Critic. Let's say you were told the entire story above by two Belo staffers who would be fired if they were named, and you were given a batch of police reports and supporting documents that confirmed it all. Would you then write a column about it, the point of which would be to argue that the editors of The Dallas Morning News are gutless whores?
Before you answer, you need to know two things:
1) You are so cynical, so dead to the concept of justice, that you believe nothing newsworthy occurred in the Bill Barrett-Bill Hill matter. The fact that rich people get preferential treatment is not news to you. It is in fact the way the world should be, because some day you wish to inherit great wealth and soon thereafter curry favor of powerful people in hopes of crushing your enemies.
2) A few weeks after the decision not to run the Bill Barrett-Bill Hill story is made, the Morning News prints a front-page tale headlined, "Denton DA dropped charge against donor." The story questions Denton County District Attorney Bruce Isaacks' decision not to prosecute two people accused of domestic abuse, each of whom had contributed to his campaign.
(Mmmm. Sound like any story we know?)
If you said, no, you would not write about this sordid affair but instead preferred to pen a column analyzing the Morning News' coverage of the geopolitical forces that continue to shape our world in profound, exciting ways--suh-nore--then you lose.
But if you said that the hypocritical Denton district attorney story made you decide to write about how the Morning News killed the Bill Hill story, and if you said that money will always speak loudly behind closed doors at The Dallas Morning News, and if you said you are able to write about such matters in 1,200 words or less for just about that much money a month, congratulations, you win and you start Monday.