By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
David Kunkle could have hung up the phone. Or bullied us into killing our story. He could have tried to guilt us by saying that he expected the Dallas Observer to be above writing gossip. Instead, the still-married Dallas police chief talked amiably about his fledgling relationship with television reporter Sarah Dodd even as he struggled with the same questions everyone has when they first date someone new.
Where exactly is this going?
"I don't know what the nature of it is," he says about his relationship with Dodd, which he says began after he filed for divorce in August. "We do some things together. I don't know if we'll be seeing each other a week from now."
Since the chief's response was decidedly non-evocative and since we are exceptionally nosy, we asked the chief on Friday a follow-up question to make sure there is no misunderstanding. Is this a purely platonic relationship?
"It's more than that," he says. "I've tried not to hide that part. We do things together. It's kind of awkward to describe it."
On Monday the chief called us back. A day earlier Dodd had told him that we had been asking her peers critical questions about her--specifically whether her relationship with the chief was a part of a larger pattern of becoming too close to people she covers at City Hall and elsewhere. Some of her rivals and some of her own newsroom colleagues had been trashing Dodd, but the chief volunteered a defense.
"If the issue is people don't like her in this business, my observation is that is true of all aggressive reporters and even more so with female reporters," he says. "It's an industry that's very competitive."
Last week, Bold Types, a blog published by The Dallas Morning News, first broached the details of Kunkle's "budding romance" with Dodd, KTVT-Channel 11's City Hall reporter. Columnist Sherry Jacobson wrote how the couple had been seen "looking pretty intimate together at a popular West Village restaurant." While bloggers chimed in with their observations on the romance, the story largely faded away outside of chatty media circles.
But inside the gossipy, cutthroat newsrooms of Dallas television stations, including Dodd's own Channel 11, another story emerged of a subculture of on-air reporters, who compete for access, exclusives and dubious scoops. This is a profession in which breaking the story of a downtown shooting by 30 seconds is considered a triumph. Cozy relationships with public officials are not uncommon, and young, attractive reporters such as Dodd are often suspected of flirting their way to the top of the newscast. This is the same world that greeted the revelation of Dodd's relationship with Kunkle with glee, thinking it would stem the rise of an award-winning reporter with a penchant for rubbing people--though apparently not the chief--the wrong way.
"Photographers were saying, 'I knew it. I knew it,'" says one Channel 11 employee. (This employee and others spoke to us on condition that we don't identify them.) "They heard cell phone conversations that they felt were much closer than a normal source relationship."
Asked why pockets of the newsroom seemed to welcome a story that could hurt one of their colleagues, the employee responded: "It's a case where she's viewed as narcissistic and how it's 'all about me.'"
Another colleague, who repeatedly praised her for being a "damn good reporter," understood why Dodd does not have a surplus of friends in her own newsroom. "Her enemies have some wiggle room if they want to claim she is overly aggressive, overly tenacious," the colleague says. "Her drive on a story can sometimes lead her to being short-tempered."
Dodd acknowledged that the news of her relationship with Kunkle has brought out adversaries. "The thing I am the most disappointed about with my detractors is that the newsroom is one big family," she says. "My success is their success, and their success is my success. When people try to damage my reputation, they're really just hurting the reputation of the station."
Dodd's boss, Tom Doerr, rushed to his reporter's defense, taking a potshot at her colleagues in the process.
"In my view, Sarah is one of the most competitive reporters we have, and maybe more reporters should take the path she does in breaking a story rather than picking a handout from the assignment desk," he says.
Rebecca Aguilar, a well-regarded investigative reporter at KDFW-Channel 4, says that Dodd bears the curse of being pretty. Aguilar cites a story of how Dodd arrived at the scene of a car crash at a Pleasant Grove day center, stylishly dressed in a polka-dotted skirt.
"All of these firefighters were looking at her because she was a nice-looking blonde," she recalls. "You notice who the cops immediately start talking to, but is that her fault? No. Does she bring attention to herself? No."
Aguilar, who credits her rival for being one of the best reporters in the market, says Dodd is upset at how some of her colleagues have reacted to the gossip about her relationship with the chief.
"I think she's very hurt that some people in her own newsroom are salivating that 'OK, now we can hurt her over this Kunkle stuff instead of showing support.'"