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.'"
There is certainly some jealousy at Channel 11 over how Dodd is able to consistently break some of the biggest stories in Dallas. Last year, she was the first to report the news of the FBI investigation of City Hall; this year she broke the story of Mayor Laura Miller's decision not to seek re-election. Last Thursday, Dodd was nominated for three regional Emmy awards for her stories on Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill.
Not even Dodd's harshest critics call her a bad or lazy reporter, but journalists at Channel 11 along with other competing stations charge that Dodd's success comes, in part, from being too close to the people she covers, particularly the mayor.
"You'll never see her do anything critical of the mayor," said one colleague of Dodd's, accurately pointing out that many of her exclusives, in one way or another, serve the mayor's interest.
That line of criticism angers Dodd.
"I do have an impressive résumé for someone who is only 32, and it's heartbreaking for someone to say that I've gotten where I am through anything other than hard work."
But Dodd can sometimes be her own worst enemy. Last July, after securing a coveted interview with Miller at her Preston Hollow home, where the mayor first talked about her decision not to run for re-election, Dodd seemed to gloat as she walked past the gaggle of reporters camped outside the mayor's home. The story goes that Dodd acted like a hall monitor, admonishing the reporters for trampling the mayor's lawn. Reporters and photographers at the scene were livid, mostly because they were beat to the news and partly because Dodd almost seemed to flaunt her coziness with the mayor.
"When I walked out [of the mayor's driveway]--there is a gate and they're all standing on the outside of the gate--I had to open the gate and walk through them to get out, and I said something to the effect that 'she's not happy you are here,'" Dodd recalls. "I just wanted to give them a heads-up. To me, I was just being nice."
It didn't help matters that Dodd's interview with Miller came off about as hard-hitting as a one-on-one with Oprah. Dodd referred to the mayor's "softer side" and remarked that most pundits "agree that you are theoretically unbeatable."
To some, Dodd's cozy interview with the mayor was hardly out of character.
"During breaks in council meetings, she'll make comments about the mayor's shoes and tell her she looks good today," says one reporter. "It's a little too chummy."
But the mayor says that she encourages a loose, informal atmosphere among the press corps. "I always kid with reporters about how they look, so, if anything, I've generated that banter," Miller says.
Miller rejects the claim that Dodd is too easy on her, citing the "ambush journalism deal" the reporter did when she broke yet another story--this one about the mayor moving from Oak Cliff to North Dallas a few years ago. "I stepped out of the car, and the camera shined a light on my face, and the camera followed me," she recalls. "It was just a jarring, unnecessary interview."
Miller says she granted Dodd the exclusive interview for no particular reason. It was basically a toss-up between her and WFAA-Channel 8's Chris Heinbaugh.
Also defending Dodd is one of Miller's detractors on the council, Bill Blaydes, whom one figures would be irritated by any reporter who went easy on the mayor: "I can't say she plays favorites; she talks to everybody."
Dodd declined to discuss her relationship with Kunkle, but she insisted that since she is a City Hall reporter, he is not a part of her beat. That's usually true, but there are times when the police chief's interactions with City Hall become newsworthy. Dodd's boss says that the station was already planning to move her out of City Hall anyway and put her to work on investigative and feature stories along with a weekend anchor gig. Of course, even then she's likely to come across the chief, one way or another.
Last month, after a Dallas police officer was shot, Dodd secured the first one-on-one interview with Kunkle. Dodd, who was anchoring the morning newscast, called the chief and urged him to talk to the station. The chief says that at the time the two weren't dating. Later, station employees say, a memo was sent lauding Dodd for landing the interview with the chief. Do it or "feel my wrath," she told the chief. If Kunkle gives Dodd another exclusive, he'll feel the wrath of many of Dodd's competitors.
"I hate to say this, but she's a good-looking blonde and what hurts here is that sometimes people don't take her seriously," Aguilar says. "But she is one of the best reporters in town. This is the type of business where people really get jealous."
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