The e-mails say it all. Rick Casey, metro columnist for the San Antonio Express-News, apologizes for not responding more quickly to an interview request but says he's been very busy. "I'm covering a trial of a cop accused of selling drugs," he writes.
Steve Blow, longtime metro columnist for The Dallas Morning News, sends an e-mail apologizing for having to turn down an interview request, citing company policy. He, too, is sorry for the delay, noting, "I was chasing down a hard-hitting column in Oklahoma City yesterday."
Blow is joking. The column he traveled to Oklahoma to write was about high school seniors who read aloud letters from their parents giving them advice before they go to college. The self-deprecating note about a "hard-hitting" column is a gentlemanly admission of what the readers of the Morning News have long known: Blow and his fellow city columnists don't write such columns. As a colleague notes, the only trial Blow would cover would be that of someone charged with "making a sunny day gray."
That's because the city columnists at the News--metro columnists Blow, Jacquielynn Floyd and James Ragland, as well as local political columnist Gromer Jeffers Jr.--write small feature stories rather than opinionated takes on the city they purport to cover. They favor the human-interest column, defined by Simpsons TV anchorman Kent Brockman as stories that "tug at the heart and fog the mind." Blow writes about traffic woes, Internet scams and his take on naughty words; Floyd, the best writer of the three city columnists, opines about folk trios, cloning her cat and how upsetting the hooters at Hooters are; Ragland, the most ambitious of a tepid lot, will at least comment on local issues but also finds time to explore stale topics such as how technology tracks our every move and how nice surprises are.
Not that there is anything inherently wrong with Seinfeld-ian takes on the things that make up daily life. (Full disclosure: I used to write a features-section column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram called "Hey Dad," in which my mundane family life became grist for 20 column inches of blather every week.) Occasionally, even I will be sucked into their world of one-sentence paragraphs and exclamation points, my tongue coated and my belly filled with the sweet sap they mine from the tree of life. Blow's column this past Sunday, for example, about a Richardson woman describing her granddaughter's death, was impossible not to empathize with, even if you do work for a godless alternative weekly.
The problems with this approach, though, are numerous. Most important, it ignores the responsibility inherent in the title of big-city columnist to be both its most aggressive reporter and its most independent voice. It also allows good writers like Floyd to coast on style. It encourages newcomers to the beat like Ragland and Jeffers to set the bar lower. It allows competitors like our own Jim Schutze to take hold of and shape debate on the big Dallas issues, because the daily's city columnists ignore them except to say on occasion, "Gosh, what's all the fuss about?!"
This abdication of columnar responsibility infuriates not only me but also many of the young, aggressive city reporters at the DMN. They rightfully ask, "Where is our ball-busting city columnist?" Where is that person who not only reports what the powers that be say but also steps back and tells readers, "Oh, yeah, and that bastard is lying"? And why hasn't new top-dog editor Bob Mong, supposedly an Agent of Change and a Force of Good, demanded that the columnists reach deep inside and rediscover their collective cojones?
Each of the four columnists mentioned here either declined to be interviewed, citing Morning News policy against cooperating with the Dallas Observer, or did not respond to messages. But the primary reason the city columnists are toothless has long been known. A newspaper editor who has worked for many big-city papers puts it plainly. "One key question," he says when asked why the DMN columnists suck, "is this: 'Are they delivering exactly what the Morning News wants?'"
There is some thought that the era of the streetwise big-city columnist is over. People don't want to read a hard-drinking old-school crank who calls bullshit when he sees it, the thinking goes. The days in which such columnists--most famously Mike Royko in Chicago, but also folks like Jimmy Breslin in New York, Mike Bonokoski in Toronto, Mike Barnicle in Boston, our esteemed Mayor Laura Miller at the Dallas Times Herald--wrote with anger and one-sided passion are over. Those folks are dinosaurs.
This is arguable. Some big cities such as Houston and San Francisco have the same problem in that most of their city columnists are more avuncular than cranky. But in New York and Denver and Boston and Chicago and Atlanta and San Antonio and Los Angeles and on and on, there are still regular examples of metro columnists railing against greed and corruption. At the least, most of these cities have columnists who will make an issue theirs, hammering a project or a proposal or a person as needed.
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.
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.
"If I look at the News, I know and respect many of the writers there. But they don't get their opinions in print, not the way they really feel about big issues. Oh, occasionally they'll get one in. But rarely, and the readers of Dallas deserve better. To bridle those writers is a shame, frankly."
Will it ever change at the Morning News? One could look to Los Angeles for hope. In an article last month in Los Angeles Magazine, writer R.J. Smith points to the arrival of hard-edged Steve Lopez, a former Philadelphia streetwise columnist, as a great indicator that the Los Angeles Times is ending years of somnolent city coverage by its columnists. They're the sort that, Smith writes, "favor subjects we all can agree on rather than the messy matters we argue about."
This is not true of Lopez. In Philadelphia he took a company car and illegally parked it in the poor minority section of town. It was promptly ticketed. He then parked it in the Italian section of town, where it remained ignored so many days that the deli where Lopez was conducting his stakeout named a sandwich after him. It's folks like Lopez who show that tough-minded, opinionated metro columns can make papers must-reads.
It works in other Texas cities, too. In San Antonio, there is a long history of old-school city writers going back to former Page 1 columnist Paul Thompson. Rick Casey is one of four strong columnists there now. Casey, who has written his column since 1993 for the Express-News, has lived and worked in cities as disparate as St. Louis, Boston, New York, Seattle, Denver and Kansas City. He knows how valuable a city columnist can be.
"I still see myself as a reporter," Casey says. "That doesn't mean I won't do a pure opinion piece, but I like most everything I do to have a fresh reporting aspect. Sometimes it's investigative. Sometimes it's historical.
"You're a storyteller," he says. "You can put an issue in a context people can relate to and understand, show them why they should care about this seemingly boring city issue. You can show them how it is going to affect them or others."
Casey knows you have to take heat sometimes. He recalls a column that began, "San Antonio has the worst public library of any American city." But, as he points out, he backed that up with reporting, and the entire piece was written in the context of demanding a higher standard from his readers, a sense that "we deserve better." He is now writing column after column examining a controversial local development, the PGA Village, which is being championed as a jobs-generator. It would be the equivalent of one of the News columnists writing in-depth pieces about the Trinity River plan, which will happen about the same time Mark Cuban admits a mistake and my sweat glands produce nectar.
For it's doubtful the News will change the role of its city columnists or hire anyone who would fight to alter it. The paper has the Dallas Cowboys mentality: We won championships (i.e., a newspaper war), so don't question the methods. They saw that the Times Herald had Jim Schutze and Molly Ivins and it lost the war, so why upset the readers?
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The columnists know this, even if they don't say it, because they write it. In Gromer Jeffers Jr.'s first column announcing he'd be covering local politics, he wrote, in almost apologetic fashion, the following:
Growing up as the son of a meatpacker and a public schoolteacher, I've always had a love for politics. As a preteen, I had a patronage job hawking tickets to political fund-raisers. I lost that job when my alderman...was convicted of public corruption. Soon, I turned my attention to newspapers, marveling at how Mike Royko and other columnists chronicled the follies at City Hall.
I'm no Mike Royko, and this is not Chicago.
And that, dear readers, says it all.