The News' Paul Quinn problem
In columns past, BeloWatch has sounded alarms about how the Belo Corporation--which has a strict conflict-of-interest policy for lowly reporters and editors--allows its top brass to ignore those same rules.
Belo CEO Robert Decherd, for example, personally made two contributions to the 1994 U.S. Senate campaign of Democrat Richard Fisher. His wife Maureen made two more contributions to Fisher.
Then, as BeloWatch has noted (September 15, 1994), Decherd had the gall to let himself be quoted sanctimoniously on the issue of his company's journalism ethics policy--no campaigning, no signing petitions, no attendance at fund raisers or rallies, no financial contributions--in a page-one story detailing the suspension of KXAS-Channel 5 anchorman Mike Snyder.
Decherd's Great White Savior act at Paul Quinn College raises similar ethical questions.
Since 1993, Decherd has served as chairman of a major fund-raising--and, not coincidently, corporate image-burnishing--campaign on behalf of the financially troubled, historically black school. The Decherd-led 21st Century Capital Campaign has raised $18.5 million of its $21 million goal. And that's not the extent of Belo's entangling alliance with the college. Morning News publisher-editor Burl Osborne, a Belo director and member of the company's executive committee, has served on Paul Quinn's board of trustees since mid-1995.
All of which is great for Paul Quinn, and--journalistically at least (still presumably a consideration)--bad for Belo.
Here's why. Since Decherd's involvement, Paul Quinn has merited news coverage on several occasions. (This, of course, is leaving out the gushing "High Profile" of college president Lee Monroe.)
This summer, for example, two college vice presidents and a popular English instructor departed, after claiming they had been told to "tone down" their Afro-centric focus because it would offend the white contributors who represented Paul Quinn's salvation. (Those supporters presumably included Decherd, though the News' coverage of the controversy didn't take the time to sort out that aspect of the story.)
More recently, Marilyn Marshall, another former Paul Quinn vice president, filed a $5 million sexual-harassment suit in federal court against college president Monroe.
Marshall, employed at Paul Quinn since 1983, accused Monroe of repeatedly making unwanted sexual advances--even offering her a promotion to executive vice president if she would sleep with him and join him on a trip to Cancun, Mexico. In her suit, she claims her refusal to have an affair with Monroe prompted him to retaliate by denying her raises; demoting and transferring her to the school's abandoned Waco campus; and finally, in November 1994, to fire her, citing the college's financial problems.
William Lamoreaux, a Dallas attorney for Marshall, told BeloWatch Marshall filed an EEOCcomplaint against Paul Quinn in February, and he communicated twice with college representatives since then. He says school officials wanted Marshall to delay filing her lawsuit while a trustee committee conducted an investigation.
Facing a legal deadline, unable to settle the matter with the trustees--who said they were still investigating--Lamoreaux filed the suit on Marshall's behalf on October 20.
The Morning News--whose top newspaper executive presumably knew about the story in early September--got around to publishing a story about Marshall's allegations on October 25.
Bill Lodge's article--on the third page of the metro section--ran 12 paragraphs. The first nine paragraphs included two paragraphs of factual background--and seven paragraphs of denials from Paul Quinn's attorney and a Paul Quinn trustee.
"The school denies the allegations...
"Attorney John Richards, who represents Dr. Monroe and Paul Quinn, said Tuesday, 'Dr. Monroe denies these allegations'...
"[Trustee] Joe Zimmerman...said the board has investigated Ms. Marshall's complaints and found them without merit.
"'We feel even stronger about Dr. Monroe's leadership and integrity,' Mr. Zimmerman said of the results of the board's investigation.'"
Got the idea?
The last three paragraphs summarized the allegations in Marshall's lawsuit.
Lodge noted that "Dr. Monroe could not be reached for comment Monday or Tuesday." But the story contained no quotes from Marshall or her attorney, and no indication that Lodge made any attempt to contact either one. (Lamoreaux says he never received a call from the News reporter.)
The plaintiff's attorney told BeloWatch he was surprised the News got around to publishing a story at all--"because of the Morning News' connection to Paul Quinn College"--but found the account of the suit unbalanced. "They put the denials before the allegation. You have to wonder whether the way they organized that story had something to do with the newspaper's connection with the college."
Lodge told BeloWatch he didn't even know that his boss sits on the Paul Quinn board, and that the handling of the story was "routine--at least on my end." He said he made no effort to be protective of Paul Quinn or Monroe.
What's so unfortunate for News journalists like Lodge is that such involvements by Decherd and Osborne--so intent on playing the role of Dallas power brokers (as though controlling the city's sole daily weren't power enough)--inevitably raise questions about the integrity of their coverage.
The "Afro-centric focus" issue may be a smoke screen for disgruntled employees on their way out. Marilyn Marshall's lawsuit may be groundless.
But a reader can't--and shouldn't--trust the News' account of these issues. Belo and its top man have a major stake--financial and personal--in making Paul Quinn a success.
The A.H. Belo Foundation has given $75,000 to the college. Decherd even gave the 1995 graduation address. And is it really an accident that the News races to publish something every time someone at Paul Quinn spits in the right direction?
In its own ethics code, Belo recognizes the dangers of conflict of interest--and the appearance of conflict. Avoiding conflicts isn't a nicety or convenience--it's to protect the paper's credibility, to assure the work is above ethical reproach. In a one-daily town, such appearances are especially important.
What's utterly bewildering, and so shabbily hypocritical, is that, at the A.H. Belo Corp., the ethical guidelines appear to apply to everyone--except the men at the top.
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