BeloWatch and Tatum
The most recent BeloWatch, which reported the public lewdness arrest of Henry Tatum, associate editor of The Dallas Morning News editorial page, drew a number of angry letters--and at least one threatening phone call.
Several letters came from people who know and respect Tatum, who has worked as a courthouse, City Hall, and editorial staffer at the News for 20 years. Three appear this week in the Observer's letters column.
All ask--in various ways, and among other queries--a single question: Why?
To wit: What important purpose was served in reporting Tatum's arrest and no contest plea? (Tatum was fined, given a 60-day probated jail term, and placed on deferred adjudication.)
Doesn't Tatum, wrote Frederick C. Moss, have "a right to keep his victimless peccadillos as private as possible?...Are there no lengths to which you will not go in the name of journalistic freedom?"
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Wrote Dallas commercial real-estate developer Jim Lake Sr.: "In your vendetta against The Dallas Morning News, you have added more embarrassment to the plight of a respected and longtime journalist...This unfortunate incident in the life of Hank Tatum has naturally affected his career, and did not require additional help from you. Your reportage was irresponsible, vindictive, and completely uncalled for."
These letters offer a peculiar suggestion: that a journalist--in particular, a "respected" and likeable journalist (Tatum is both)--should receive treatment different from that newspapers typically accord others.
The premise of BeloWatch has always been that journalists not only deserve, but require, a similar level of scrutiny--particularly where they command the sort of power to shape opinions, ruin lives, and influence events that rests in the hands of those who run Dallas' Only Daily.
Consider, for a moment, how the News itself has handled similar episodes.
The paper has reveled in the "victimless peccadillos" of countless prominent individuals. Actor Pee Wee Herman, country singer Ty Herndon, and, of course, Hugh Grant are the most obvious examples.
"Never get caught with a dead girl or a live boy," began a 1,354-word piece by News film critic Russell Smith, rhapsodizing on Hollywood scandals after Herman's 1991 arrest for masturbating in a darkened porn theater in Sarasota, Florida.
Herndon's June 13, 1995, arrest in Fort Worth's Gateway Park, for allegedly exposing himself to an undercover police officer, then masturbating in front of him, prompted a half-dozen stories in the News--including an 1,130-word treatise on how the park is a magnet for men interested in lewd acts.
Hugh Grant's problems have been a running joke in the News, as in the rest of the American press, for weeks. Since Grant made an obscure Hollywood hooker famous, there have been dozens of references to the actor's humiliating situation in the pages of Dallas' Only Daily.
Then there is the example of former Dallas Museum of Art director Rick Brettell. The News' decision in October 1992 to publish a story about Brettell's citation for public lewdness after fondling a male undercover officer in a Dallas park contributed to Brettell's departure.
Yet a strikingly similar episode involving a prominent member of the paper's staff--a longtime weekly columnist and the number-two man on its editorial-page staff--merits not a single paragraph. Instead, Henry Tatum's column disappears from the paper's pages without a trace, like that of a Cold War-era writer for Pravda who's fallen out of favor with the Kremlin.
Was it because the News was properly respectful of Tatum's privacy?
Or because the incident was exceedingly embarrassing, not merely for Tatum, but for a media corporation that's long trumpeted--internally, in the pages of its newspaper, and on the airwaves--its all-American family values? (Tatum himself wrote on January 18 about the need for "restoring common values that were so intrinsic to earlier generations that they were taken for granted.")
The answer, surely, is both.
BeloWatch critics will point out that Tatum, unlike Hugh Grant or Pee Wee Herman, is not a celebrity.
True enough (though the subject's celebrity status hardly justifies an anything-goes attitude).
But neither was Rick Brettell.
Like Brettell, however, Tatum holds an important position--one of public influence and trust. What he did altered his role at the News.
Just as the News did with Brettell and the DMA, BeloWatch has set out to chronicle significant events at the News, Channel 8, and the Belo Corporation--what happens to people there, and why. That is the column's realm, its turf.
The disappearance, after a decade of weekly appearances, of Tatum's column--and the news of his arrest--was a significant event on that beat. Scrutinizing the News' handling of such issues is part of this column's mission.
As we hope the tone of the column about Tatum suggests, BeloWatch did not write about this matter with a sense of glee--nor out of a vendetta against the News. Many at the Observer know and like Tatum--whose straight-up responses to BeloWatch displayed guts.
But what goes on at a big company like A.H. Belo sometimes isn't pretty--and covering it honestly sometimes requires publishing ugly, uncomfortable facts.
Come to think of it, it's much like what Dallas' Only Daily likes to think it does--in covering the rest of the world.
High culture on low walls
A letter to the editor in Monday's News carried political correctness to a creative extreme. Written by Greater Dallas Community Relations Commission executive director Elizabeth A. Flores-Velasquez, it scolded "Viewpoints" columnist Jennifer Nagorka for a column she wrote about graffiti.
Nagorka had characterized graffiti in her Oak Cliff neighborhood as looking "like hieroglyphics scrawled by some ancient, maladroit race. Cryptic. Crude. The stylized letters barely resemble their legitimate Roman kin."
How insensitive! Flores-Velasquez complained. "Does Ms. Nagorka refer to the Aztecs or Mayans, or the Egyptians, whose steles and hieroglyphs were highly complex, ingenious, beautiful and which recorded the religion, history, mathematics, astronomy, and customs of their advanced civilizations? Her choice of the world 'race' raises questions about the underlying message. Especially when many graffiti perpetrators are gangs comprised of Latino and African-American youth."
After rushing to assure all that she was not supporting graffiti ("We share a deep commitment to clean, safe neighborhoods in all areas of town"), Flores-Velasquez warned that while "we trust" Nagorka's comparison was "unintentional, the results are still the same. Readers get the subtle message that the ancient civilizations from whom many graffiti perpetrators descend were crude and awkward; a determination which is far from the truth. This is the kind of misinformation we must correct if we expect our youth to gain the self-respect it takes to respect others' property.
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