Spilled ink: New book offers insights into life at Dallas' Only Daily
Can't get enough of the Dallas Morning News from BeloWatch?
Well, now there's an entire book about the operations of Dallas' Only Daily.
It's called Fresh Ink--Behind the Scenes at a Major Metropolitan Newspaper. As the cover illustration, if not the title, makes clear, that paper is the Dallas Morning News.
The book's author is David Gelsanliter, a former executive for the Knight-Ridder Newspapers chain who now lives in Corrales, New Mexico. Gelsanliter spent many months in Dallas beginning in 1991.
The book began as a "week-in-the-life-of-a-daily-newspaper" treatise, intended, as Gelsanliter puts it, "to reveal how a newspaper comes into being each day." With the demise of the Dallas Times Herald a month after his chosen week, Gelsanliter expanded the book's range, adding a section on "Demise of the Times Herald."
Well into the project, his original publisher, NAL/Dutton, chose not to proceed with the book--a particularly striking judgment since, according to Gelsanliter's introduction, an editor (presumably there) had proposed the idea in the first place.
Eventually the book ended up in the hands of the considerably smaller University of North Texas Press, which published 5,000 copies of Fresh Ink in May. By then, the passage of time required an update, and Gelsan-liter added a six-page chapter, simply titled "Two years later."
In the interests of full disclosure, Belo-Watch must note that the book's limited treatment of the Observer is snide--and on small details, factually inaccurate--offering self-serving motives for slamming the book. The book also lifts phrases for its summary of Belo's history from a July 1985 Texas Monthly article about the News by Peter Elkind, now editor of the Observer and author of BeloWatch.
But in truth, Fresh Ink's shortcomings offer plenty of other grounds for criticism. The book's writing style is bland, choking the life and drama out of the events it chronicles. And its structure is as stiff and predictable as a college thesis (which it resembles, with chapters titled "The Players," "The Community Reacts," and "Conclu-sions").
Worst of all, Gelsanliter regularly stumbles onto a situation that begs for perspective and a point of view--criticism, praise, outrage, something. But this veteran observer of daily journalism is unable to bring himself to offer more than an occasional bit of analysis and hint of dismay. Though he is allowed to observe much, he scrupulously refuses to pass judgment.
It's the book's biggest failing. Fresh Ink--not coincidentally, like the News itself (Gelsanliter is the News' sort of journalist)--too often fails to connect the facts to reach even obvious conclusions. This is a problem endemic to daily newspapers; for a book, it is a major flaw.
Having said that, BeloWatch turns to what nuggets Fresh Ink does offer--and, thanks to Gelsanliter's extraordinary access to events at Dallas' Only Daily--there are several.
From Belo chairman Robert Decherd and publisher Burl Osborne, Gelsanliter gained wholesale cooperation. He was allowed to attend any newsroom or executive meetings he wished and given unrestricted access to interview Belo officers, as well as News executives, editors, and reporters.
Because he had been deemed a worthy and responsible chronicler of the News tale, Gelsanliter concluded: "Newspapers have a reputation for poking into other people's business, while being highly circumspect about their own. I didn't find this to be true at The Morning News." (Never mind that Osborne has for years barred his entire staff of journalists from speaking to outside reporters without explicit high-level permission.)
The result of this is a handful of interesting anecdotes, telling comments, and intriguing details, reenforcing both accounts of specific episodes chronicled in BeloWatch, but also this column's notions of life inside the News. The book offers a good portrait of the dynamics steering Dallas' Only Daily. After plodding through 200 pages, it does become clear just why the News is the way it is. (What to think about that is another question.)
Particularly striking is how self-consciously at odds the paper is with the muckraking, stir-things-up tradition of American newspapering. As Gelsanliter notes early, with great understatement: "Balance is a priority here, I soon learn."
There's nothing wrong, of course, with balance.
But Gelsanliter soon learns of the lengths to which the News goes not just to be fair (though that's the way they see it), but to avoid controversy altogether--to avoid even offending anyone.
"At The News...often the more interesting (and controversial) parts of a story are found in the continuation, or jump. This struck me as odd...But apparently readers have been trained to know that The News will take care not to be provocative."
Notes Gelsanliter on another occasion: "In their placement of stories, editors have taken care not to be provocative or give offense."
Toss in a relentlessly pro-business, boosterish, upbeat spin on events, and--though Gelsanliter never says it--you have a paper that often distorts reality.
The coverage of the November 1991 elections offers a clear example of why The News falls far short of its grand journalistic ambitions.
Gelsanliter writes: "Pre-election coverage has been wide, if not deep. Editors have tried not to be controversial. Each council district has been profiled and each of the fourteen council races awarded a story, but by a different reporter so there are scarcely any comparisons or attempts to ascribe meaning. All press conferences and most of the candidate forums have been covered, and whether incumbent or unknown, each candidate has received the same number of paragraphs. There has been no detailing of campaign finances or any but the merest mention of who is behind this or that candidate."
On election night, apart from a single story--which quotes "a consultant to back up each conclusion"--"there is no analysis to speak of, just the bare results."
"...Each reportorial conclusion, however innocuous, had to be attributed to a named source. Editorial control reached such a point that metro editor Gilbert Bailon said he felt his reporters could scarcely write 'The sun came up today' without adding 'according to the U.S. Weather Service.'"
Reporter Lawrence Young, Gelsanliter notes, "had been cautioned to be less aggressive in his reporting."
To provide the perspective Osborne refused to let his own staff attempt--Gelsanliter says Burl "thought a sophisticated outsider could give his readers the necessary context more credibly than his own people could--the News commissioned "The Peirce Report," an "analysis of Dallas' strengths and weaknesses."
It was, writes Gelsan-liter, an attempt "to place tomorrow's election and the issues facing Dallas--its north-south split, shrinking tax base, and fractious city council--into larger perspective...."
Syndicated columnist Neil Peirce headed the team which produced the lengthy report, headlined, "Defining the future: In 2010 will the city of Dallas be dynamic or decaying?"
The study appeared as a special section in the News--but not, notes Gelsanliter, without some revisions.
"The original version of the Peirce Report predicted that race riots could occur at North Dallas shopping centers if the city didn't overcome its north-south split. Osborne asked [deputy managing editor] Stu Wilk to delete that part of the report."
In the book, Decherd praises Osborne for his willingness to listen to Dallas' affluent--as though they have some historic problem gaining access to the media. Notes Burl, in a quotation that begins a chapter: "Just because you receive the tip at the country club doesn't mean you disregard it."
Gelsanliter notes sports editor Dave Smith's limited interest in investigative work. He "thinks sports should be entertaining. He's an unreconstructed hometown fan. He says he can't remember a Texas reader ever calling to congratulate him about exposing a scandal....He has a reporter assigned to do investigative work, but gets impatient if a project takes more than a week to complete."
He recounts a quarterly meeting with the city manager, and notes that senior News editors also meet regularly with the mayor, police chief, FBI agent-in-charge, Mexican consul general, and the CEOs of American Airlines, Texas Instruments, JCPenney, and Electronic Data Systems.
We learn that metro columnist Steve Blow is "prohibited from expressing political opinions."
We see conflicts between Osborne and Belo president James Sheehan--particularly over Sheehan's insistence that the paper disclose the names of confidential sources to defend itself in a libel suit filed by the Starr County sheriff, the target of a News investigative series. Sheehan later left the company--as did one of the embittered reporters, Pulitzer Prize-winner David Hanners, for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
And finally, we learn more about two Pulitzer Prizes the News tried not to win.
News photographer William Snyder won his 1991 Pulitzer Prize "for a project that photo editor John Davidson neither sponsored, nor initially approved," Gelsanliter writes. After being refused time and expenses to do the project--Davidson finally agreed to pay for the film--Snyder paid his own way overseas to shoot photos of Romanian orphans. The prize-winning photographs--about which the paper would later boast, in a full-page house ad featuring Davidson side-by-side with Snyder--"ran only in the limited Sunday bulldog edition."
Then there is the episode, previously reported in BeloWatch, where Osborne iced a series on police brutality because he thought the logo was too "judgmental."
The series was titled "Abuse of Authority," and Osborne's displeasure, Gelsanliter writes, prompted reporters Lorraine Adams and Dan Malone to write a letter of protest to Osborne--considered an audacious act for mere reporters--and arrange a subsequent meeting with him.
The session, recounted by Gelsanliter, did not go well.
"Did the two reporters think they should be writing headlines? Osborne wanted to know.
"'No,' said Malone.
"Osborne asked Malone how many stories they expected to write.
"'Twenty to twenty-four.'
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"'I'm not sure I'd want to read that many stories about the Second Coming,' Osborne said.
"His decision would stand. The logo would be changed or modified."
Adams later told Gelsanliter: "I felt as if I'd been squished like a bug...These men don't understand you don't get a good performance by threat or intimidation, but by inspiring and encouraging."
The series ran under the logo: "Abuse of Authority: When Citizens Complain about Police." In April 1992, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Adams left the News later that year to accept a job at the Washington Post.