On April 7, A.H. Belo hosted a "Stars of Texas" gala at the Loews Anatole Hotel so the 600 or so ink-stained wretches of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which was holding its national convention here, could mingle with luminaries of Texas business, entertainment, and politics. (BeloWatch, strangely, wasn't invited; but we did receive a detailed report.)
The list of invited Texas glitterati--one per table--included Governor George W. Bush, Lt. Governor Bob Bullock, Texas House Speaker Pete Laney, and Curt Seidlits.
Curt who? Did Belo run out of genuine Texas stars to invite?
No. The publishing monolith just had self-interest at heart when it included a fairly obscure Texas legislator on the guest list. Belo has good reason to see that the Democratic House member from Sherman--who the News later described in an editorial as a "bright, capable legislator"--is flattered and well-fed. As chairman of the State Affairs Committee, Seidlits is the main man as the House weighs legislation regulating telecommunications. And that legislation could make, or cost, Belo huge sacks of money.
Newspapers, telephone companies, and on-line services are battling fiercely for an edge in the race to sell information transmitted over telephone lines. There is so much at stake that Morning News editor-publisher Burl Osborne has personally been skipping around Austin negotiating behind closed doors, cutting deals, and generally making like a craven special-interest lobbyist to educate Seidlits and other lawmakers about the bill.
So just to be safe, why not accord Seidlits a place of honor at the nation's largest gathering of newspaper types? But Curt--to Belo's certain dismay--didn't bite. His seat remained empty during the festivities. Explains a staff member for the committee chairman: "He didn't go. It was a busy week."
On Sunday, April 16, the Dallas Morning News performed the public service of publishing a 16-page League of Women Voters "Voters Guide."
Under its agreement with the League, the News was to charge the League nothing to produce and distribute the guide in 700,000-plus copies of its Sunday editions; the League, however, had to pay for 7,400 extra copies it distributes in public libraries, community colleges, and City Hall.
In its pages, the paper promoted the guide as a joint project, "published by the League of Women Voters of Dallas Education Fund in conjunction with The Dallas Morning News." The section carried the News' name everywhere: in a copyright line on the cover, in credits accompanying each of the graphics, and on the top of each page. In short, in publishing the listings of voter information--as well as candidate pictures and responses to League questions--the paper was providing a valuable public service, while conspicuously promoting its role in doing so.
If only it hadn't screwed it all up.
The production department of Dallas' Only Daily somehow managed to put five of the 16 pages in the guide out of sequence, mangling the entire section. The entries for four out of the seven mayoral candidates--including Darrell Jordan and Ron Kirk--ran after two pages of entries for council candidates.
League officials and candidates were nonplussed, to say the least.
Audrey Cunningham, the League's editor for the "Voters Guide," says that when League representatives proofread the pages for the section, they had the correct page numbers handwritten on them. The News caught the errors in the preprinted "Voters Guide" before the front section of the Sunday paper went to bed; that day's corrections column noted that "several pages were incorrectly numbered and out of sequence in today's League of Women Voters Guide." The next day, after conversations with League officials and complaints from candidates, the paper acknowledged that "page-numbering errors in the League of Women Voters 'Voters Guide' were due to production errors at The Dallas Morning News and did not come from the League."
Cunningham says News officials--who she declined to identify--agreed to provide the League with 10,000 copies of the corrected guide at no charge for distribution at libraries and colleges. But they were unwilling--presumably for financial reasons and because the News plans to publish its own special election section--to reprint the entire guide for distribution with a future daily or Sunday edition of the paper. Doing so would give the Guide a circulation of more than 500,000 copies if it appeared in the daily paper and more than 700,000 papers if it appeared Sunday. "They said they wouldn't be doing that," Cunningham told BeloWatch. "The newspaper business is on a pretty tight budget."
News president Jeremy Halbreich did not return BeloWatch calls for comment.
Cunningham said she is disappointed about the "big error," but added, "I guess they tried to do what they could do." She said the News has also agreed to help put the guide--the corrected version, that is--on the Internet for the first time.
Asked if she is satisfied with the paper's response, Cunningham said: "I don't want to be quoted on any of that, because what was done was done. We have had a good working relationship with them."
Dallas' Only Daily has displayed surprisingly keen interest in the routine nomination of a local attorney to the State Transportation Commission. Republican Governor George W. Bush's decision to tab David Laney for a seat on the three-member agency, which oversees state highway projects, has generated both news and editorial coverage.
On April 10, Laney faced pointed criticism at a legislative committee hearing from state senator Gonzalo Barrientos of Austin, who raised concerns about his law firm's treatment of minorities and women. Laney was opposed by several former attorneys with Jenkens & Gilchrist, the firm where he is managing partner; a pending sex-discrimination suit filed against the firm last year named Laney as a defendant. The attorney, under questioning, refused to release depositions and other documents about the firm's practices to the legislative committee, preventing closer scrutiny of the controversy.
Nonetheless--as News Austin bureau reporter Wayne Slater reported on April 11 ("Lawyer Laney wins panel OK for agency seat")--the attorney won unanimous approval from the senate committee, prompting an editorial "thumbs up" from the News. "The Texas Senate should add its blessing" to the nomination of "Dallas civic leader" David Laney, the paper opined on April 12. The News declared that Laney, "chairman of one of Dallas' major law firms," is "well-prepared" to provide "a strong voice on the transit board."
What the editorial--and the previous news story--failed to mention are the News' own ties to "the Dallas civic leader." Specifically, Laney is the cousin of Belo CEO Robert Decherd, the son of a long-time Belo board member, and a likely future Belo director himself. Both the editorial and Slater's news story also failed to mention that Jenkens does the lion's share of the legal work for--you guessed it--the A.H. Belo Corporation.
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