Bailon for the defense

Word from The Dallas Morning News is that the editors there would like to find -- then gut, dress, and eat -- whoever has been leaking to Buzz internal newsroom memos concerning the controversy over Belo Corp.'s decision to invest in the arena and the Mavericks.

Buzz finds this a bit disturbing. We'd hate to think of anyone losing his or her job at the Morning News over anything printed here, especially since we don't know who's been sending us the memos. Still, to protect the innocent, we're willing to offer up a hint of whom we think it might be. Buzz's personal psychic tells us that the snitch's initials are B.O. and that his first name rhymes with "Merl."

Sic 'em guys. Woof, woof, woof!

This week's installment of Days of Our Morning News comes from Executive Editor Gilbert Bailon. It's his response to a memo, posted by on an internal electronic bulletin board and leaked to Buzz, by the paper's three City Hall reporters (Buzz, July 29). The three wrote that the Morning News' coverage of Belo's investment was unbalanced and that the paper's credibility was suffering because of Belo's close ties to the business establishment. (Belo owns the Morning News.)

In fairness to the Morning News -- Buzz will try anything once -- we're publishing Bailon's response with a minimum of snide commentary, even though Bailon has refused to return phone calls from the Dallas Observer, and there is much in Bailon's memo that's downright laughable.

Oops. That was a snide comment. Anyway, here it is:

From G. Bailon:

Here is my response to the debate over Belo buying a stake in the Dallas Mavericks/arena. DMN Today [the electronic forum where the first memo was published -- Buzz] is not the best forum to have such a layered conversation, but since the memo was posted here and it has run in the Dallas Observer, I need to respond about how the story came together.

At 11 a.m. Aug. 4 in Belo Building conference rooms 1,2,3, Stu [Wilk, managing editor] and I will talk with any staffers about this issue or any related matters. [Nearly 150 staffers attended the meeting, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.] A note will be posted for the staff. I urge you to read on here and then attend the meeting before you draw any conclusions or lob any bombs about the integrity of the newspaper or its managers.

I was out of town Monday [July 26] and discovered late that night the memo from the City Hall reporters on DMN Today. Suffice it to say I was stunned that it was the forum chosen for such a discussion. An honest talk about ethics and our coverage would have been very appropriate and welcomed with those three. Unfortunately, we did not talk until a day after the memo had been posted, sent to the Observer and a series of folo [that's newspaper talk] notes from staffers had been posted.

An open discussion about the issues of covering the arena was fair game. Doing it in the absence of the editors first thrust this debate into a vitriolic public forum. [Buzz is blushing.]

Belo's decision where to invest its funds isn't under the purview of the newsroom. While many might hold opinions about such moves, those are not decisions we make as journalists. My professional concern is how we should do news coverage, not handicapping Belo's strategic investments. Ownership does make covering the arena more tricky, but fair coverage is very possible. This issue is not unique to Belo.

It is complex for many media companies. The key theme is whether that ownership drives coverage. I submit it will not.

What about Tribune Co. [publisher of the Chicago Tribune] owning the Chicago Cubs; Ted Turner when he owned the Atlanta Braves and CNN; what about our TV critics critiquing Channel 8 or TXCN. [Belo also owns WFAA and the Texas Cable News network. The paper recently killed a column by TV critic Ed Bark concerning the departure of WFAA anchor Tracy Rowlett. See the May 6 Buzz.] How did the Boston Globe write about the Mike Barnicle/Patricia Smith flaps [two of the paper's columnists, caught fibbing].

It's not easy to report on one's company, but it can be done fairly and completely. To conclude reflexively that we can't report objectively on the arena because of a small, non-active investment is premature and unfair. The instinct to pounce and presume the most unseemly scenario without facts is not a good trait for professional journalists.

To say people are leaving the company because of [the] situation is absurd and without any factual grounding. I embrace vigorous debate and will concede any past mistakes we might have made. But leaking memos to the Observer is not constructive nor will it help answer any questions that might loom about the arena coverage.

Now it's probably a self-fulfilling prophecy that our credibility will suffer because of the arena investment. Someone on staff made sure of that by leaking that memo before anyone could respond to the authors. Yet some are waxing eloquently about ethics and fair play.

I look forward to discussing these issues next week. I would do it sooner, but I will be out of town until Tuesday. I believe what happened or didn't happen has been greatly inflated beyond the actual issue -- due largely to the public nature of a one-sided debate.

Do we have new guidelines for covering the arena? No. They are the same as any other story. Report the story as deemed fit. The arena has not evolved into a Belo story. It is a major public works story. We should be thoroughly reporting the story as always. There is no special dispensation of rules. Nor should there be. Bear in mind there are six other partners plus Hillwood/Perot in the deal.

The [city council member] Donna Blumer quote has taken on a life of its own in DMN Today. [The paper's City Hall reporters offered up a critical quote from Blumer for the original Morning News story about the deal.]

Background: I get a call from Burl [Osborne, publisher] about 5 p.m. Friday that we have the arena investment story coming. I had no inkling that this was in the offing. I'm alone in the back offices that day reading weekend copy and interviewing a job candidate.

The story was released late Friday because it was leaking, and Belo was afraid that another medium might break it. A press release for the DMN and Channel 8 was drafted for the Saturday paper and the Friday 10 p.m. newscast. It was released publicly on Saturday.

Rick Alm in Business interviews the Belo execs. Other than play on the Business cover, no directive is given on what to write or with whom he should talk. There is no discussion about any reaction to the business deal. Burl and I then read the story without any significant changes.

About 11:15 p.m. I get I get a call at home saying that the City Hall reporters have a critical quote from council member Donna Blumer they want to add. No other reaction was reported or offered.

I didn't even know that Metro was working on the story. Had we talked about and reported more thorough reaction earlier, we would have had several voices, including Blumer.

Given the late hour and a lack of more council reaction, I told them not to run it. The story cried out for more than a bombshell quote standing alone. What did the mayor or any other council members think? No one council member speaks for all on any issue. I'd say the same thing if had a quote from another council member who might have had an opposite opinion from Blumer.

So Monday the memo gets posted in DMN Today.

Harold Gaar [Belo vice president] was designated company spokesman (as he frequently is) on the business transaction. [The first memo asked why none of the editors were quoted in the story.] His answer to impact on news coverage was generated by Alm's question. We could quibble about who should speak for the company, but that is hardly an ethical lapse.

Some staffers might not like Belo giving money to the Olympic Committee. But it's not going to influence our coverage in the news columns. I worry about what goes into the news pages. We work for a large corporation that plays a role in the community. That applies to every major metro newspaper.

So far I have not heard from anyone outside the newsroom about our feared ethically compromised coverage. But now the DMN and Belo are in an awkward situation -- especially if our staffers tell people that our coverage cannot be credible. I think everyone here should have a stake in our paper's credibility and acknowledge their role in maintaining it -- inside and outside the building.

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