How stoked would Hillcrest Academy kids have been if the one and only Popeye came to speak to them?
How stoked would Hillcrest Academy kids have been if the one and only Popeye came to speak to them?
Mark Graham

Off the Mark

See, this is why I never do stories on Channel 5. Because the station sucks.

OK, maybe that's too harsh. It usually sucks. Most nights on most stories, it offers nothing by way of news value or entertainment. With its overhyped "breaking news" segments, breathless anchors (Mike Snyder, holla!) and bogus sweeps-month "investigations," Channel 5 too often epitomizes everything that is wrong with local network news.

Last week, the station aired a perfect example of what ails it. It was a story that on its face was interesting, but the more you got into it, you had to wonder why they take up air time with this instead of, say, investigating the Dallas Police Department (see our cover story). It's got my media-knickers in such a bunch, I need a pair of needle-nose pliers to extract them from my bum.

Last Thursday on the station's 6 p.m. newscast, reporter Brian Curtis said that North Dallas' Hillcrest Academy--an $8K-a-year private school (pre-K through eighth grade)--was bumming. Specifically, Curtis said the students were upset because the Dallas Mavericks had reneged on a promise. Hillcrest had won the "Trick or Treat for UNICEF Challenge," in which the school that raised the most funds for the charity would win a visit from a Dallas Mavericks player.

Curtis reported that because the school raised nearly $4,000 and won the contest, the students expected a visit from a current Maverick. He said that when parents and kids learned the Mavericks were sending assistant coach and former Mav Rolando Blackman, they were upset. He illustrated this with the following Q&A with a tiny Hillcrest tyke:

Curtis: "Kids at Hillcrest Academy paint a glowing picture of the Dallas Mavericks."

Tyke: "They're really good."

(Before we go on, a quick question: To whom do I send my résumé at Channel 5? I want to get paid to do this.)

Curtis quoted from a Mavericks press release that promised the school would "win a reading time out with a Mavs player." Curtis then read an e-mail from Mavericks owner/Flowbee victim Mark Cuban, which seemed to show Cuban's callousness. The excerpt:

"You're kidding, right?" Cuban wrote. "Please go on the air and say that Rolando Blackman, the only Mav with his number retired, a perennial all-star, basically the cornerstone of our franchise, is willing to give up his valuable time to visit a school and the kids are disappointed." Cuban said this dust-up "says boatloads about the school" and that if Channel 5 "wants to make the school look bad, feel free."

When I saw this, I went nuts. What a bastard Cuban is, I thought. Of course the kids don't want to get a visit from a former player whom they've never seen. They want to hear Dirk Nowitzki's broken English, bathe in the mumbling coolness of Steve Nash, stare in wonder at Chris Rock look-alike Michael Finley.

Then, thanks to the wonder of the Internet and our company's 56K dial-up connection, I watched the report several times over on the Channel 5 Web site. And something about it...smelled. The only person to actually complain on camera was a parent, and parents I discount because I know many parents, I am a parent, and we parents usually are, when it comes to our kids, idiots who cater to their every whining cry. As well, the children on camera never said they were upset. They said things like "it's going to be fun" and "it's cool." The head of the school, Averill Hauben, said, while smiling, "He [Cuban] can send a real Maverick, or he can come himself. We'd be delighted to have him." It was odd.

So I e-mailed Cuban. Understand, I was itching to bust his Spaldings. Makes for a better column. But I gotta be honest: His response made sense to me. Here it is, in part:

"I responded to the e-mail question asked by the reporter who told me I had to give him an answer because their story was going on in the next few hours," Cuban wrote. "The way he presented it was that the kids were bummed that they were getting Ro. Of course, I saw it as coming from an administrator and not the kids and saw it as an insult to Ro, and inconceivable that the school cared less about the best results of the program and more about what was literally in a press release.

"In hindsight, I responded the wrong way," Cuban says. "That was my mistake. I should have known they would put it in a context that worked to make it more dramatic."

How so? Because the fund-raiser was not a Mavs program, but a UNICEF one. And as everyone at the school was aware, the UNICEF literature promised the winner "a visit from a member of the Mavericks and/or the [Dallas] Burn." (My emphasis.) The school knew this. The parent who initiated all the grumbling knew this. Channel 5 knew this. They all wanted to get technical with the Mavs and say that Blackman isn't a current player. But none of them wanted to get technical and say, you know what, go ahead and send Dallas Burn defender Tenywa Bonseu.

"This had nothing to do with them wanting to see a player versus Ro," Cuban says. "How many would know Antoine Rigadeau, or what if a Dallas Burn player was used? That would have fulfilled the obligation the program had to them. The program was organized and managed by UNICEF. We presented Ro because he is a great speaker, relates well to kids, fully understands what UNICEF is about. When we heard the school didn't like that choice, we referred them to the program administrator at UNICEF. When they didn't like what they heard there, they went to the media...This smells of media blackmail, and KXAS used the kids as pawns to make a story out of nothing."

As much as I like bashing Channel 5--see paragraphs one through 10--I almost feel for them in this case. They did think it was a story. I disagree, but I understand. Brian Curtis and his executive producer, Shannon Harris, spoke to me at length about why they thought this was a legitimate piece, how parents and administrators and kids were upset and how Channel 5 isn't responsible for Cuban overreacting and looking like an ass in his e-mail, which is true. Meanwhile, Hillcrest Academy's Hauben said she thought it was no longer an issue. She claimed ignorance when I said that the official literature from UNICEF also said it could be a Burn player who visited. "I don't have that in front of me," she said. They all claim that students and teachers e-mailed Cuban dozens of times but never got a response until Channel 5 e-mailed.

Sorry, don't buy it. No one is more accessible than Cuban via e-mail. And part of being a good news organization is detecting when you're being used to settle some petty bitch, and I think Channel 5 was used.

Cuban, for his part, has rescheduled the appearance and will send a current Mavs player in April. "KXAS and other media are not invited," he says. At the risk of sounding like a huge Cuban apologist, can you blame him?

As for the kids who were supposedly upset: Sometimes you gotta tell 'em you don't get everything you want just because you complain. You get it if you go on TV and complain.


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