Wait a minute. Dallas Morning News Metro columnist Steve Blow is gone? You’re kidding me. Why was I not told? You say he retired? How can he just retire?
This means no more Steve Blow alerts. What am I supposed to do with my wind-up Steve Blow alarm? I’ll tell you what. In my business you mourn the loss of a good target more than the loss of a good dog. They’ve always got more good dogs down at the pound, but there may never be another Blow.
I mean that. And not entirely snidely. Unsurprisingly, I have always been sort of a student of local columnists or, as I once heard an editor describe a member of our species, “the local mope.” In the land of odd jobs, it’s even odder.
The job is to talk to a city about the city in a way that won’t put the city to sleep. That’s a lot to do. When the subject of itself comes up, a non-introspective city like Dallas is always on the edge of very, very sleepy anyway.
My version is a little different, because the people I work for want it different. They distinctly do not want tone poems. OK. Got it. No tone poems.
Blow’s version was more typical of the tone poem vernacular you find or used to find in most major metropolitan dailies back when they could afford more of that sort of thing. Reading a good Steve Blow column was like looking through a window and saying to yourself, “Aha, so that’s what it’s like to be in Dallas today.” Blow was great at those when he did them. He had just the right blend of insight and voice.
I was not especially moved or touched by his original column back in 2006 about Sabrina, the mentally ill woman he could see from his office window sitting in the park across the street. But my reasons for being unimpressed were from way too inside the local mope industry.
I was aware of the wonderful columns local West Coast mope Steve Lopez was writing then at the LA Times about Nathaniel Ayers, a 54-year-old diagnosed schizophrenic street person who was a gifted Juilliard-trained concert violinist — a story that later became the movie The Soloist, starring Jamie Foxx, Robert Downey Jr. and Catherine Keener.
I figured, unfairly I’m sure, that Blow’s editor had waved a copy of the LA Times in his face and said, “Hey, go find a crazy person on the street like this mope did in LA.” So Blow looks out the window.
But two years ago when he did an update on Sabrina, I had to go give myself a slap and admit he had done a really fine job, mope-wise. He recounted the whole absolutely heart-breaking saga of the intervention in Sabrina’s life by caring good Samaritans and mental health officials doing their best, all of whose best efforts came to naught because Sabrina, deluded though she may have been, did not want to have her life intervened in.
She wanted to go sit in the damn park and talk to herself. She exercised her constitutional right under existing trial law to choose a life in which she was susceptible to rape, malnutrition and every other kind of horrific abuse and neglect, and in the end there was not one thing anybody could do about it except elect all new judges.
Sabrina’s story — souls lost to the streets because of mental illness — is a biting nightmare known to too many families in our midst, and Blow pitched it right across the plate at the perfect speed and height. We all swung and missed and knew her saga was our failure.
The other side of being a columnist — the one we don’t show but I know you can see anyway — is that we are worker bees, and, as I suggested above, we have bosses. Blow and I were lucky in that regard. We entered the business back when there were more choices, and we probably ended up, if not exactly with the bosses of our dreams, with the bosses we deserved.
I get bossed. It usually has to do with areas of competence. Or, you know, the perceived lack thereof. It has been suggested to me in the past, for example, that I’m OK reporting on scientific research that has been carried out by actual scientists, but management would prefer that I not attempt to do scientific research myself.
Fine. Great. I still say people want to know how many floors of free-fall a cat can really survive, but I get it. Leave the glory to the guys in the lab coats.
I do not know if Blow got bossed directly, as in, “Hey, Blow, write some stuff about how great the Trinity toll road project would be.” He could have been self-bossing, as in, “Hey, I think the boss would like it if I …”
One way or another, he decided to abandon tone poems and get into complicated public works controversies back in 2007. That was when then-City Council member Angela Hunt was leading a referendum effort to kill the concept of a new highway on top of the river through downtown.
Notably, almost everybody writing at the News at that time was required to take an oar in that same galley and pull for the toll road. That battle goes on today, of course, and the endgame is only now emerging from the mists.
The road, still unbuilt, would dovetail neatly with plans for the redevelopment of the southwest corner of downtown where the owners of the Morning News are major landholders. That aspect of the story has gone largely untold by the paper with the exception of some brave reporting by transportation writer Brandon Formby, whose stories about it usually have been tucked inside beneath vastly understated headlines.
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Formby came to the paper after the 2007 referendum. A couple of good hands on the staff at the time of the referendum, Victoria Loe-Hicks and Randy Lee Loftis, managed to keep themselves clean of the taint of pro-toll-road propagandizing.
Blow did not. He yanked that oar and used his folksiest voice to repeat what seemed to be company dogma — that only goofballs, meat-heads and pointy-head Yankees opposed the road. I always thought it was a great and telling mistake for the News to require or even allow Blow to write that crap. It was way outside his wheelhouse. He was really good inside his wheelhouse.
I have seen readership study after readership study in this business finding that a newspaper’s most valuable and fragile asset is its credibility. It was hick-town newspapering for the Morning News to squander a credible resource like Blow on its real estate problems. He was really good at what he was really good at. That should have been enough for the greedy bastards.
But there you have it. Just add this to your prayers: “Dear Lord, when I go, please don’t have Jim Schutze write me a fond farewell.”