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To the rotten core

Dallas' upside-down moral political climate must have puzzled Panhandle jurors.
Henry Bargas

The lesson that should have come out of the Al Lipscomb trial in Amarillo -- the unmistakable lesson for the jury -- is that Dallas is a profoundly corrupt city. But that lesson never made the daily newspaper here, because the daily newspaper is part of the corruption.

Lipscomb, our most venerable city council member and a civil rights battler in his youth, was tried and convicted in federal court of taking bribes. During the process of the two-week trial, The Dallas Morning News steadfastly refused to tell its readers that the underlying theme of the trial was an implied indictment of the moral political climate in Dallas.

Therefore people in Dallas on all sides of the Lipscomb issue, for him and against him, were equally in the dark and unprepared for the action of the jury in the Panhandle, where the case had been moved on a change of venue.

The Amarillo jury slam-dunked him. But Lipscomb was able to get away with coming back to town and telling people he was innocent and had been wrongly convicted by a jury of 12 white rednecks who slept through most of the testimony.

I was there. They weren't asleep. And it wasn't that they were white. It was that both sides of the case, even the defense, made Lipscomb look real bad, and he went down cold. Twelve federal jurors drawn from Amarillo and its surrounding rural counties deliberated only three and a half hours to convict Lipscomb on all 65 counts of bribery, corruption, and conspiracy.

I don't know what happened in the jury room. But in typical jury terms, three and a half hours of deliberation on 65 counts would break down to maybe half an hour to 45 minutes of everybody getting coffee and going to the bathroom, say an hour re-reading the indictment and going over the judge's charge, and then the rest of it would be barely enough time to go straight down the list of counts, vote straight-up guilty on everything without a word of real debate, get the paperwork together, and then call the marshal.

As defense lawyer Tom Melsheimer told the cameras afterward, "We weren't ever in the hunt."

But why weren't they in the hunt? What did the jury in Amarillo hear that made them so certain Al Lipscomb was 65 times a crook?

How about everything they heard -- from both sides.

First the government shows convincingly that the city councilman in question took a lot of money in cash in envelopes from a white guy who owned a cab company, in return for which the city councilman, who is black, turned his voting record 180 degrees and started voting to screw black independent cab drivers and other people of color right and left. He betrayed his own people for cash.

Then, when the defense does its case, some black people from Dallas -- a county commissioner and a rich-looking preacher -- come to court and testify that everybody black in Dallas takes money under the table from rich white people and works to keep it a secret from other black people. (Right about now you remember that you have never actually seen your brother-in-law do a pinkeye injection on a roped steer.)

Then a rich black lawyer who is the mayor of Dallas comes to court and testifies that, in Dallas, taking cash money in an envelope and voting against your own people is considered a virtue and evidence of the very highest, very very finest, very most extremely excellent kind of integrity. And finally Herb Kelleher, the red-nosed party-animal old guy whom you've seen on posters all over the airport and who runs Southwest Airlines, puts his hand on the Bible and tells you he thinks Al Lipscomb is one hep cat.

What are you thinking? Three things: Once again, I am very glad I don't live in Dallas; I have got to reach my brother-in-law by cell phone; Can I just leave my vote on a piece of paper?

The point is that the government's case in Amarillo and the defense case came together, both of them, hand in glove, one after the other, and painted the same picture of Dallas -- a deplorably corrupt place where people are so deep in moral compromise that they don't even know they're compromised.

That's the story the Morning News did not and would not tell. And the reason the News won't tell its readers that story is that the newspaper itself is a big element in the story.

In fairness, it wasn't necessarily the job of Michael Saul, the City Hall reporter who covered the trial, to tell that part. He could have done it, or somebody else could have done it. The what-it's-all-about story is not the same thing as the daily courthouse reporting that Saul was doing.

 

But in any accurate and truthful telling of the news, there is a next step beyond the daily scorecard stuff, and that's the step the Morning News did not take and never takes. In daily newspaper terms, it's called a "take-out." A take-out is a long piece, usually published in the Sunday paper, in which some reporter and his or her editors go back over a stream of daily reporting like the Lipscomb trial stories, summarize them, and then offer a synthesis and analysis that says, "This is what this stuff is all about. This is what really happened up there in Amarillo. Here is why they slam-dunked Al."

The News will not do it. They will not do take-outs. Why? Because they worry that analysis -- any reporting on the local scene at a fundamental level -- runs the risk of rubbing their own interests wrong or the interests of their peers.

And that poisons the whole news pool in Dallas. The fact is that most local electronic coverage, both TV and radio, tends to spin out of the daily newspaper coverage. Especially where ideas are concerned, if things are not in print first, they're never going to show up on TV.

In many ways, the Morning News isn't unlike most of the other regional monopoly newspapers in the country. None of them can get anybody young to read them. That becomes a problem when advertisers cease to be able to sell the readers any products not directly related to incontinence.

What the News is doing, both internally and in the public face of the paper, is typical of what's happening with these big La Brea Tar Pit Gazettes all over the country. I'm hearing exactly the same stuff from the L.A. Times.

They're all pushing everybody on their staffs over 50 down the elevator shafts, and they all have this exciting new idea they talk about called...SNAPPY! They're going to be young and write...SNAPPY!

There is so much they don't get, it's almost not worth talking about it. For one thing, young readers today are smarter than young readers used to be, not dumber. TV, movies, an explosion of new print, the Web, cheap airfares, a shrinking globe, and an expanding universe have made people want to know more, not less. And SNAPPY never did get it. What newspapers have to do, to do any good, is make TROUBLE! Biiiiig TROUBLE!

The News will never do that, doesn't want to do it, doesn't know how, and hates people who do. So when something like the Lipscomb trial comes along and snaps open the window shade, the News reaches forward as fast as it can and snaps the shade back down...SNAP SNAP SNAPPY!

The end result is that in Dallas you have this huge hole in what people see, a blindness, and, in that theater of darkness actors on all sides can get away with all sorts of shadow-play and nonsense.

When Al Lipscomb came back to Dallas, he told the cameras that he was entirely innocent, and he implied the only reason he had been convicted was the judge had moved the trial to Amarillo, where the jury was all white.

But the whole question of why Judge Joe Kendall sent the trial to Amarillo is very much a part of the nuttiness of this case.

The reason Kendall gave in his order was pre-trial publicity. The big piece of pre-trial publicity that immediately preceded Kendall's order was the leaking to the Morning News of lie-detector results that were supposed to show that Floyd Richards, the cab man, hadn't bribed anybody. (Next time I'm guilty, somebody hook me up with that same polygraph operator.)

I called people all last week and came to these conclusions: The lie-detector results almost certainly were not leaked to the News by Richards' lawyers, at least not by Reed Prospere or Jay Ethington. They weren't leaked by the government. There are some other minor characters in the mix who could have done it, but the most likely place to look for culprits would be on Lipscomb's own legal team.

Of the Lipscomb team, Billy Ravkind and Scottie Allen wouldn't call me back. Melsheimer, Lipscomb's abler defender, said he didn't think the lie-detector leak was why the judge sent the trial to Amarillo.

So maybe I'm wrong, but I think somebody on Lipscomb's side did it. And what does that have to say for the claim that the judge moved the trial for racist reasons? And then you have the fact that reasonable, centrist people in the black community tend to call Kendall, who is white, a good guy.

 

There are all sorts of stories floating around about the focus groups and mock trials that both sides did in preparation for this trial. The only consensus, pieced together from gossip on both sides, is that everybody agreed a trial in Dallas with very many black people on the jury was going to end with a hung jury. There was always going to be someone black on a Dallas jury who could not vote to convict Al Lipscomb no matter what.

So, if Kendall knew that or sensed it, was he wrong to move the trial? Is it wrong to move it to a place where both sides have at least a shot?

Of course, the stunner at the end of last week was the revelation, long rumored but heretofore unconfirmed, that Lipscomb is also accused of taking thousands of dollars in bribes from the titty-bar industry. Obviously laying the groundwork for throwing Lipscomb in jail, Judge Kendall released court documents that showed that the owner of a local topless club had been given immunity in return for testifying that he had paid Lipscomb to call the cops off his place.

This is an especially rancid stink that goes back at least to the 1996 cocaine trial of Dallas Cowboys football player Michael Irvin. In the course of that trial, it was revealed that a group of Hispanic cops had been providing off-duty security for big drug parties at the topless clubs. It came up during the Irvin trial because one of the cops confessed to taking out a contract on Irvin's life.

Did we hear anything more about this? Was this ever settled? Did anyone ever suggest we might need to get to the bottom of this? Does it bother anyone that the government deliberately chose to leave this one element out of the Lipscomb trial? Are we at all worried about the fact that this matter seems to involve our new police chief, Terrell Bolton?

Nope. Not if we read the News. Everything's fine in Pineapple Upside-down Town.

Things get very tangled here. Last week I asked Tom Melsheimer whether Lipscomb wasn't talking his way straight into the pen. I said, "Isn't it the case that, if Al took hat in hand, quit the council, and did mea culpa for the cameras, he could still get probation, but by giving the finger to the court and saying he did nothing wrong, he's forcing the judge to lock him up?"

Melsheimer indicated he thought that there could be possible merit in portions of my remarks. But then he said, "The way Mr. Lipscomb has approached this entire process is wholly inconsistent with the way the government painted him in the trial. He has not behaved like a pragmatic corrupt man. He has been wholly impractical and highly principled. He is saying, 'It would be unprincipled of me to step forward and say I did it solely to get a reduced sentence.'"

Mmmmm, yeah, maybe. Or how about this? Maybe he doesn't know the difference between right and wrong. And his excuse is: "I come from a town where nobody knows the difference. So what do you want from me?"

Something in the air here makes the moral compass whirl 'round and 'round. Sometimes it makes me want to put down my copy of the Morning News, go to the airport, fly away to a far city, walk up to people and just say: "OK, now, theft. Thumbs up, thumbs down?"


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