The Dallas Morning News does two kinds of stories. One is what some News staffers have told me is called a “three-rivers story,” meaning it happens at least three rivers away from Dallas. On three-rivers stories, reporters and editors can go at it straight, full steam ahead, no holds barred, tell it like it is and let the chips fall where they may.
Then there’s the other kind. I call that one a rubber-meets-the-road story. My name for it. The News staffers I have talked to in the past have denied such a thing exists. I say it does.
The rubber is anything the owners of the paper don’t like. The road is the owners. In a rubber-meets-the-road story, persons who do things the owners of the paper don’t like are shady, sketchy, suspicious, even dastardly.
On the other hand, in a rubber-meets-the-road story an owner of The Dallas Morning News is … well, kind of saintly, a generous and wise person, open-hearted and selfless, with sort of a soft yellow glow or an aura about them all the time. You can’t see their feet in a news story, but if you could they would be floating about half an inch off the ground, bright-eyed with the breath of angels. And that’s just the facts, ma’am.
Thursday we had a classic rubber-meets-the-road story in the paper, in which the rubber was state Sen. Royce West and the road was Robert Decherd, scion of the group of families that own A. H. Belo, the company that owns the News. From 1987 to 2013 Decherd was chairman of the board, president and chief executive officer of A. H. Belo Corp. Now Decherd is retired, devoting himself to developing and supporting a system of parks downtown.
For 24 years, almost as long as Decherd was the Supreme Beloan, West has represented senate District 23 in southern Dallas and Dallas County. A Democratic cat in a rabid dog-pack of Texas Tea Party Republicans, West nevertheless manages, by sheer seniority or charm, to be vice chair of the Senate Committee on higher education.
The point being, West is a very known commodity and not at all shadowy, or shouldn’t be, but then he wandered into Decherd’s path, something local politicians are supposed to know better than to do.
West and Decherd are on opposite sides of a controversy over a proposed downtown park. When I wrote about the park fight a couple months ago, West was not yet associated with 4P Partners, the group competing with Decherd to control the park.
West’s group wants to build a for-profit parking garage on city-owned land at the east end of downtown behind the Majestic Theatre, then develop a 3.6 acre-park on top of it and give the park to the city for free along with a $342 million endowment to maintain it.
Decherd, whose foundation already has given $20 million to various downtown parks, has another idea. He has pledged $7.5 million, which the city must match, to build a park on the same site with no parking garage underneath.
As with his sponsorship of other parks, his foundation would have a major voice in the design of this park. I’ve never heard anybody say any but good things about his role in the design of other parks his group has bankrolled.
In fact, this park question — who should run it — is one on which I am totally agnostic. Seems like the sort of thing that needs to get talked out.
But that’s the problem. On rubber-meets-the-road stories, there’s not supposed to be any talking out. Once a Beloan has spoken, in this case Decherd, there should be no further need for talking out or in. In the case of the 4P proposal, the one with the underground garage, there was no talking at all for a long time, because it simply wasn’t allowed.
The sponsors of the parking garage proposal couldn’t even persuade the director of the park department to present their idea to the park board. When they gave him a copy of their presentation, Park Director Willis Winters, who had been totally mum about it for months, gave their proposal to Decherd and then went re-mum.
But the 4P people had a good idea. Sen. West is an old friend of Park Board chairman Max Wells. They hired West, apparently promising him an equity share in the venture if he could get Wells to allow their idea to come before the board. It sounds as if that is happening.
Now, could someone step forward and raise an objection to West’s role, saying it’s unseemly for an elected official to lobby political appointees to a public body for his own private gain? Sure. It’s America. Anybody can say anything.
But has anybody done that? Not that I can tell, unless it’s Robert Decherd. But did Decherd step in front of some reporters somewhere and level such an accusation? Oh, no. Why would he step in front of other people’s reporters when he has his own?
Yesterday, two Beloan reporters, Tristan Hallman and Robert Wilonsky, who compose the Morning News' City Hall team, leveled the accusation themselves. In a story that purported to be a straight news report, not a column, the pair wrote:
“Legally, the longtime state senator appears to be in the clear. He's not subject to the city's ethics code, which is in the process of getting a major overhaul. And a spokesman for the Texas Ethics Commission couldn't find a provision in state code that applies to a situation like this one.
“But West's involvement creates an awkward dynamic: an influential officeholder lobbying other elected officials in a city that he represents. And West isn't fighting for a cause; he's asking for partial control of valuable public land, purchased with bond money, for a for-profit venture.”
Speaking as an ink-stained wretch, I can pretty well tell you what the conversation is if two ink-stained wretches like Hallman and Wilonsky try to peddle a couple paragraphs like that to an editor on a three-rivers story:
“Wait, guys. You’re telling me West is not in violation of the city’s ethics code. He’s not in violation of the state ethics code. But you say it’s an awkward dynamic? Who told you it was an awkward dynamic? Do you have a good awkward dynamic quote for me?
And there is the problem. Nobody you can see in the story told them that, but it sounds as if somebody you can’t see told them. In fact, bulging out from between the lines are some very strong opinions about these 4P people and Royce West.
It seems unlikely a couple of ink-stained wretches are staying up nights crying in their pillows about who runs this or that park. So whose opinions are driving this show? Let’s take a look around and see if we can guess.
You know how I figure out whose sub-rosa agenda is being promoted in a Morning News rubber-meets-the-road story? I look around in the story for somebody who seems to float just slightly off the ground and radiates a saintly aura, a soft yellow evanescence. Oh, here it is. You have to read half way down in the story before he’s even mentioned, but he’s there, finally:
“But as key deadlines approach for the May 2017 bond package, prominent city officials still strongly support a competing proposal for the park site from Robert Decherd, the former CEO of A. H. Belo Corporation, the parent company of The Dallas Morning News.
“Decherd's nonprofit foundation, Parks for Downtown Dallas, has offered to pay roughly $7.5 million for a new park at the site if the city matches the contribution with bond money. The foundation, which is chipping in millions for other future downtown parks, also hopes to raise money for an endowment to pay for maintenance. It has already paid for a traffic study.”
You know who’s not a prominent city officials in a rubber-meets-the-road story? The ones who are not prominent are the ones who oppose the Beloans, in this case all persons associated with 4P Partners. They are not prominent. They are so shady they are ghosts. No, really. Known ghosts.
“With the money-in-hand offer from Decherd, who worked with the city on Belo Garden, city officials have expressed a lukewarm-at-best interest in the alternative 4P Partners' proposal.
“The 4P group has countered with relentless efforts from ghosts of City Hall's past. Among them was former City Council member Ron Natinsky, who is no longer part of the group. West effectively replaced him.
“Natinsky had also hired former West Dallas council member Steve Salazar as a lobbyist in September. And Ken Carter, a longtime friend of and spokesman for former Mayor Pro Tem Don Hill, also works with the group.”
Don Hill is a former City Council person now in federal prison serving an 18-year sentence for bribery. Carter represented him during his trial six years ago. I run into Carter now all the time, because he’s a busy PR guy with all kinds of clients, big and small, but, yes, six years ago he did represent Don Hill and, yes, sadly, Hill got sent up the river. In rubber stories, the Beloans have very long memories.
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The other thing that tells me what’s going on in a rubber story is a certain tone that creeps in when the authors refer to — but seem to be speaking for — the Beloan. Here is a wonderful specimen of that.
“Natinsky's lobbying efforts caused friction with Decherd and at City Hall. That will mean West will have to mend some fences late in the process.”
Really? They have friction with Decherd? So they have to mend fences? Really?
But I can tell you this. In their stuffy little office at the back of City Hall yesterday, two ink-stained wretches sat in a corner. They stuck in their thumbs. They pulled out plumbs. And they said, “What good boys are we.” And they certainly were, at least from the perspective of a certain unseen person.