Now We Like Belo

So I guess this is the new post-ECAOBM era at the Dallas Observer, in which ECAOBM stands for Eric Celeste's Article On Bob Mong ("Snooze Alarm," February 13). Celeste, a talented young editor, a former student of mine at SMU who regularly addressed me as "Professor Schutze," now one of my bosses, attended Dallas Morning News staff meetings, interviewed DMN Editor Robert Mong at length and wrote an intriguing piece for us arguing that the Morning News is a better newspaper under Mong than we like to admit.

Personally, I think they put one of those big scary seed pods in the basement of the Observer, it turned into Eric, and the people who run the Morning News ate him. Then again, I wasn't a real professor. (I'm sorry, Eric, but you had to find out some day.)

I confess I have been slowly, grudgingly conceding to myself over the past year that the News is maybe no longer mangling local stories the way it did under former Editor Burl Osborne, whose involuntary physical reaction to a hot truth-telling local story was what most people do when they see a big sassy roach in the middle of the kitchen floor. The castanets, please! Of course, every time Osborne danced his mad fandango on the head of another young reporter, it was Pay Day!! for me (ka-ching ka-ching). I miss the old dude, darn it, the same way I miss former school Superintendent Waldomar ("Headline") Rojas. If I could play the guitar, I would put on my old tie-dyeds and sit around with misty-moisty eyes singing "Where Have All the Good Targets Gone?"

But the devil wants his due.

There's a limit. For all this rebirth at the News, the piper must still be paid. The payment usually has to do with the local real estate schemes of the Belo Corp., which owns the News. Right now, Belo wants the city to pass a maximum bond package of $555 million May 3, rather than any of several smaller proposals. Being what I am, I strongly suspect the News' ardent support of the really really big bond package has something to do with Belo chairman Robert Decherd's scheme for street closings, public plazas and a new hotel built with tax money on Belo-owned property near the city's convention center at the southwest corner of downtown. Having been a Belo-watcher for many years, I think I can look at rows and rows of loudly singing faces in the Belo Youth Chorale and tell when somebody's working the flail on the backside.

The drone of editorial support for the really really big bond package and for the taxpayer hotel is at a familiar pitch and volume--the same tone Belo summoned for the Tom Dunning for Mayor campaign last year--the editorial equivalent of Chinese water torture:

"Two Good Projects on the Horizon." "Downtown Blueprint." "Loop 2003 Committee Presents Enticing Vision." "Convention Center: Now It's Time to Add a Hotel." "Look Again, Ask Tough Questions of Convention Center Plan." "Go Dallas, Let's Speed Up Ways to Navigate Downtown." "Building a Better Dallas...Building a Better Dallas...Building a Belo Dallas."

The idea that people in Dallas are crazy to get a hotel built with tax money on Belo property is dropped into news stories regularly and not felicitously. Have you ever heard a single normal person say he wants to see the taxpayers jump into the downtown hotel business, especially now when the occupancy rates in Dallas hotels are disastrously low and all of the seasoned, street-savvy private operators are losing their shirts? Are people talking about that in your neighborhood?

But at the News, even columnist Steve Blow, whose work I admire--left to his own devices, he's one of the finest writing hands at the paper--felt compelled to write a column in which he said, "...we have to find a way to build a big hotel next to the convention center." I felt like I was watching a grainy videotape in which a pale Steve Blow, bound, blindfolded and speaking in a faltering monotone, would say next, "...and I have been well-treated by the Revolutionary Heroes who are my gracious hosts."

At some point in the next two weeks, an industry group in Dallas will come forward with a report taking a rigorous look at the assumptions underlying the Belo hotel proposal. I haven't seen the report, which isn't done yet, so I don't know what it will say. I have an idea, however, of the sort of questions the report will try to answer.

These questions are interesting at several levels. They are interesting because they are the questions to which a serious investor would want answers before committing serious money. They also are interesting because they are the kind of questions the Morning News would have raised, examined and answered in any good story or series of editorials, had the paper not been operating under pressure.