Hate Crime

I have a theory. This conjecture involves former colleague Laura Miller, who is running for mayor, and the executives at The Dallas Morning News, who hate her.

The theory is simple. It's the horny churchgoer theory. In other words, the paper will do anything it can to screw Miller, so long as it can maintain the appearance of piety. I suggest that this strategy worked beautifully as the paper helped Dunning force a runoff with Miller in Saturday's election.

Before I attempt to prove my thesis, full disclosure is necessary. I've worked with and I voted for Miller. Years ago I wrote a profile of Miller in which I called her the city's best reporter--in essence, it was a 4,000-word ass-kiss, and I stand by every word. I am quite upset that she has renounced cussing because I found her profanity a turn-on. And, yes, having the mayor's cell phone number would be pretty sweet, especially when making late-night bar bets. In summation, I'm kinda biased.

That said, let's examine how Miller's opponent, Tom Dunning, has become the cause célèbre of the editorial pages. In the past month, the paper has run six editorials and two columns praising Dunning and poking fun at Miller's "fix the potholes" message. (Which should be mocked; it reminds me of the Married...With Children episode where Al Bundy encouraged his daughter to sleep with an alderman so he could get his pothole fixed. I mean, potholes are just that evil!)

"Hell, it's just like the Manchester Union Leader did with Steve Forbes," says an editorial writer at another Texas paper, talking about the incredibly right-wing New Hampshire paper. "When I went up there to cover the election, I read an endorsement and said, 'Huh, I thought they already endorsed Forbes.' And someone there said, 'Yeah, they have, but they just rewrite the same endorsement piece and run it with a different headline every few days.'"

But that's what an editorial page is supposed to do, right? Well, yes, edit pages should champion causes, but usually a paper will only do so if it can articulate a reason for its position. I've reread the editorials and columns several times, and they made my head throb with confusion.

The first two endorsement editorials champion Dunning's ability to bridge racial divides by bravely chairing committees. The first editorial says that Dunning led the Dallas Together committee "at a time when this city was on the verge of exploding." The second editorial praised Dunning's leadership, as evidenced by his stewarding of the Dallas Together committee when "Dallas was a city on the edge of imploding."

Forget for a moment that the Morning News has yet to fully explore the incredible tectonic event described here, wherein, one must suspect, shifting plates in the lithosphere could cause a unique Plinian eruption that would make an entire city explode and implode simultaneously. Instead, concentrate on the flimsy case being built for Dunning. (Not that Dunning isn't mayor-worthy, just that the News is doing as poor a job as he is in saying how and why he is worthy.)

A later endorsement said he should be mayor because a former Texas state representative from Fort Worth says so. Yet another champions his contribution to education fund raising with some good examples...although the editorial undermines itself by saying mayoral debating has to that point "centered around potholes." (As my editing teacher taught us on Day 3, you center "on" something. It's quite impossible to center "around" something--even potholes.) But the editorial said in its first paragraph that "the track records of the candidates on [important] issues ought to be compared." Good for them! Compare and contrast. Except the editorial listed Dunning's positions on each issue but never compared them to--never even mentioned--Miller's or Domingo Garcia's.

Editorial-page fixtures Rena Pederson and Hank Tatum also weighed in. Pederson made the fascinating argument that the downtown business establishment, which supports Dunning, is actually a rainbow coalition of warm-hearted do-gooders. Tatum noted that Dunning was a nice guy a long time ago when they were both young and cable TV was just a dream.

So my theory received strong support (at least in my biased eyes) by the excessive, pointless, meandering endorsements and columns that the DMN ran. After all, it's one of the few ways the paper can affect the race without injecting opinion into its news stories. But how the paper conducted and presented its poll of likely voters assured me I was on to something.

One of the most important election stories a city newspaper runs is the poll story, the one that tells readers whether their favorite local candidate has a shot in hell in the upcoming election. Based on past history, I expected the Morning News to run this story on the Sunday before the election, six days out--at the time when our reporters were being told by Those in the Know that Miller was putting a 20-point licking on Dunning. The DMN instead didn't run its poll until Thursday, just three days before the election and after Dunning had used his huge war chest to blanket the airwaves with ads painting Miller as contentious. (Dude, you had to spend money to prove that?)

I checked the history of past poll stories to make sure I was right in saying this was wrong, that the News always ran such stories earlier in close races. Yup. A story in 1998 showing that a slim majority backed the controversial $246 million Trinity River project ran six days before the election. In 1995, the Morning News ran a poll seven days before the mayoral election and bond-package vote. In 1993, poll results were run six days before the city's historic vote to adopt the 14-1 single-member district system of government. Space precludes listing every example, but in tight races, the paper runs the poll six to seven days out.

What does it matter? Well, you run a poll saying Miller is 20 points ahead, and the challenger has a lot tougher time convincing his backers they aren't on a sinking ship.

Julie Weprin, of Blum & Weprin Associates in New York--which has done polling for the Morning News since 1992--said that although they make suggestions to the paper as to when the poll should be done, the paper decides. She also says her firm worked furiously over three days (Sunday through Tuesday night) to get the poll done so it could be ready for Thursday's paper, suggesting she didn't get the go-ahead from the News until the last minute. Was that so the paper could wait until the last possible moment, when Dunning's ads had a chance to combat Miller's name recognition? Or was it the anti-conspiracy reason some Newsies mention: cuz the paper's hard up for cash?

"It's a very expensive poll to do," Weprin says, declining to say how much but acknowledging it's "many thousands of dollars."

I don't buy the money thing. Sure, they may have been cooking books and kiting checks to get the coin, but I doubt it. This sort of stuff is budgeted in. Nope, I think it's simpler than that. I think the decision-makers at that paper have thin skin and long memories. They remember the enemies she made after she left the Morning News and broke big stories at three different competitors. I think they hate her.