BeloWatch

Page 2 of 3

Toss in a relentlessly pro-business, boosterish, upbeat spin on events, and--though Gelsanliter never says it--you have a paper that often distorts reality.

The coverage of the November 1991 elections offers a clear example of why The News falls far short of its grand journalistic ambitions.

Gelsanliter writes: "Pre-election coverage has been wide, if not deep. Editors have tried not to be controversial. Each council district has been profiled and each of the fourteen council races awarded a story, but by a different reporter so there are scarcely any comparisons or attempts to ascribe meaning. All press conferences and most of the candidate forums have been covered, and whether incumbent or unknown, each candidate has received the same number of paragraphs. There has been no detailing of campaign finances or any but the merest mention of who is behind this or that candidate."

On election night, apart from a single story--which quotes "a consultant to back up each conclusion"--"there is no analysis to speak of, just the bare results."

"...Each reportorial conclusion, however innocuous, had to be attributed to a named source. Editorial control reached such a point that metro editor Gilbert Bailon said he felt his reporters could scarcely write 'The sun came up today' without adding 'according to the U.S. Weather Service.'"

Reporter Lawrence Young, Gelsanliter notes, "had been cautioned to be less aggressive in his reporting."

To provide the perspective Osborne refused to let his own staff attempt--Gelsanliter says Burl "thought a sophisticated outsider could give his readers the necessary context more credibly than his own people could--the News commissioned "The Peirce Report," an "analysis of Dallas' strengths and weaknesses."

It was, writes Gelsan-liter, an attempt "to place tomorrow's election and the issues facing Dallas--its north-south split, shrinking tax base, and fractious city council--into larger perspective...."

Syndicated columnist Neil Peirce headed the team which produced the lengthy report, headlined, "Defining the future: In 2010 will the city of Dallas be dynamic or decaying?"

The study appeared as a special section in the News--but not, notes Gelsanliter, without some revisions.

"The original version of the Peirce Report predicted that race riots could occur at North Dallas shopping centers if the city didn't overcome its north-south split. Osborne asked [deputy managing editor] Stu Wilk to delete that part of the report."

In the book, Decherd praises Osborne for his willingness to listen to Dallas' affluent--as though they have some historic problem gaining access to the media. Notes Burl, in a quotation that begins a chapter: "Just because you receive the tip at the country club doesn't mean you disregard it."

Gelsanliter notes sports editor Dave Smith's limited interest in investigative work. He "thinks sports should be entertaining. He's an unreconstructed hometown fan. He says he can't remember a Texas reader ever calling to congratulate him about exposing a scandal....He has a reporter assigned to do investigative work, but gets impatient if a project takes more than a week to complete."

He recounts a quarterly meeting with the city manager, and notes that senior News editors also meet regularly with the mayor, police chief, FBI agent-in-charge, Mexican consul general, and the CEOs of American Airlines, Texas Instruments, JCPenney, and Electronic Data Systems.

We learn that metro columnist Steve Blow is "prohibited from expressing political opinions."

We see conflicts between Osborne and Belo president James Sheehan--particularly over Sheehan's insistence that the paper disclose the names of confidential sources to defend itself in a libel suit filed by the Starr County sheriff, the target of a News investigative series. Sheehan later left the company--as did one of the embittered reporters, Pulitzer Prize-winner David Hanners, for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

And finally, we learn more about two Pulitzer Prizes the News tried not to win.

News photographer William Snyder won his 1991 Pulitzer Prize "for a project that photo editor John Davidson neither sponsored, nor initially approved," Gelsanliter writes. After being refused time and expenses to do the project--Davidson finally agreed to pay for the film--Snyder paid his own way overseas to shoot photos of Romanian orphans. The prize-winning photographs--about which the paper would later boast, in a full-page house ad featuring Davidson side-by-side with Snyder--"ran only in the limited Sunday bulldog edition."

Then there is the episode, previously reported in BeloWatch, where Osborne iced a series on police brutality because he thought the logo was too "judgmental."

The series was titled "Abuse of Authority," and Osborne's displeasure, Gelsanliter writes, prompted reporters Lorraine Adams and Dan Malone to write a letter of protest to Osborne--considered an audacious act for mere reporters--and arrange a subsequent meeting with him.

The session, recounted by Gelsanliter, did not go well.
"Did the two reporters think they should be writing headlines? Osborne wanted to know.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.

Latest Stories