At its best, a newspaper editorial page serves as a beacon for a community.
Newspaper editorial writers have the opportunity to cut through rhetoric and sloppy thinking--to stake out a clear position on a difficult or complex issue, and make persuasive arguments to support it.
It is an opportunity that timid politicians, buffeted by conflicting interests, rarely employ--and a luxury that newspapers truly enjoy.
The News has often taken editorial potshots at public officials--usually Democrats, especially President Clinton--for displaying a lack of political leadership and courage.
Unfortunately for Dallas, a city in desperate need of leadership and intelligent thought on public issues, the Morning News editorial page too often employs mealy-mouthed obfuscation that would shame the most spineless politician.
Take the question of casino gambling.
It's been a hot issue in Texas for more than a year. Eager to reap an economic windfall--for the state or for themselves--lawmakers and business interests are promoting bills before the Texas legislature to legalize casino gambling.
Into this critical issue wades The Dallas Morning News, the most powerful and prominent editorial institution in Texas. For decades, the News has served as a crisp editorial voice. Although it was reflexively right wing and dishonestly protective of the Dallas business establishment, you could at least always tell where the paper stood.
On November 27--a Sunday, with the paper's biggest readership of the week--the News devoted its entire editorial column to casino gambling.
And what advice did the paper, after carefully studying the issue, offer to the political leaders and citizens of Texas?
Proceed with caution.
As is frequently its wont--under the presumed pretense of offering both sides (since when is an editorial supposed to offer both sides?)--the News addressed the issue in a USA Today-like bulleted pro-con format.
The editorial column devoted one-third its space to providing background on the question: "Should Texas legalize gambling?"
The italicized introduction traced the number of states that have legalized gambling, and the arguments on its behalf. "Sounds good," the reader-friendly editorial noted. "But for all the economic benefits this seemingly 'redeemed' industry promises, aren't there some serious social costs associated with it it that Texas must consider before conversion?"
The second third of the editorial offered parallel "yes" and "no" responses to the social cost question--itself more limited and mealy-mouthed than the original topic of casino gambling. Accompanied by "thumbs-up" and "thumbs-down" graphics helpfully bearing the words "yes" and "no," the responses, of course, summarize the arguments in bulleted form.
These sections, covering four points, offer entirely contradictory arguments and information. BeloWatch will summarize, con and pro, in useful USA Today-like form:
* "Casino gambling spawns more crime"; "...the facts indicate otherwise."
* "Casinos attract organized criminal elements to communities"; "legalization of casino gaming has rid the industry of organized crime."
* "Expanded gambling opportunities increase the number of people with severe gambling problems"; "Pathological, or compulsive, gamblers make up a small portion on the population."
* "Low income people are more likely to spend a disproportionate amount of their incomes on gambling"; "the demographic profile of the average casino player includes a median household income of $38,000."
Finally, after reading through all this uncritically regurgitated contradictory information, the poor Morning News editorial-page reader gets to the final section, helpfully titled: "Our view."
The cut-through-the-crap bottom line of the News' careful study of the gambling issue?
Gambling's a mistake and legislators and citizens should rise up against it?
Gambling's an economic necessity in these times?
Nope. "Casino gaming very well may be the economic miracle that states are hoping for," Dallas' Crusading Only Daily declares. "But for Texas to jump on the casino bandwagon without adequately looking into the social costs first would be very shortsighted."
It's the journalistic equivalent of a politician calling a press conference to call for further study on an issue.
"Until Texas lawmakers can adequately assess the social costs of casino gambling for our state," the News editorial thunders, in its powerful final sentence, "the people of Texas cannot be asked to make a leap of faith."
Editorials like this are almost enough to make BeloWatch long for the days when the red-baiting News branded the U.S. Supreme Court "a judicial Kremlin."
No mealy-mouthed obfuscation there.
The November 16 agate type in Dallas' Only Daily sports section reported some unexpected performances in the Everman-Lancaster high school basketball game.
Lancaster was listed as the 84-74 victor. Its leading scorers, as reported in the News: "Jimmy Johnson 23, Barry Switzer 14." Lancaster's reported stars for the night: "Emmitt Smith 12, Troy Aikman 2."
"We just looked at it and laughed," says Everman athletic director Dan Yokeley. "We couldn't figure who was the idiot who sent it in and who'd be stupid enough to print it. We had nothing to do with it."
Yokeley says his school, in fact, wasn't even playing Lancaster that night. It was losing its season opener to Arlington Lamar. Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer, Yokeley says, never even made it onto the court.
Fun for all ages
Readers of The Mini Page, the "especially for kids and their families" half-page syndicated section that the Morning News publishes on Wednesday, are doubtless looking for wholesome fare the wee ones can appreciate.
On November 23, they got more than they bargained for.
The Mini Page that day featured a pre-Thanksgiving explanation of how "caring kids" can say "thank you," thus helping to "build good character" and "make the world around a more interesting and pleasant place to be." (Answer: say "I am thankful for my home. Because I care: I keep my room neat and tidy. I help inside and out to make things look good...")
Immediately adjacent to The Mini Page's niceness: an ad for Caligula XXI promoting "Adult Film Favorite Dominique Simone" and coming attraction "Julia Ann 1/2 Blondage.