One would imagine that a federal grand-jury investigation of an internationally known businessman who lives in Dallas would grab serious attention from the Dallas Morning News.
One would imagine wrong.
About a year ago, U.S. News & World Report published a 1600-word story about Libyan attempts to buy influence in the U.S. in hope of easing economic sanctions imposed after the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, claimed 270 lives.
The story briefly discussed the possibility that Mohamed El Bukhari, a minister in Moammar al-Qadhafi's government, had traveled to Dallas to discuss the purchase of $200 million in real estate with Henry Billingsley, son-in-law of megadeveloper Trammell Crow.
The magazine stated that such discussions might represent a violation of U.S. economic sanctions against Libya and that the actions of those who dealt with Bukhari were under federal investigation. It reported that Billingsley's records had been "seized" by federal agents and even quoted Billingsley acknowledging that federal investigators had questioned him.
Yet, according to a search of the Nexis research database, Dallas' Only Daily published not a word about any of this. Not a wire-service summary of the allegations. Not its own inquiry into the matter. Not a response from Billingsley or the Crows.
Earlier this month, U.S. News published a one-paragraph update on the story. The item reported that the same prosecutors are investigating whether Billingsley might have helped Qadhafi's lieutenant, Bukhari, illegally enter the U.S. through Mexico. After arriving, the magazine reported, Bukhari "turned up" at a weekend camp-out in East Texas for prominent business and political leaders hosted by Trammell Crow.
The News pounced on the story on December 11--with a 140-word national news brief, pulled largely from a wire report and published on page 15A.
The prospect that real estate magnate Trammell Crow was cozying up to Qadhafi's deputy was a matter of only scant interest to Dallas' Only Daily.
In truth, the full details of the Crow family's extraordinary dalliance with the Libyan minister are far more provocative than even the U.S. News coverage suggested. This week's Observer cover story, written by staff writer Miriam Rozen, reveals what happened.
Why didn't the News go after any of it?
Because the Crows are a sacred cow for Dallas' Only Daily. Crow family members and company executives share close relationships with those who run A.H. Belo and the Morning News.
Such relationships (and there are many) explain why the News does not run aggressive investigative stories about the Crows--or, for that matter, several other sacred cows in the Dallas business community. It explains, in part, why the News offers little aggressive local business coverage of any kind.
The News' lack of interest in the Crow-Libya story reveals how readily the paper will bury even an obvious tale about a close-to-home subject--how protective it is of community icons.
Ironically, the very day the News published its "brief" on the second U.S. News report, its lead editorial issued a plea, as the headline put it, to "Remember Pan Am 103." Noting that Qadhafi had refused to extradite two Libyan intelligence agents indicted in the bombing, the paper called for the U.N. Security Council to "get tough...hitting him where he lives by declaring a worldwide embargo of Libya's oil exports..."
Though France, which has hefty oil interests in Libya, had been reluctant to crack down, America should push its allies to stiffen sanctions nonetheless, the News declared. It is important to "put moral prerogatives over economic interests," the editorial concluded. "Pan Am 103 must not be forgotten."
Yet in the pages of Dallas' Only Daily, incredibly, hobnobbing with Moammar Qadhafi's treasury minister isn't worthy of more than passing mention--if Trammell Crow and his family are doing it.
It is widely accepted in The Dallas Morning News newsroom that one of the most universally disliked executives in an institution with plenty of dislikable executives is assistant managing editor Paula LaRocque.
LaRocque is the paper's much-promoted "writing coach"--an in-house wordsmith employed to encourage good writing.
That, of course, sounds great--clear evidence of the paper's commitment to help its staffers produce more literate and eloquent work. Unfortunately, it hasn't worked out that way.
The first piece of evidence is the dearth of good writing in the News. The gutting of Dallas Life and the ongoing homogenization of the Today section--a subject for another BeloWatch day--have removed the most prominent forums for such work.
But LaRocque's approach has also contributed to the writing coach's failure. She's one of those insufferable word nit-pickers, absorbed with the proper use of "who" and "whom"--to the exclusion of simply encouraging great prose. In short, News staffers complain, she doesn't see the literary forest through the grammatical trees.
LaRocque's frequent radio appearances make evident her obsession. So do her occasional forays onto the News' book-review page.
A conspicuous example came on November 27, when LaRocque reviewed One True Thing, a novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen. LaRocque began her review this way: "Readers and book reviewers see so many grammatical errors these days that they no longer bother to remark them." (Remark them?) "But occasionally a book comes along that is especially damaged by such errors."
Partly, explains LaRocque, it is who committed the errors:fictional first-person narrator Ella Gulden, who "bills herself as an ultra bright magna cum laude graduate from Harvard who lands a job writing and editing at a large New York magazine."
What atrocities must the reader endure? LaRocque shares some: "...this overachieving English grad says 'laid' instead of 'lain,' 'snuck' instead of 'sneaked' and"--clearly worst of all--"repeatedly uses 'was' for the subjunctive 'were'..."
"After a while, a reader just gets plain disgusted."
Well clearly, one reader just gets plain disgusted.
After five paragraphs of obsessing over the technical writing failures of Quindlen's narrator, LaRocque finally gets around to reviewing the book for the next six paragraphs.
It turns out she really likes it. But, in the final paragraph of the review, LaRocque returns to form. "...All that's positive and excellent about One True Thing only makes its hitches in grammar more lamentable."
Nothing like clear communication--from the woman charged with teaching News scribes how to write.