Trouble in paradise

Think the Belo Corp.'s decision to pay $24 million cash for 12.38 percent of the Dallas Mavericks and a 6.19 percent share of The Arena Group reeks of a conflict of interest? You're not alone.

Someone from The Dallas Morning News, which is owned by Belo, anonymously faxed Buzz a copy of a message by News City Hall reporters Robert Ingrassia, Michael Saul, and Nora Lopez criticizing the purchase and the News' coverage of it. None of the three would speak to Buzz about the message, which was posted on an internal electronic bulletin board at the paper. A source, however, says their posting was quickly followed by others from staff members also critical of the purchase.

The original message pretty much says all that Buzz might say about the investment -- minus the snideness -- so we decided to print the whole thing:

Regarding Belo's purchase of a minority share in the Dallas Mavericks and American Airlines Center and the subsequent news coverage in The Dallas Morning News:

We find it disturbing that Belo invested in a project as steeped in controversy as the Dallas arena. We also find it troubling that Belo entered into a business relationship with Ross Perot Jr. and Tom Hicks, both of whom are prominent newsmakers in our community and occasionally on the national scene. We believe that the purchase will strengthen the perception among some in the community that the Morning News is not an independent editorial voice in Dallas, especially on controversial civic endeavors. But, given that several other media companies (including some newspapers) have bought local sports teams, Belo's purchase is not shocking or cause for excessive alarm.

That said, the paper's handling of the news story regarding the purchase was unbalanced and incomplete. The story that ran Saturday did a good job covering the business angles. But it failed to explore the obvious journalistic questions that Belo's purchase creates. The only reference to the matter was the following statement from Belo vice president Harold Gaar:

"Buying into the Mavericks and the arena won't affect how Belo's newspaper or broadcast outlets report on the team or the American Airlines Center."

We contend that Mr. Gaar, vice president for financial and investor relations, was in no position to comment about the editorial integrity of the Morning News or the news division of WFAA. [Belo owns WFAA -- Buzz.]

A more balanced, honest approach would have been to acknowledge that many readers may perceive a potential conflict of interest in the newspaper's future coverage of the Mavericks and the arena. Perhaps the paper could have run an editor's note from a chief NEWS EXECUTIVE stating that the purchase was a Belo corporate decision that in no way would compromise the paper's aggressive and thorough coverage of both the Mavericks and the arena. Or perhaps there could have been a sidebar focusing on this issue, quoting journalism professors, arena opponents and supporters and, of course, the Morning News. For example, here's a quote from Dallas City Council member and arena opponent Donna Blumer that was forwarded as a feed to the Business desk but not used in the story:

"Belo can no longer be an independent voice for the public. It clearly is becoming more and more of the establishment...I don't see how anybody can trust what they read about the arena from here on out if Belo is part of the ownership."

We believe that the decision to print Mr. Gaar's comment while ignoring the concerns of Ms. Blumer and others who may share her views was wrong. Failing to explore this issue only fuels the sense in the newsroom and among our readers that Belo, and, by extension, The Dallas Morning News, does not hold journalistic integrity among its top ideals.

We feel that Belo's commitment to being a good corporate citizen is admirable. However, the new relationship between Belo and the Mavericks, and the paper's handling of the story in particular, raises troubling questions for all of us in the newsroom. We believe that corporate citizenship should not come at the expense of the newspaper's editorial integrity.

Here are some facts to consider:

Belo contributed $5,000 to the Yes! For Dallas committee, which urged passage of higher taxes to help fund the arena. Belo pledged $100,000 to the Dallas 2012 Olympic bid committee. Belo has provided significant financial support to The Dallas Plan, a civic organization that endorses the Trinity River project and may other public projects.

These examples create, at the bare minimum, a PERCEIVED conflict of interest. Unless we deal with the issue openly and honestly -- unlike the way we handled the Belo-Mavericks story -- we will only reinforce these perceptions.

Have Belo's business decisions and other ties in the community affected our coverage in the past? Will they affect it in the future? We would hope not. But, unfortunately, many reporters at the paper would argue from first-hand experience that our track record is not good in covering issues in which Belo, the Morning News or top officers have a vested interest or strong personal viewpoint. We hope that Belo's leaders and the Morning News' editors understand that questionable business and editorial decisions, such as the handling of the Belo-Mavericks story, have a negative cumulative impact in the newsroom and the overall community.

We hope that Belo, the newsroom and the community engage in an honest dialogue about these issues. If we do not, we run the risk of losing our faith -- and, more importantly, our readers' faith -- in The Dallas Morning News' commitment to dogged, honest reporting of our community.

The Dallas Morning News City Hall Bureau
Robert Ingrassia, Nora Lopez, Michael Saul

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Patrick Williams is editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Patrick Williams