Deafening silence

The cone of silence has descended on The Dallas Morning News after last week's Buzz, a reprint of a scathing memo from the daily's three City Hall reporters complaining about the paper's coverage of the Belo Corp.'s decision to invest in the Dallas Mavericks and the arena.

Buzz wasn't alone in receiving an anonymous copy of the memo by reporters Michael Saul, Robert Ingrassia, and Nora Lopez. Public relations flacks reportedly were passing around copies like trading cards last week after the trio posted their complaint on an internal electronic bulletin board at the paper.

No such luck with another memo, which sources say was written by DMN Executive Editor Gilbert Bailon in reply. Where's an anonymous faxer when you need one?

The original memo by the City Hall three asked why the story about Belo Corp.'s investment ignored the obvious question: Can the Morning News cover the arena project and the Mavericks objectively after Belo, which owns the Morning News and WFAA, hops in bed with developers Tom Hicks and Ross Perot Jr.?

While we haven't seen Bailon's reply, people who have describe it as "a rather testy response" that makes two main points: 1) Belo Corp.'s decision to pay $24 million cash for 12.38 percent of the Mavericks and a 6.19 percent share of The Arena Group is just that, a corporate decision, and 2) deal with it.

In other words, shut up. And fetch some nails to tack down that cone.

Strangely enough, Buzz was, in a perverse way, impressed with the Morning News after we received the copy of last week's memo. While we had the same questions about Belo's decision, we were struck by the fact that the three reporters felt they could question the corporate gods so directly. If you think corporate-owned newsrooms are hotbeds of free expression then...well, then you're an idiot. From our experience at daily newspapers, memos like the one written by these reporters are best attached to resignation letters. Apparently, no one has been fired at the Morning News. Yet.

Which makes the Morning News' official silence on what has become a public question about its credibility that much sadder. Do the staff grunts care more about this issue than the editors? We'll even give the Morning News the benefit of the doubt and say that there's a reasonable answer to the question -- but it sure would be nice to hear it. (Buzz called Bailon for a response. He didn't call back.)

Some Morning News staffers tell us that newsroom morale is low, and rumors are that even the newspaper's editors think that Belo's arena buy is a crummy deal -- except, of course, publisher Burl Osborne, who was described as livid over the leaked memo. One senior staff member suggested to Buzz that Belo's recent effort to cut down the trees in Ferris Plaza, in combination with its attempt to close a street near the Belo building, plus buying into the Mavericks and fibbing about the Trinity River project, have made the Morning News "appear to be arrogant."

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