Dear Baby Journalist:
Grandpa Journalist sees that you are very perplexed about "L'Affaire Tim Rogers" and that you are struggling to comprehend it in the context of a concept you were taught to believe in at journalism school, called "journalistic ethics."
Grandpa Journalist had made up his mind he would not write about L'Affaire Tim Rogers, because it looked like one of those glass houses that Gramps has learned—the hard way over the years—not to chunk rocks at. But your grandfather sees how hard you are working at figuring it out, feels sorry for you, and has decided to give you his version of the low-down.
Tim Rogers is the editor of Dallas' 36-year-old city magazine, called D. Last week the city's only daily newspaper, The Dallas Morning News, carried a front-page story under the headline "D Magazine editor's child given a pre-K slot while needy children wait."
Pretty much the aim of your own career as a journalist should be to get through life and die without ever having this headline appear about you on the front page of a newspaper.
The gist of the story was that Rogers had picked up a telephone one day and called Jon Dahlander, the top media relations person at the Dallas Independent School District, asking for help getting his kid into a special preschool program. Even though the program was designed for poor kids and there were some 300 qualified poor kids on a waiting list, Rogers' kid got in ahead of them.
He had to agree to pay the better part of five bills a month tuition. But people complained that his child did not belong in the program anyway, and that it was a violation of law, in fact, for the Rogers child to occupy a slot ahead of the poor kids.
The school district published a 90-page report documenting its own investigation into whether it had violated the law. The school district found that the school district was innocent. Its reasoning was that, even though there was a waiting list, there was no hard and fast timetable for when kids on the waiting list get to stop waiting.
Get it? It's a waiting list. You wait. But there's nothing that says when you're done waiting. So, you know, you just keep waiting. That's why it's called a waiting list. It's not called a "waiting and then eventually you're done waiting and you get a slot for your kid" list. Is it? So the school district was able to find itself without fault.
That's stupid, right? Sure it is. But, look, Baby Journalist, we're not here to talk about the school district. This is about us. What do we make of Tim Rogers?
Is he a heartless and selfish meritocrat, feasting on the cheated destinies of impoverished tots? Oh, come on. Give us a break. He's an ambitious middle-class parent who will do just about anything for his kid. Middle-class parents are like that. That's how they got in the middle class.
So did Rogers do anything wrong as a parent? No. He's a great parent. Don't get between Tim Rogers and what he wants for his kid.
Did he do anything wrong as a journalist? Oh, man, Baby. Let me count the ways.
I want you to start with this concept. Some of the people you deal with every day as a baby journalist—even people who are nice to you—hate your guts. They mentioned that at J School, right? I mean, I honestly don't know. I never went to J school. I can't believe they would leave that off the curriculum. If they did, you might have a refund coming.
Why would they hate you? Because, as Tim Rogers now knows, getting beaten up in print on the front page of a newspaper is like having your hands tied behind your back while a guy pounds you repeatedly in the face. You can't fight back, because you don't own the newspaper. Even if you're in the wrong and you know you're in the wrong, the helplessness of your position makes you hate the guy doing the pounding.
So am I saying that the Morning News story was unfair? Absolutely not. Listen, kid: I have seen some of those online comments denouncing the story as a biased hatchet job. People have a right to their opinions, but you and I need to understand that those comments, according to the norms and values of our craft, are absolute bullshit.
Tawnell D. Hobbs, who wrote the story, is an excellent reporter. The piece was right down the middle and fair as hell. It was well edited, and they played it right where it belonged—below the fold on Page One.
Why there? Because a ton of people would be interested in the story and read it (hence, Page One)—not as big a ton of people as would be interested in the Arizona shootings (which would be above the fold). That's the math.
But was it a bad story, because it was like beating up on Tim Rogers while he had his hands tied behind his back? No. Look, Kid: I told you. We do that to people every day. It's sort of what we do. A certain level of violence is a part of the parcel. You went to J school, right? Not nursing school. You need to get down with this.
So what did Rogers do wrong, again? Simple. He called Dahlander.
People who are not editors of magazines cannot call Dahlander. Well, they can call, and Dahlander is a very civil person who would take the call, I'm sure. But they can't make the call, the media call, the kind of call that sets off alarm bells at DISD headquarters.
If some other parent calls Dahlander—no alarm bells. Tim Rogers calls—alarm bells. It's that simple. I talked to Rogers. He said my spin on his call to Dahlander is exactly wrong: "I consider him a friend. When I send him an e-mail saying I am considering bailing on Hexter, he very well knows that is not a threat."
And there you have it. I consider Dahlander as someone I would love to have as a friend, were I not a reporter.
Well, according to the story and the DISD report, Rogers said repeatedly that he didn't want any special favors. Doesn't that count?
C'mon, kid. Every little chance you get, try to sharpen up. That's what you say. Of course you say that. It's ass-covering. Of course you say, "Now, I don't want any special treatment." Well, if you don't want any special treatment, why did you call the head of media relations?
You know what your call means. Dahlander knows what it means. You know he knows. He knows you know he knows.
Dahlander is a smart guy. He will do what he thinks is the best thing for the district. It doesn't matter what Rogers said when he called. It's the call that matters. A call from a pissed-off representative of the media means that a negative story could ensue, somewhere down the road. That's just what it means.
Hey. Wait. I see a look on your face. You sort of think the power of all this is cool. Wow. Can't get my kid in the school? Make one call. Talk marble-mouthed, like Marlon Brando in The Godfather. People jump.
Oh, I need to issue you a big caution on that one. People out there think we are the media, you and I. But you and I need to know the truth. We are not the media. We work for the media. Big difference. The media are the people who own the media.
Yes, the media have power. But the people who own the media want that power to be used for the media—their companies. The proper use of the power of the media is for building bigger audiences, better credibility, more clicks, more readers, more advertising sales and, yes, Dear Baby Journalist, more money for the media. It's a business, like a bank.
If you were a teller in a bank, you would know that all the money in your drawer is not for your kid's tuition. Neither is the power of the media for you to use to get your kid into a certain school.
Why not? What's the harm? Oh, Baby. Let's go back to zero. You remember what I told you about the people who hate your guts? That may be too strong. Maybe they don't hate you. Maybe they just think you get away with a little too much. Maybe they just have a good old American taste for seeing arrogant people get their comeuppance.
Do not call the same people you beat up on all the time and ask them for an under-the-table favor. Promise me you get that.
Forget journalistic ethics. I don't even know if they had that when I started. I think it's something new. This is about not being a chump.
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Don't do it. Do not make that call. Put the phone down now! That call is going to bite you in the ass. If I were talking to the older generation of journalists, I might put it like this: Your first night in prison, do not ask the hairy muscled-up guy with the tattoos on his face for a pack of cigarettes. You do not even want to know what those cigarettes are going to cost you.
But you are of a different generation of journalist—better educated, more traveled and sophisticated than I, more like Tim Rogers—and I need to find a better metaphor, closer to your experience.
Remember that guy who wanted into your fraternity so badly, and you all got him pissed drunk and painted bad words on his chest with a Magic Marker and put pictures of him on Facebook, and then you didn't pledge him after all? Later on, would you have trusted that guy to help you cheat on a final?
Ah. Great. I see a look of comprehension dawning. That would make me so happy. I just don't want you to have to learn this lesson the hard way. Like Tim just did.