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.