When you read a story in the media and it’s got an odd twist at the top, the twist is a signal. It means the real message is between the lines.
Five times in the last three weeks, somebody at The Dallas Morning News has reported that Mike Snyder, a candidate for elected office in Tarrant County, once used fake Facebook accounts. To me, that’s like telling you the News has documentary and photographic proof that Snyder was once seen wearing socks that didn’t match.
What? So what? Bringing up the fake Facebook accounts three years after the fact is a twist. If you want to know what’s behind the twist, I can tell you because I remember that whole episode well.
The News is still all twisty about it three years later because, in the episode in question, The Dallas Morning News was clearly the more ethically twisted player. The wound still smarts, I’m sure, because the News knows it was wrong. That’s what I mean about the real message between the lines.
The story of Snyder and the fake Facebook accounts has a lot of lines to look between. It starts, I guess, in 2010, when Snyder left KXAS-TV (NBC 5) after 30 years and went into public relations. Next chapter is 2013, when he was hired as a consultant by attorneys representing the Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund.
The pension fund was just beginning to get its toes singed in what eventually became a bonfire of controversy over alleged bad investments and poor management. The first little hot-foot had to do with the pension fund being principal investor in a new condominium building in the downtown Dallas Arts District called Museum Tower.
Thumbnail on that: Museum Tower was alleged to be too shiny. Its neighbor, the Nasher Sculpture Center, said that reflective glare from Museum Tower was burning up the Nasher’s landscaping and making all the sculptures inside look bad. By the way, Museum Tower was built in accordance with all of the city’s zoning and building code requirements, but the Nasher said it was too shiny anyway.
The Nasher, as an institution of high art, had way more social and money pull around town than the pension fund for firefighters and cops. Don’t ask me why. Not with me. But that’s how it is in Dallas. Art is money; money is art; never the twain shall be parted.
In that fight, The Dallas Morning News and D Magazine were solidly, totally, unabashedly on the side of the twain, money and art. They were hell bent for leather against Museum Tower. If there had been a half-ounce of truth in all of the crap they published at the time about the wicked, evil, malicious shininess of Museum Tower, the Nasher today would be a mound of ash sending up a single wisp of white smoke.
I visited the Nasher not too long ago. It still looked gorgeous, a jewel. Museum Tower was still a block away, reflecting light like a nuclear explosion. In three years, I assume, many human beings in the area have continued to mate and produce healthy offspring. Life goes on.
In what Snyder at the time termed an effort to “level the playing field,” he concocted several fake Facebook accounts and used them to post rebuttals and defenses of the pension fund and Museum Tower on social media and news websites, including the News, D Magazine and, I assume, us.
At that time, all of the news media, including us, allowed and even encouraged anonymous posting of comments on stories. Anonymous posting was the source of a lot of great insider whistle-blowing, and I wish we had it back.
It was also simply the fact that the pension fund was getting slammed and suffocated by media bias, couldn’t catch a break and couldn’t find a way through that stone wall to get its side of the story out. Snyder was trying to chisel an air hole.
It was a violation of Facebook policy to make up fake Facebook accounts, but it wasn’t against the law, and it was easy to do. And there’s another wrinkle here.
You could post on the News website anonymously but only if you signed into the site first with your Facebook account. So it knew who you were through your Facebook identity. The News made all kinds of lavish promises to readers about how much it valued readers’ privacy and so, of course, it would never out anybody who posted anonymously on the site, but well, yeah, it kind of knew who you were through your Facebook account.
But guess what? The News couldn’t figure out who Snyder was from his fake Facebook accounts, so it fished deeper into its servers and snagged his IP address, the numerical code assigned to all devices connected to the internet. It used that information to spotlight him. So didn’t that prove that Snyder had been right in the first place not to trust the News’ vow to protect his identity?
I’m not making this up. Former Managing Editor George Rodrigue confirmed all of it for me. I asked Rodrigue why it was ethical for the News to use private information about Snyder to out him in a political controversy when there were other anonymous commenters — the feared and revered Wylie H. Dallas, for example — whose identity the paper held tightly to its breast. I paraphrase, and Rodrigue would differ with my characterization, but I took his answer at the time to mean basically that Snyder was a bad man and Wylie H. was good.
So now for the present chapter. Snyder has filed to run for tax assessor-collector in Tarrant County, a mostly under-the-radar post with an annual salary of $162,298. In five reports on that fact by people at the News in the last two weeks, every one has made mention of the great fake Facebook caper.
Columnist James Ragland hit it twice, by my count, first on December 13: “Snyder took his role too far. He set up fake Facebook accounts and used contrived characters.”
Two days later, Ragland asked, “… will voters recall the dirty tricks that Snyder pulled — about three years after he left the TV station — as a hired gun in one of the ugliest public relations battles we've seen in North Texas?
“He certainly put his credibility on the line.
“Not to pick on Snyder, but he's already acknowledged a mistake he made in his post-TV career as a paid consultant who created fake Facebook accounts and used fictional characters to sway public opinion for a client.
“It was all so ... unseemly.”
Oh, deedy-do! So unseemly! Unseemly up one side and down the other. And not to pick on Ragland, but when do we get to hear about the other side?
Never, apparently, from from the paper’s editorial page. It said, “Apparently he thinks we will remember him as the long-ago hometown celebrity news anchorman, but that we've forgotten about that time he worked for a PR strategy firm and used fake social media accounts to troll people criticizing his client, the Museum Tower.”
Morning News City Hall columnist and editor Robert Wilonsky tweeted, “And let us not forget his work on behalf of the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System involving Museum Tower. Snyder created fake Facebook profiles to attack opponents ...”
His colleague, City Hall reporter Tristan Hallman, echoed with his own tweet: “The Anchorman returns: Mike Snyder hopes voters remember his TV persona — not the fake ones he created as a consultant … .”
Strictly in terms of journalism school (which, yes, I admit, I only attended for one week), I think the story between the lines is something like this: “Man Seeks to Become County Official in Spite of Creating Fake Facebook Accounts 3 Years Ago.” To me, there is something deeply twisty and disproportional in that, as if the headline were “Man Seeks Election Despite Nonmatching Socks.”
Socks? Fake Facebook accounts? Sure, socks ought to match, and maybe Facebook accounts shouldn’t be fake, but I’m not entirely sold on the latter. I don’t have what I would call reverence for Facebook. It’s not the Magna Carta. Yet. But why is the thing about the Facebook accounts the first thing the News wants to tell us about Snyder? And why over and over?
My diagnosis is collective institutional shame. In their hearts of hearts — and I do believe they have hearts of hearts — they all know that they were dirty in that deal. They were Goliath. Snyder was David.
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I was glad to see those anonymous comments popping out in support of the pension fund. It wasn’t that I thought the pension fund was right or that Museum Tower may not have been too shiny. I’m not a shiny expert. It just pissed me off enormously that nobody in town wanted to let the pension fund talk.
The powers that be were handling the shiny debate the same way they always want to handle anybody who crosses them, by shoving a pillow in the other guy’s face. So it was great to see someone allowing the pension to grab a gasp of air now and then.
Obviously, it was an insider. That was assumed. That’s how anonymous commenting worked. Anonymous commenting was almost designed to lure whistle-blowing insiders to the fray, including some who may have been paid to play the part. So what? It got the word out.
Anyway, my own story on Snyder is this: “Veteran Newsman and Public Relations Consultant Seeks County Tax Assessor-Collector Post.” Now let’s see if we can find out where he stands on taxes, on assessing and on collecting. And, OK, yes, keep an eye on those socks.