Reading The Dallas Morning News is easy. I don't know why people complain. I had at least three conversations Sunday with grumpy people all upset and confused about the Gromer Jeffers story in the Sunday paper: "Issue of Dallas' next mayor isn't so clear cut."
"Where does this come from?" I was asked. "What is this about?" "Why is this in the paper?" Whine, whine, whine.
Look. It's simple. You just have to know how to read The News. In the paper you have three types of stories: legitimate news stories; semi-legitimate, somewhat bent inside-agenda stories; and seriously icky Pravda-type disinformation stories. Once you know the system, you know how to read the paper.
Sunday's piece by Jeffers, about what will happen if Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert ditches out on the city before his current term ends, was a No. 3. Seriously icky. How do we know that? Well, you look for markers. Seriously icky markers.
For example, the story provided a list of front-runners for the office of mayor should Leppert ditch out early. One of them was that famous and well-known man about town, that fellow whose name is on every tongue, that rock star of local politics.
Davie Whoey? That's what you're thinking, right? Who in the hell is David Laney? How in the hell did this David Laney person become a contender for the highest elective office in our fair city? O.K., see, right there: You're onto a marker.
Now, let me fill in a blank for you. It's something Gromer forgot to tell you.
The David Laney person is not merely a best lifelong buddy of Gromer's boss, Robert Decherd, president and chief executive officer of A.H. Belo Corp., the company that owns Gromer's newspaper, and not merely an outside lawyer for that company, but Laney is also Decherd's first cousin.
We got it now, right -- the marker? Gromer provides this list characters he says are leading contenders for mayor -- any one of whom might as well be Banquo's ghost as far as you are concerned -- but he forgets to tell you who they are or why they are on his list.
Look, in a type one story, the legitimate news story, this is easy to handle. In May 2000, News writer Michael Granberry did a profile of Laney, who was at that time chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission and a member of the Stanford Board of Governors. Down fairly deep in the story, Granberry did what was right, in news terms. He told the reader about Laney's connection to the newspaper:
"Mr. Laney is the cousin of Robert W. Decherd, chairman of the board, president and chief executive officer of the Belo Corp., the parent company of The Dallas Morning News," Granberry wrote. "Mr. Laney's law firm counts Belo among its clients."
So how does my Morse code marker system work, exactly? It's not the dots and the dashes. It's the spaces in between. The real markers are not based on what The News tells you but what they don't.
They don't tell you why this story about Leppert is in the newspaper on this day -- the news lede, we call it. They don't tell you why no attempt has been made to contact Leppert or to have him speak for this story, which is, after all, about Leppert.
They don't tell you where they got their weird list of contenders. From a gypsy? From Google? What? And then, when they do float Laney's name, they don't include the Granberry paragraph. It's seriously icky Pravda-style propaganda time! Gromer, poor man, has been tapped on the shoulder and given the seriously icky task of writing a story handed down from that level of management that belongs to old country clubs, running names up the flagpole to see if anybody salutes.
I could go on. The story states: "Some City Hall observers sense that Leppert wants a different challenge and could leave after steering the city in a positive direction."
Yeah, but Gromer. You know, and I know, and you know that I know that if you had actually talked to people at City Hall, you would have had to write the next line: "Others suspect that Leppert may want to move on before serious problems come to public attention in some of his highly touted achievements -- especially the fact that the Trinity River Toll Road will never be built."
Oh, and lots of stuff he might want to duck out on. It turns out that former Mayor Laura Miller was right about corruption at City Hall; witness the recent federal City Hall corruption trial. Leppert, on the other hand, has been neck-deep in public contract logrolling since taking office. Does he smell something burning there?
There is the matter of The People's Very Grand Facility, the city-owned convention hotel he fought for. Is it going to work or go bust immediately?
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In fact, everything Leppert has done as mayor has a shoe hanging. So why does he get an automatic walk from Gromer on wanting to do a Sarah Palin and ditch out before any of those shoes falls?
It's a Type Three Story! Seriously icky. You know, really, if you read these Type Threes for what they are, you can actually learn more from them than you get out of the increasingly thin reporting that goes into the legitimate stories.
The Citizens Council sees its boy, Tom Leppert, ready to desert the cause before anybody can shoot back at him. They want to try out some names for replacements. They're thinking about people who have a strong and acknowledged record of being Robert Decherd's first cousin. But they'd like to test market those names.
Oh, Gromer! Would you mind stepping in here for second?