See No News, Print No News

Let me tell you a story. Sophia Dembling, a Dallas writer, sends The Dallas Morning News a letter a few weeks ago to make a point. She says in her letter that the words "bitch" and "whore," directed recently at Dallas City Councilwoman Laura Miller by speakers and protesters supporting Dallas police Chief Terrell Bolton, were not merely "'vulgarities,' as they are being described, but are more specifically slurs against women."

The Morning News editorial page sends Dembling a letter in return telling her they can't publish her letter because nobody can prove the protesters really said those words. "A rule of thumb here is we avoid having our letter writers be reporters," the News says in its letter to Dembling. The News said it was "unaware of any independent news outlet that has reported the exact words."

OK, I come into possession of some of this correspondence between Dembling and the News, and I call Dembling about it. To be honest, she is not thrilled that I have a copy of her letter, and she declines to characterize the News' behavior in any way, but she does confirm the authenticity of both letters. I am later able to authenticate them again from sources inside the News.

But why am I peeping at somebody else's mail, and why on earth am I telling you about it?

Because this is a case in which the words themselves mean everything. The words are the story. The story without the words--with the words whited out--is a deception, a sleight of hand.

On the morning of March 31, protesters appeared outside the Kessler Park home of council member Miller carrying signs and calling slogans through an amplified bullhorn. The signs called Miller a bitch and a whore and included other sexual slurs--"penis-envy," for example--questioning Miller's womanhood. The same picketers carried signs saying that a Morning News reporter who has been covering the police chief is a homosexual and that the resident special agent in charge of the FBI also is a homosexual (both claims apparently wrong).

The protesters were angry with Miller because she and council member Donna Blumer have been seeking information about an FBI corruption probe of Bolton, who is the city's first black police chief. The protest outside Miller's house was carried out by African-American picketers under the leadership of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and Lee Alcorn, former leader of the local branch of the NAACP. Alcorn was last in the news--national news, actually--because of a series of anti-Semitic remarks he made about the vice presidential nomination of Senator Joe Lieberman.

So here is the basic scenario: Well-known black leaders, supporters of the chief of police, go to the home of a public figure and carry out a sign-carrying protest, a ritual of the Civil Rights Movement designed to attract media attention, in which they espouse two alternate forms of bigotry: sexism and homophobia. They use terms so offensive that the words seem almost equivalent to the kind of language that certainly would elicit cries of hate-crime if painted on the homes of the protesters.

The Morning News and other major daily media of the city report none of this for several days. The Miller protest came along just as the powers-that-be in the city were trying to woo the Boeing Corporation here. Deep-rooted folklore among the power-wielders downtown is that Dallas lost out on the corporate relocation game in the 1980s because of racial discord on the city council.

As the protests continue over the next few days, people in Dallas slowly learn of them from sketchy television reports in which the bad words are blurred out. The Morning News finally reports the protests in the middle of the next week, but to this day the paper still has never told people about the words.

When I wrote a column about the words ("Dump Bolton," April 12), I received a flood of responses, a reaction unlike anything I've seen in 20 years as a columnist in the city, most of it dominated by a single theme. I am recalling a woman's phone message from memory without notes, but this is pretty close: "Thank you for your story on the protest in front of Laura Miller's house. When I first saw a report on TV about the protests, I thought, 'Laura Miller can dish it out, but she can't take it.' But when I saw the words they had used in your story, I was very shocked, and I realized that this was beyond politics."

Dembling's letter to the News was a more literate and measured statement of the same thing I had been hearing on the phone and in e-mail all week: People couldn't understand what the Miller protest story was about unless and until they saw the words.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze