Scott Goldstein, who's still new at covering City Hall for The Dallas Morning News, had a piece in the paper a week ago that expressed the longstanding Morning News strategy for new beat reporters, which is pretty much the opposite of the strategy at places where I have worked. He wrote a glowingly kissy-face portrayal of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, calling him maybe the city's "most transformative mayor" since the late J. Erik Jonsson, who was elected in 1964.
The story provided almost no argument for why Rawlings is so great and seemed to be based mainly on all the attention Rawlings was about to garner from two big national conventions here, one for urbanologists (there's a big constituency) and the other for mayors (often otherwise known as "persons of interest").
The term of art here is hagiography. A story like this is supposed to lull the subject into a sense of security with the new reporter on the beat, presumably so the reporter can slip in close to him later and come up with the good stuff. It's based on the belief that people tell reporters things because they like them.
At places where I have plied the trade, the assumption has always been the opposite, that nobody really likes a good reporter, even their editors, and that there is no good stuff to be gotten by being liked. That approach has always been to hit the subject in the gut early with the toughest honest story you can get on him and hope it teaches teach him some respect. The different approaches are a cultural matter within the business. I don't pretend to know who's right.
But since Goldstein has already entered the hagiographic version into the record, I do feel compelled to offer the counter-balance, not because I have anything against Rawlings but merely because I think there's way too much sugar in that cup and somebody needs to pour in a bit more tea.
First of all, J. Erik Jonsson was one of the great failures in Dallas history, a rich simpleton who thought history was about airports and highways, utterly failing to notice race, class, inclusiveness, open doors or the level playing field. The best Jonsson story is about the night the Reverend Peter Johnson and a small band of civil rights activists bluffed out bomb threats in the basement of Mark Herbener's Mount Olive Lutheran Church, emerged the next morning and forced Jonsson to put their biggest rabble-rouser in a convertible with him in the Cotton Bowl Parade. It was such a dramatic victory because Jonsson had been so stubbornly arrogant in refusing to meet with black property-owners getting eminent domained off their land (sound familiar?).
The city's deepest and most difficult problems today come directly from the belief of shallow arrogant men like Jonsson that highways and airports made a city, not people. He may have been a business genius, but politically, socially and morally he was a fool, and we continue to pay a price for his foolishness.
As for Rawlings, before we count the balance entirely in his favor, we do need to add up some of his more signal failures since taking office, a list that begins shortly after his election with so-called "flow control." Flow control, a trash-hauling scheme Rawlings pushed hard for, was ultimately exposed in court to be an enormous scam built on what a judge called lies, not to mention a million-dollar payoff in city funds that Rawlings directed to a helpful clergyman.
We should mention also the issue of gas drilling in parks, an imbroglio in which Rawlings and former City Manager Mary Suhm tried to cover up a secret deal to turn the city's parks over to the frackers. Or we could talk about his utter failure to get to the bottom of the Yellow Cab/Uber scandal, even though he spent $50,000 in city money paying somebody else to get to the bottom of it for him.
What about the succession of A.C. Gonzalez, a City Hall insider, as city manager after Rawlings let it be known he wanted new blood in the post? Is there more? What about the failed charter review effort? The failed redistricting reform effort? The public school "home rule" effort, which looks more like a "Three Stooges" episode with every passing day?
I'm not anti-Rawlings. He has enormous strong points. He's not at all the kind of remote arrogant jerk we used to have for mayors around here, and I do not buy the criticism that his tough public postures on things like domestic violence are self-serving. I sense the same thing I think most people get from him at those moments -- that he's a strong, smart man and a good guy saying things that need to be said. I agree he may have a political future beyond this burg if he wants it.
This is more about the News. When it comes to coverage of the power structure in Dallas, that place is always going to be the sugar shack. I just wanted to help you clear your palate.
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