Hats off, thank you, sincere gratitude, honest admiration, respect and kudos to WFAA Channel 8 for admitting publicly they were totally full of it Nov. 15 in their story about the notorious car wash on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Dallas.
WFAA reporters David Goins and David Schechter said back then in an on-air story that the city had reduced crime in the immediate area by forcing the owner to shut down Jim’s Car Wash at 2702 MLK. Documentary filmmaker Dustin Grant rebutted them, saying crime had actually gone up around the car wash after it closed.
In a not-on-air story published on WFAA’s web page last week, Goins said he had gone back over the numbers: “That showed crime did increase in the four-month period after the time when Davenport claims the car wash closed.”
We will come back to Goins’ use of the word “claims” in a minute. Right now let’s just celebrate WFAA’s ability to choke out any kind of admission of wrongness, which for people in my business is commensurate with self-induced exorcism.
The term of art for a correction like that is “skinback,” and it always means the same thing: putting on the record somewhere that you were totally wrong but doing it in a way that you hope no one will notice or understand fully.
We’re all guilty of it. The news business has less ability to graciously admit error than Trump. I once worked at a newspaper that published an astounding photograph of extremely rare Siamese tree toads found in the yard of a suburban reader. I think somebody was already working on a follow, something about whether this freak might have been caused by careless disposal of household cleansers, when we had to run a tiny little one-paragraph skinback way inside the paper. Multiple experts had ganged the city desk phones to explain the photo was of two toads engaged in a stage of the mating process.
You think we admitted we were idiots? Is the pope a Unitarian? So I sort of know what kind of knots people had to tie themselves into at WFAA just to spit out this much of a rather grudging admission. My heart would go out to them, if I had one.
And why does anyone care, you might well wonder. The underlying issue here is a serious one that affects the entire city, especially now when we are experiencing a spike in violent crime. One question is who and what causes crime. Another even bigger one is about property rights.
I’m not sure where exactly it comes from, but a stubbornly popular idea is that crime is caused by businesses in areas where a lot of crime takes place. A neighborhood looks at a convenience store, gas station or car wash and sees a lot of people hanging around. The people look to the neighbors like bad guys. The neighbors want them to go away, so they want the business to go away.
The neighborhood pressure gets to the city council person. The city council pressure gets to the city attorney. The city attorney goes to court and argues that the business is a “crime hot spot" or public nuisance that needs to be shut down by the court under the state’s nuisance laws.
A major flaw in that whole process where Jim’s Car Wash is concerned is that the city has always known the car wash is not a crime hot spot. Supposedly there are crime hot spots all around it — and I will come back to “supposedly” — but the car wash isn’t even one of the supposed ones.
A little over a year ago, the city did an official study of crime hot spots near the car wash. Please see the map below, taken from a city of Dallas Power Point presentation to a City Council committee. The car wash isn’t one of them.
On the map, you will see a little red box with a ballpoint pen legend next to it saying “Jim’s Car Wash” in red ink. That was written by Dale Davenport, co-owner of the car wash with his father, Freddy Davenport.
The Davenports argue they have been doing everything they can to fight crime in the area around them and that the incidence of crime at their car wash is lower than in the surrounding area due to their efforts. The city’s own evidence supports them. And yet bald political pressure prevailed and the car wash was closed anyway on June 6, 2019.
At that time, Davenport predicted the closing would cause a sudden vacuum of vigilance and activity and that crime in the immediate vicinity would increase. That seems to be the case.
In their corrected not-on-air story, WFAA looked at an area within a 500-foot radius of the car wash. In the four-month period before the car wash closed, WFAA found 23 criminal offenses recorded by police. In the four-month period after the closing, there were 32 offenses.
In other words, crime in a 500-foot radius of the car wash went up by almost 40% after the car wash closed. This happened in spite of a special intensive mobilization of state police to assist city police in patrolling that area in that period.
So let me see here, which do I owe you first, “claims” or “supposedly”? Let’s do claims first.
Goins says Davenport “claims” his car wash closed on June 6, 2019. This is an issue, because Goins used the wrong date for the closure in his original story.
Davenport says Goins began asking him for the first time when the car wash closed only after Grant's rebuttal piece appeared saying Goins got it wrong. For the original story, Davenport says Goins never asked him when the car wash closed. But for some reason, Goins measured crime near the car wash before and after July 1, 2019, an irrelevant date.
In the new story last week, Goins says he can still show a drop in crime if he uses the wrong date for the closing. Without going too deep into the weeds on this, I can tell you that using the wrong date throws Goins’ calculation off by 13 crimes — enough to tip the balance the other way, allowing him to say crime went down. Then when he uses the right date, crime goes up after the closing. It would have been so much better for him not to even mention the wrong date again, which just makes this more embarrassing than it had to be.
And that brings us straight to “supposedly.” That’s my word. The city’s got these maps of supposed crime “hot spots” all over South Dallas. We know they’re crime hot spots because they’re in South Dallas.
But hot compared to what? I did this once before, right after Dustin Grant’s killer rebuttal of the first WFAA piece appeared, but I’ll do it again now, since we have some new dates to work with. Let’s compare the 500-foot radius around Jim’s Car Wash with a 500-foot radius around WFAA’s studios in the Victory development downtown next to American Airlines Center.
In the first period, Feb. 6 to June 6, 2019, police recorded 30 criminal offenses in the area near the WFAA studios. That compares to 23 in the 500-foot circle around the car wash on MLK. So the crime rate around WFAA near American Airlines Center was 30% higher than the rate near the car wash.
In the second period, June 7 to Oct. 7, 2019, there were 37 offenses near WFAA, compared to 32 near the car wash. So WFAA’s crime rate was 16% higher than the car wash for that period.
Let’s take the high road and go with an average. In the entire eight-month period from Feb. 6 to Oct. 6, 2019, the crime rate around WFAA was on average about 23% higher than the rate near the car wash in South Dallas.
I’m trying to figure this out, news-wise. If WFAA is doing a story about a supposed crime hot spot in South Dallas and their own spot is 23% hotter, why don’t they just walk outside? Why do they have to go all the way to South Dallas to do a story on hot spots? How does South Dallas get elected?
Why does a car wash owned by Dale and Freddy Davenport on MLK need to be closed down but WFAA’s own studios on Olive Street do not? Why isn’t WFAA mentioned in its own story? They could have said, “We didn’t actually drive down to South Dallas to ask when the car wash closed, because we were afraid to go to our cars.”
You don’t suppose it could have anything to do with the fact that most of the people walking around Victory look like rich white people and many of the people walking around the car wash look like poor black people? Going back to what I said at the top here, a lot of this stuff seems to start with visual perception.
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And please don’t get me wrong. The visual perception and the neighborhood political pressure operating against Jim’s Car Wash on MLK have never come from rich white people. From the beginning, the campaign to shut down the car wash has been driven entirely by black elected leadership responding to pressure from its own constituency.
The underlying reality is that ultra-conservative, elderly, black middle-class voters in southern Dallas, otherwise known as the only voters in southern Dallas, see poor black people the same way rich white people do: Move ’em out.
But this is not a southern Dallas story. This is about all of Dallas. In the end, trampling on businesses and on basic property rights to assuage transient political pressure is the stuff of banana republics. That’s not a good name to have.
And do not let me slide out of here without giving one more tip of the top hat to WFAA for owning up, however supposedly, to its own mistake. If it ain’t Siamese, it just ain’t Siamese, and, in this business, we call that integrity.