As Unfair Park already noted earlier this morning, The Dallas Morning News has a hell of a story this morning about the Dallas Police Department and the feeling of some experts and involved citizens that it has been cooking the books on violent crime.
It's a journalistic triumph for reporters Steve Thompson and Tanya Eiserer, with one small shortcoming, which, of course, I'm going for.
Somebody -- based on my own long years as a daily newspaper reporter, I would suspect some chickenshit mid-level editor -- wanted to dodge a bit of political friction here with the police chief. Please note that there is no fresh quote in this story from Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle. Me in my PJs with my morning joe, I wondered: How could they do a story like this and not go to Kunkle for a new quote? Still in my PJs, I thought: They did go to him. Thompson and Eiserer are too good. They would never miss a beat like that.
So I called the chief. He told me that The News did, indeed, ask for an interview -- a request he declined. Instead -- and this is something the story never spells out -- Kunkle told them he would respond only to written questions.
I asked him why.
"We responded to questions from The Dallas Morning News," Kunkle said.
Yeah. Written questions. But why wouldn't he do the face-to-face interview?
"My belief was that the story had already been written, so that there was no point in sitting down for a two or three hour interview with them," the chief told me.
"We had done that on a previous crime story," he said. "I thought that we had a good position that at least should be considered or explained in the [earlier] article, but that did not happen."
O.K., so you, the reader, want to know: Who cares? Face-to-face or written questions, what's the difference?
It's a big difference. The story subject who won't talk face-to-face or at least on the phone is uncertain of his ground. A confident subject who thinks he's got a strong story to tell actually wants to tell it in person and eyeball to eyeball -- usually insists, in fact.
That's why you explain all of that in the story. By telling the reader that the subject wouldn't talk in person, you are conveying a certain mood and posture. And then, of course, the reader decides.
The reader may think, "Ah, I wouldn't sit down with you bastards, either." But you need to get that part of the story on the page so the reader can appraise its meaning.
I left a phone message for Eiserer, and I sent her a question by e-mail. My subject line was, "Why no fresh Kunkle quote?" The message was, "An amazing story. I know the answer to my question because Kunkle told me. He wouldn't sit for an interview. That's significant. So my real question is, why didn't the story say he wouldn't sit and would only respond to written ... well, you actually didn't spell that out, either. So how come?"
I doubt I'll hear back. They're very gun-shy of me over there. Can't imagine why. I'm a nice fellow.
But here's my surmise: Of course Thompson and Eiserer asked for a fresh quote for this story. Of course they reported in their original version of the story that Kunkle wouldn't sit for an interview. But somebody higher up at The Snooze cut all of that out, because paper is gun-shy of any open conflict with Kunkle and, by extension, Mayor Tom Leppert.
In fact eventually the reward that Thompson and Eiserer will reap for this series will be unhappy, because their newspaper, at the very top level, is probably really pissed that this stuff is coming out at all. Really good reporters, like Victoria Loe Hicks, always leave.
As for Kunkle, I feel for the guy. Whenever I talk to him, he strongly denies that the move to press the crime stats downward can be blamed on our salesman-mayor. Kunkle says the crime stats policy is all Kunkle's own baby, on his watch. Fine. That's his story, and he's stickin' to it. He is Mr. By-the-Book, and I would be amazed if Kunkle ever handled this any other way.
But I have to say this much: This is what you get when the guy at the top, Leppert, is 100 percent used-car salesmanship bullshit and all about himself. He doesn't care if that river floods. He doesn't care how many people get mashed in the head with a chunk of pavement by some crack-crazed son of a bitch.
Does he ever say, "Hey, I'm worried about the city flooding, so give me the straight skinny on the problems with the levees?" Of course not. He might get a negative answer. Does he ever ask, "What are the real crime stats, because I don't want my unsuspecting citizens chunked on the head?"
Nah. He's a boardroom slick. He knows the drill. Never demand the truth if you think the truth might not work for you.
Leppert wants to be in the United States Senate. All Leppert wants is good campaign news about what a great mayor he has been. And one way or another, even in the face of a really great classic newspaper expose like this one by Thompson and Eiserer, The News is going to find a way to give Leppert what he wants.
I think Kunkle is the best police chief this city has seen in 30 years and straight as an arrow. The problem with the Leppert style, however, is that it sends out a kind of message with a juicy incentive, even to people beneath Kunkle in his own department. Come up with a way to cook the books, and you are Little Jack Horner. What a good boy. Maybe you should be the chief. The bottom line here is that Thompson and Eiserer have done terrific work, and I am gnawing at the edges, termite that I am.
But I'm a termite, and there are edges.
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