Deadline in Dallas
If there is cause for hope for Texas newspapers, that hope today is with the Morning News or the Times Herald.
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“D/FW Airport NIght” at the Dallas Press Club:
A low clatter of clinking glasses and clunking plates. Dinner is over, but demand is brisk for the bar tickets that are dipensed like theater admissions from three different colored spools at a back table. A full house tonight in the grand ballroom of what used to be the Petroleum Club back when indirect fluorescent lighting had just been discovered and Early Glenn McCarthy was the height of architectural fashon. Gray-haired men and their wives of many years relaxing for another Fun Night at “the place where newsmakers and newsmen meet.” Laughter and cigars and old friends again.
The hulking emcee, president of News-Texas, Inc. (a chain of suburban papers controlled by the Dallas Morning News), is shoving against the crowd’s murmuring preoccupations like a lineman for the Cowboys, trying to clear the way for the evening’s program. Musn’t let it get too serious. Jokes. More jokes. Airplane jokes. “Have you seen these new billboards?” he booms. “You know, the ones where Southwest Airlines says, ‘Love is Still our Field.'” The man in the blue aloha shirt titters and glances at the woman in the burnt orange dress. “Well, I see a lot of people out there tonight and ‘love’ is not their field any more.” Ho, ho, ho responds the audience in a voice abruptly modulated to bass-baritone; and the woman in the burnt orange dress nervously drus her lavender fingernails on the tablecloth.
A little night music, please. and the evening is begun. “Los Latinos” take the stage singing “Cottonfields” in Spanish. Soon they give way to a deputy director of the new D/FW Regional Airport who issues an opaque plea to “keep this world of ours on an even keel.” More music: a band of hula dancers and a lead singer who looks like Mata Hari run throug “songs from the Hawaiian hit parade.” More jokes: “Did you hear that United Airlines has recalled 500 stewardesses?” Pause. “They didn’t say which parts were defective.” A musical tribute to Love Field, sung with mock solemnity to the tune of “Amazing Grace”:
A-a-a-amay-zing place tha-uht’s called ‘Love Field’
It’s made thi-uh’s town ‘Big D’…
Mock solemnity, nothing; this guy is serious. Through twenty verses he is serious.
A-a-a-amy-zing pace, we-e luuuuv Love Field
Thuh e-gull ledged tell;
Ih-un siiide ow-uhr hearts, Love Field is sealed;
We surely wiiish it well….
There were door prizes too, my friends; and Alta Faye at the organ bar.
“This is journalism?” asked a prize-winning writer who has decided to make Dallas his home. “You go up there with your wife or your date and you sit around and play bingo, or win prizes. and they put on a magician show. It’s like the Elks or the Shriners.” He knows, of course, that the Press Club occasionally does its homework (a panel discussion in March examined “The Role of the Media in Watergate” for an audience of twenty.) But most of the time it is an institutional embodiment of the old-line spirit of Dallas journalism, a watering hole for people who would rather emulate the Establishment than analyze it. Good cheer, live-and-let-live, no hard questions asked.
A year ago, nothing was stirring in Dallas journalism except the martinis. Newsroom, Channel 13’s widely-praised local critique of public affairs, was sliding slowly but inevitably into oblivion. Iconoclast, the sparky underground weekly, had not yet fulfilled its abitious plan to become an “alternative” paper with appeal outside the youthful counterculture. The Dallas Journalism Review was still on the drawing boards of Colleen O’Connor and a few other writers, professors, and critics who dreamed of rehabilitating their profession with the mirror of fraternal self-awareness. From the two major dailies—the Morning News and the afternoon Times-Herald—came the sounds of loud and prolonged snoring.
The the Times Herald annouced the appointment of Tom Johnson as its new executive editor, replacing the crochety and dogmatic Felix McKnight. The 32-year-old Johnson had been a trusted aide of Lyndon B. Johnson; despite his lack of editorial experience, his charismatic reputation hit the sultry world of Metroplex journalism like the first Arctic norther of the season. The air at the Times Herald began to crackle. Meanwhile, the Journalism Review grew and prospered. And at the Morning News, young staffers reacted to an unsatisfactory series of informal, problem-solving seminars with management by organizing, in the very bosom of that most ancient and conservative of Texas business establishment, a collective bargaining movement involving the American Newspaper Guild. Suddenly Dallas became the focal point of events that could significantly affect the future of journalism all over the state: Johnson is aiming to make the Times Herald “the best newspaper in the Southwest,” a goal that would have seemed incomprehensible five years ago, and if the Guild movement at the News could, if it succeeds, topple other major dailies like dominoes into the hands of a professional union that has boosted the expertise and vitality of reportorial staffs at newspapers beyond the Red River. If anything is likely to raise the low estate of the Fourth Estate in Texas, it is these surprising events in Dallas.
Texas journalism is, on the whole, strikingly weak and ineffectual. No Texas paper shows up on the “Ten Best” list of Time or anyone else; the popular image of the greathearted crusading newspaper defending justice and smiting wrongdoers is notoriously at variance with the Texas facts. Most of the urban dailies are rather profitable business enterprises that happen to make their money by publishing newspapers; the rest, including the Times Herald and the Morning News, are enormously profitable enterprises. As institutions they have been neither as brave nor as informative as their more distinguished counterparts elsewhere. Texas may be the fouth largest state and the home of presidents, space centers, oil, and Astrodomes, but in journalism it is a backwater.
Tom Johnson’s arrival is intriuguing precisely because he has promised to deliver the top-quality journalism that is so long overdue. Whether he is the man to do it is, of course, another question, as is the matter of whether he will be able to do it with the existing management and resources of the Dallas Times Herald.
Johnson came to a paper that had been staid, colorless, boring. For years the Times Herald had played second fiddle to the Morning News. Its early-day owner and publisher for 45 years, Edwin J. Kiest, had a passion for local news and an aversion to banks in equal measure. By reputation, at least, he never borrowed a penny, and he waited until 1929 to build the present Times Herald headquarters with cash on the barrel-head. A widower without children, he left the paper in his will to eight trusted department heads, the last survivor of whom is the former editor Allen Merriam. Merriam, now well into his eighties, recalls that Kiest strolled into his office one day in 1941 and revealed his intention. Amazed, Merriam asked what had prompted this sort of generosity toward the staff. “I did it,” the stocky, fire-tempered publisher answered, “because I never wanted any goddam bankers running the Times Herald.”
Kiest died shortly afterward, and ownership of the paper became increasingly fragmented as stock was passed from one generation to the next. In 1970, however, the Los Angeles-based Times Mirror Company finally persuaded the various owners to sell out. Since then the Times Herald has been the mid-continent link in a prestigious newspaper chain that included the Los Angeles Times and Long Island’s Newsday, both of whch are on Time‘s “Ten Best” list. Local management (Publisher Jim Chambers) has remained, and despite a stylish, up-tempo change in typography two years ago, a colorless emphasis on local news coverage persisted until Johnson’s arrival.
Johnson immediately won the admiration of his staff by placing his own office in a glass-walled enclosure alongside the City Room, a visible departure from McKnight’s inaccessible first floor office. He astonished old-timers with his openness to suggestions from everyone. Morale soared. “Before Tom Johnson,” says one top reporter, “you could be taken off a story by one phone call from the Establishment. Now it just doesn’t happen. Three years ago, hard-working Lana Henderson spent six months on a series of articles documenting changing lifestyles—unmarried couples, an interracial marriage, an unmarried mother who chose to keep her child. Those who have seen it say it was a fine piece of work. The series was never published and no one ever told her why. “It made me not want to write anything else,” she recalls. Political writer Ron Calhoun scrutinized the personal finances of Mayor Wes Wise; McKnight rejected the story on the grounds that it was an improper intrusion into the Mayor’s private life. Calhoun exhumed the piece after Johnson arrived and it was promptly published.
When the first installment of Bob Dudney’s investigation of the county’s bail bond scandal appreared on December 30, tension was in the air. “Everybody was worriedd,” said one staffer. “It was scary. ‘Oh God,’ we were saying,’ please don’t let there be an error.’ There were times when that series would have never got in print. The facts were there, but it still wouldn’t have seen the light of day.” At the moment the newsroom is running on pure oxygen. “I don’t think there’s anything in Dallas, Dallas County, or Texas that we can’t cover,” says assistant city editor Olin Briggs. “Our only limitation is our budget.”
Johnson has actually made relatively few personnel changes. Briggs was recruited from the Morning News; Derro Evans was assigned to revamp the Sunday supplement, and women’s news editor Vivian Castleberry and young editorial page writer Bronson Havard were added to the paper’s Editorial Board. So far he has concentrated on establishing a metropolitan staff (three reporters, Weldon Owens, Bob Wear, and Bill Case, who cover eleven suburban counties); providing 24-hour coverage in the news room with a night city editor (Ray Bell) and a night wire editor (Jerry Bridges); and assigning reporters Nadeane Walker and Bob Dudney to investigative work. He is quick to give credit to colleagues like Managing Editor Ken Smart and City Editor Bill Hankins for many of the ideas he has implemented. Hankins, a gum-chewing plowboy type who took over his duties shortly before Johnson arrived, excels in the nuts-and-bolts type of newspapering, and it was he who invented the hightly-touted “modular reporting” system that allows the Times Herald reporters to double-team the “beat” reporters at the News on a fast-breaking news day.
Johnson himself is alarmingly candid. Asked about the Times Herald‘s obstrusive preoccupation with murders and other sorts of disagreeable behavior, he shoots back: “I think we’re guilty of overemphasizing crime. I’ve asked for more balance. I’m not sure we’re doing it yet.” When he discovered that the newspaper had no official policy on the acceptance of favors like meals, travel, and other so-called “freebies” (one columnist once indulgently told a friend, “you don’t think I could live on what I make here!”) he ordered an eithics code to be drawn up… by the staff. They produced a strict document about which he says, “I think I’m prepared to adopt it. They’re the ones who have to live with it.”
From harvard, where he graduated with a master’s degree in business, Johnson brings an earnest intellectuality and a Kennedyesque hand-chop that accents his speech. From Macon, Georgis, where he grew up, he retains the rounded, soft accent that transmutes “better” into “bettuh” and “error” into “erruh.” His Texas ties go back to `965, when he was named a White House Fellow, a job that put him into contact with Press Secretaries Bill Moyers and George Christian. After LBJ’s retirement, he served as executive vice-president for the ex-president’s broadcasting properties. it was he who released the announcement of LBJ’s death. Seven months later he was editor of the Times Herald.
Now, well into his first year, he recognizes that most of his time has been spent getting organized, a fact for which he has no apology. “My judgement will be no better than the information I have,” he explains. Operating on the assumption that he can safely open himself up to a veritable Niagara of information and sift through it later, he has immersed himself in the staff and its problems, gone out to get acquainted with disparate elements of the Dallas community, and examined the newspaper’s content according to traditional market research and his own “intuitive judgement.” He has reviewed staff assignments by asking “how those assignments relate to their own aspirations—to what they’d really like to be doing,” and as a result has shifted some reporters, like Lana Henderson, from departmental work to in-depth reporting.
Johnson’s most visible changes to date have occured on the editorial page. With the fresh perspective of a newcomer, he has realized that Dallas is rapidly becoming much more than a high-fenced preserve of middle-class orthodoxy. He looks at the city and sees diversity. “The toughest part so far has been getting to know all the different elements here,” he says, “There’s so much diversity in Dallas.” It is a trend that has largely escaped the attention of the men who run the Morning News as though the city had not changed in twenty years.
Johnson deliberately set to work establishing a “balance” of syndicated political columnists that exposes readers to a spectrum of viewpoints instead of the unvarying conservatism they were fed for years. “Sure, there’s a conservative element, alive and healthy, in Dallas. There’s also a liberal community and all kinds of views in between. The editorial pages ought to reflect that.”
It is a measure of the insularity of the old Dallas—and a measure of the intellectual impact that one newspaper editor can have on a community—that something as simple as a new lineup of columnists can take on the aspects of a revolutionary change. So long as both newspapers hewed the conservative path, Dallas readers could imagine that no other viewpoints were being authoritatively uttered; they were simply cut off from a substantial portion of the American political dialogue whether they might have agreed with it or not. Now they can choose from among Jack Anderson, David Broder, Evans & Novak, James J. Kilpatrick, George Will, Joseph Kraft, and Ernest Ferguson—mainstreamers to a man, but provocative writers and by no means singleminded. “People are finally reading some other viewpoints,” says a long-time obserber of the Dallas papers. “They’r getting used to seeing columnists criticize the president, for example. It may not sound like much to you, but for Dallas it’s a big change.”
Investigative reporting is the true test of a good newspaper. Both Dallas dailies have traditionally given it short shrift, relying instead on run-of-the-mill news that surfaces each day at courthouses, city halls, and police stations. Johnson’s willingness to change that policy has resulted in a spate of controversial stories that have given Dallas readers new insights into their governmental workings (or non-workings, in most cases) while angering several local officials who enjoyed life much better when the press was docile. Among the city’s investigative reporters, poised 23-year-old Bob Dudnet is the only real rival to Earl Golz of the Morning News. Dudney’s seemingly endless series of revelations about millions of dollars in bail bonds still uncollected by Sheriff Clarence Jones has prompted long-overdue reforms in Dallas County’s sloppy criminal justice system. The Times Herald’s Bill Ahrens documented the existence of thousands of unserved warrants sitting around in the Shriff’s Department, including hundreds for murders, rapes, assaults, and robberies. He located some of the alleged felons himself, by looking them up in the telephone book or driving over to the address listed on the warrant, much to the emarrassment of law enforcement officials. But not every investigative piece has been successful. Reporter Bryan Martin discovered that $23,000 in private contributions, raised to aid earthquake victims in Managua, Nicaragua, after a public appeal by Mayor Wes Wise, was still drawing interest at the Republic National Bank a year after the disaster. Although Wise did give Martin contradictory reasons for his failure to send the money promply to the Nicaraguans, the tone of the article relentlessly (and inaccurately, it now seems) implied that the mayor knew the funds were still on deposit and had deliberately withheld them. Wise was furious. Misplaced emphasis in a basically sound piece of investigative work thus fueled the suspicions in some quarters that Tom Johnson was out to build the Times Herald reputation by sullying the character of Dallas leaders.
Wise is not the only local politician to lash out at the Times Herald. When County Commissioner Jim Tyson blasted its coverage of the unserved warrants, he took a tack that someone, eventually, was certain to use. “It’s a foreign newspaper with foreign people running it,” he told the Commissioners Court. “They have foreign ideas. It really is the Los Angeles Times. Its people are imported from all over the country with views of foreign people… We are not going to be run up a tree by a foreign newspaper.”
Patiently, wearily, Tom Johnson responds to the accusations he has always known were inevitable. From memory he recites the Texas pedigree, the years of local residence, of the Times Herald‘s and its other editors. “I guess I’m the only foreigner here,” says LBJ’s man, wryly. “Those who want to criticize us would like the think the Los Angeles Times calls me every morning to tell me what editorial policy to have today. Of course that isn’t true. I’ve not had one single call from Los Angeles suggesting I take an editorial stand or cover the news one way or the other. It’s a phony issue.”
For the first few months of Johnson’s tenure, everything seemed to go right. Everyone knew it would be a long, hard road to the sort of newspaper he was seeking, but all the lights were turning green. Then came the “Black Organization” story—or, as it has come to be known, Black Sunday: January 27, 1974.
Dallas had been plagued by a rash of vicious robberies at convenience grocery stores. In less than four weeks five white store clerks has been killed and five others wounded. News media searched for a pattern in the holdups; the city was on an emotional edge. More than 100 plainclothes policemen combed the city on Saturday under orders by the police chief to have the killers “in jail by Monday morning.” As far as the newspapers were concerned, it was the buggest story of the year.
On that fateful Sunday morning Dallasites woke to find the Times Herald on their doorteps with an explosive, four-column, front page headline:
Black ‘Organization’ behind clerk deaths?
Reporter Ernie Makovy’s story quoted an unnamed “police official” to the effect that “an ‘organization’ of blacks, apparently choosing its victims discriminately, may be behind the convenience store killings. ‘We have a theory—that some organization of blacks is behind this whole bloody mess,'” Makovy quoted the official as saying. ‘”It’s an interesting theory and strong enough for us to believe,'” the official went on. “‘We just haven’t been able to nail it down to one particular organization.'”
A wave of unease swept most Times Herald staffers when they saw the front page that morning. Even in the super-charged atmosphere, veteran newsmen recognized that the paper had taken a risk. Makovy’s phone rang constantly until four o’clock Monday morning. Conferences were held. A storm was gathering, laden with racial overtones.
The storm that broke exceeded everyone’s expectations. Despite Police Chief Don Byrd’s disclaimer (headlined on the front page of Monday’s Times Herald) that “no type of well-knit organization” was behind the killings “although some of the individuals do know each other,” charges of racism flew. Tuesday’s Morning News featured a headline declaring “No Evidence Seen of Organized Gang” and the paper took the unusual step of mentioning the Times Herald by name. A hundred representatives of black community groups met on Tuesday afternoon to protest both the story and the police chief. Carried away by their own rhetoric, they drafted an immoderate statement accusing the Times Herald of attributing the killings to a “diabolical black organization harbored by the total black community.” Because of the newspaper’s story, they said, the city’s 250,000 black residents “have been adjudged guilty by circumstance of birth… because they are the same color as the alleged perpetrators of these heinous crimes.” They contended that “the blame for this rash of robberies and murders must be placed on the total community as a whole” and demanded a front-page apology from the Times Herald.
What had happened? Makovy had returned from the police station on Saturday morning with a volatile collection of quotes from a key police officer who was close enough to the investigation to know the direction it was taking. One of them was, “it looks like it’s blackie after whitey.” When Managing Editor Ken Smart saw that, he ordered the story redone; a few minutes later, he left for the day. Since Makovy was still working on his first draft, he simply crossed out the offending quote, made some other minor changes, and presented the story to City Editor Hankins, who accepted it. Where was Tom Johnson all the while? As luck would have it, he was hard at work on a copyrighted story about wire-tapping activities under the Johnson and Kennedy administrations, something on which he had labored for most of the previous 24 hours and which would appear on Sunday’s front page under his byline. He did, however, see the headline, and he ordered it changed. Had he known the headline writer would merely add a question mark at the end, me might have stayed to supervise; as it was, he went back to his desk and never looked at the story until the following morning.
There can be no doubt that the word “organization,” with its connotation of purposeful, even political behavior, was an appallingly bad choice for the article and the headline. Everyone at the Times Herald seems to agree that nothing more that “group” or “gang” was meant; no one was talking about the NAACP. There can be no doubt, either, that the story was overplayed.
The question of whether the robberies may have been linked by a common thread of murderous, anti-white passion may yet be explored at the trial of the two blacks who are charged with committing one of them. But Johnson’s decision to apologize left many Times Herald staffers confused and angry. The response of one respected veteran was typical. “I thought it was terrible,” he blurted out suddenly. “That story was the best information we had; there was nothing to apologize for.” The police official, after all, was a reliable source who was in a position to know the facts. His “theory” was clearly labeled as much, both in the subheadline and in Makovy’s story. And his views were accurately reported. Unless one subscribes to the proposition that the police ought to be prohibited from commenting on their investigations, it is hard to find a reason why the Times Herald should apologize for publishing what they said.
Why, then, did Johnson do it? Some view the apology as an understandable miscalculation by a well-intentioned editor still unfamiliar with the whiplash pressures of a daily newspaper. “It was Tom’s first crisis,” says one of his most loyal supporters at the Times Herald. “It hit him hard. The rest of us around here had seen things just as bad; it wasn’t a crisis at all to us.” True enough, certainly; but the answer does not satisfy. Suppose a story about the downtown business establishment had touched off an avalanche of criticism from Highland Park; would he have been so quick to back down? He had already stood his ground against an angry mayor. A 32-year-old man who becomes editor of a major metropolitan daily does not delude himself that he can simply pick up the reins of power without being probed, tested, challenged, and measured by the community of which he aspires to be an influential part. Johnson anticipated challenges from the business and political establishent and for those he was prepared. The significance of Black Sunday is that the challenge came instead from a relatively powerless, wholly unexpected quarter. Decades of neglect had inured Dallas blacks to the shabby treatment they regularly received in the pages of both newspapers. What was new was Tom Johnson. They decided to see how far they could push him, and to their surprise, they pushed him into a front-page apology.
Caught completely off-balance, he flunked his first test. And then, miraculously, he turned the entire situation around by treating the apology as proof of his and the Times Herald‘s fairmindedness. “There are a lot of people around here who don’t think I should have apologized,” he told the Dallas Journalism Review. “But I thought we just had to do it. I thought it was the right thing to do.” Beamed the DJR: “Thanks to Johnson, the Herald was big enough to admit error.” Moderate opinion in Dallas—Johnson’s natural constituency—fell in behind the view that he had handled a tough situation with dignity and character, and as a result his position may have actually have been strengthened by the whole affair.
For Tom Johnson, editor, Black Sunday was a loss of innocence. For Tom Johnson, politician, it was a unsought-after opportunity for a performance that would have made his mentor proud.
The events at the Times Herald have been observed with more than passing interest from an imposing building not far away. The Dallas Morning News occupies a site that its owners have designated without false modesty as “Communications Center, Dallas, Texas 75222.” No further address is necessary, postal authorities acknowledge, and if the other Dallas media are amused at the presumption they do not show it. Indeed, the Morning News has better claim than anyone else to that distinction: its owners control not only the city’s most influential daily newspaper but also a local television station (WFAA-TV), two radio stations (WFAA and KZEW-FM) and seven satellite dailies and weeklies in the surrounding suburbs.
Serene, aloof, protected by a private police force who patrol the sculptured grounds and direct traffic in the vast adjacent parking lot where employees are permitted to lease spaces by the month, the Communications Center stands like a fortress in the heart of what used to be downtown Dallas. John Neely Bryan, the city’s founder, pitched his cabin on a riverbank site three blocks away. Over the years the Trinity was rechanneled and the business district flowed northeastward along Commerce, Main, and Elm, leaving in its wake the News, the Union Station, green plazas, courthouses isolated among barren parking lots, bail bond offices, decaying hotels, low warehouses fringed by rusting railroad tracks, and one abandonded school book depository. It is in an airy neighborhood with sky and character, the sort of place where barbecue smells and the clack of dominoes emerge from buildings nailed with condemnation notices; a place where you can be downtown but still step back and see downtown. Half a mile away, the high-rise world of Dallas wealth and power rises like a mirage from claustrophobic narrow streets. Of it but not in it, Communications Center has a perspective that encompasses the city. That this perspective should be so largely wasted is the tragedy of the Dallas Morning News.
The News is one of those monumental, ageless institutions, like the King Ranch or the Alamo, that cannot be severed from the Texas myth. its lineage goes back to 1842, supporting its claim to be the state’s oldest business enterprise. In the nineteenth century it developed such high journalistic standards that when Adoplh Ochs purchased the undistinguished New York Times in 1896 and began its transformation, he is said to have remarked that the pattern he had in mind was the Dallas Morning News. For the better part of the 20th century it was the closest thing Texans had to a statewide newspaper and a journal of record. Until 1964, the Legislative Library at the State Capitol in Austin preserved no other newspaper in the official files. Because of its inflexibly right-wing editorial policy, it has become something of a totem for conservative Texans, and Yankees looking for a way to confirm their preconceived notions of Dallas often seize upon some editorial remark as proof that the entire city would choke on the milk of human kindness.
The News is no longer the best paper in texas; that distinction belongs to the Houston Chronicle. Whether it will continue to be the best paper in Dallas depends on the vigor with which its owners respond to the Times Herald‘s challenge.
The Morning News is the central pearl in a necklace of news media and corporate enterprises owned by the A.H. Belo Corporation, an extraordinarily sercretive, privately-held company controlled by the descendants of George Bannerman Dealey. The name honors an unreconstructed confederate colonel who founded the newspaper in 1885 as a North Texas extention of his highly-successful Galveston News. Colonel Belo chose the 26-year-old Dealey as business manager of the new publication, and in time control of the entire newspaper passed from the frail and sickly Belo family to Dealey and his robust descendants. Young Dealey had come to America from Liverpool, England, at the age of eleven in 1870, going to work as a copy boy in Galveston shortly afterwards. By 1926, for the sum of $2,725,000, he had purchased from the Belo heirs complete control of what was by then a very powerful newspaper. When he died in 1946 the Morning News was the foremost news medium in Texas and a cornerstone of the Dallas Establishment.
This was due in no small measure to G.B. Dealey’s personal qualities. Gentlemanly and evenhanded, he was revered by his staff and respected by other influential leaders of the burgeoning city. By the Twenties and Thirties, he was virtually an institution himself, a man who had spent the first ten years of his life in the Dickensian world of Victorian England and was transformed into a community leader of brash young Dallas. Born when Palmerston governed Britain and Americans clashed over whether Dred Scott should be free, he died when Attlee had replaced Churchhill and Americans debated Truman’s wisdom in dropping the bomb on Hiroshima.
He left behind a large and philanthropic family who, in the best traditions of the Dallas aristocracy of which they had become a part, held their power without arrogance. Because he had three daughters as well as two sons, his present-day descendants bear the surnames Decherd, Moroney, and Jackson, as well as Dealey. Although control of the newspaper has never left this Dealey family, the second and third generations have not shared the breadth of the talented founder’s vision. G.B. Dealey’s eldest surviving son, E.M. “Ted” Dealey, took charge in 1946: he was succeeded in the Sixties by his own son, Joe Dealey, who remains president today. A trust established by G.B. Dealey for the benefit of his numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren presently holds 68.65 per cent of the Belo Corporation stock, and its three trustees—Joe Dealey, James M. Moroney, Jr., and Joseph Lubben—thus control the hundred-million-dollar corporation absolutely. Dealey is the first among equals.
Few observers of Dallas journalism feel that Joe Dealey takes any significant personal interest in the operation of his family’s newspaper. For him, they say, it is but one business enterprise among many, a tremendous moneymaker and an interesting plaything in Dallas society, but not the potential “best newspaper in the Southwest.” Like the editors below him, Dealey seems willing to coast on the paper’s solid reputation. “He’s a country club publisher,” says one critic. “He has no idea what’s happening down in the hole (in the newsroom).” Says another: “The Dealeys are nice people—really nice people—Joe included. I mean that. But he isn’t capable of judging what a good newspaper is.”
Dealey’s personal remoteness from the News reinforces the settled, monolithic mood of the place. The Communications Center is a secure and as permanent as a bank vault. It is imbued with an air of third-generation success that says change, if it comes, will come glacially. The building itself seems built as a showplace, a smoothly-running machine in which owners can impress visitors with the fruits of hard-won achievements past. Below the foot-high state seal carved intaglio rilevato on the elevator door is a plaque that proclaims:
THIS INSTITUTION WAS FOUNDED UNDER THE REPUBLIC OF TEXAS APRIL 11, 1842.
History does not stop at the elevator. Corridors to the fourth-floor editorial offices are lined with the portraits of the 21 “Stalwarts of the News” who served the paper before 1942; they lead to the sanctum sanctorum, a small room filled with glass cases that house the “G.B. Dealey Collection” of the patriarch’s memorabilia: his desk, his Masonic insignia, a replica of his black alpaca office coat, three snapshots of “The Favorite Homes of Mr. and Mrs. G.B. Dealey,” the family Bible, and a two-inch by three-inch black notebook of “favorite jokes in abbreviated form, often carried by G.B.D.” Could this be the Rosetta Stone of this enigmatic family?
Elsewhere, the building is organized like an airport: orderly, mechanical, sterile. No one is permitted to get lost. Huge overhead signs point the way to every destination, no matter how insignificant:
Plant and Purchasing
Men’s Rest Room
Women’s Rest Room
When the newsroom was redecorated with carpeting and color-coordinated furniture, the architects took down the staff’s popular bulletin board and consigned it to a coat claset; it simply didn’t fit the tidy scheme of things. Stability and order, stability and order: carried to their deadening limits, these are the spirit of Communications Center. If the typewriter bells could be muffled, they would be.
Paradoxically, though, the actual operation of the paper is anything but orderly. When 43-year-old veteran Managing Editor Tome Simmons took over as “No. 1 Editor” in the newsroom late last year, he brought a much more hierarchical cast of mind to that key position than the previous executive editor, Jack Krueger, had shown. Instead of intervening personally at various levels of the news operation, Simmons wanted things to go down in an orderly chain. He drew some boxes and connected them with lines. “Now when you have that kind of organization,” muses one reporter, “the assumption is that if the person doesn’t follow through on his duties you either can his ass, or kick it, or somethin’. Funny thing: at the Dallas News that foot never falls. And so in order to get around all these little bottlenecks, you have these little siiiiide shoots runnin’ around. It’s like the French government. Or San Antonio politics. And no one knows who’s runnin’ it.”
Every staffer has his own Byzantine technique to circumvent the organizational chart and get things done. No one seems to worry much about it. The News is slower to anger, seldom fires anyone, and more or less just keeps rolling along. “It’s an easy place to get lazy,” says a top young reporter.
Despite its lack of organization and drive, the News excels in several areas. it has a better collection of reporters under the age of 35 than any other paper in the state. “Their staff is better,” a writer at the Times Herald admits. “The Morning News gets good people because they work at it. The Times Herald gets them by luck.” He gets no argument from a News man: “The people over there are green. They don’t have nearly the caliber of talent the News does, but the News isn’t using it. Over at the Herald everybody is is just gnashing at the bit, bouncing off the walls, ready to go out and slay dragons. But they don’t know how to hold a sword. Here you’ve got somebody who’s been practicing his grip for ten years, but nobody’s ever told him to kill a dragon.”
John Cranfill, the News‘ energy writer, and Linda Little, the educaiton writer, have run circles around the Times Herald in recent months. Sam Kinch, Jr., is an outstanding correspondent in the Austin bureau. Dotty Griffith, Marlyn Schwartz, Dave McNeely, Bob Finklea, Terry Kliewer, and Tom Stephenson have produced fine articles, some of which have won prizes.
(Sometimes their ingenuity exeeds normal bounds. That fateful Black Sunday issue of the Times Herald contained a front-page photograph of a man and his three children waiting anxiously for word from his “kidnapped” wife. As it turned out, she was hiding under the bed on which they sat, and the News prepared a full story on the hoax. Meanwhile the Times Herald‘s night police reporter kept dropping by the station, unaware of what had happened. An enterprising News staffer diverted him for hours, first at a dart game, then with a 30-minute shoeshine in the press room, and finally with a college football game on the locker room TV set. By the time he caught on, all but a few thousand copies of the Herald‘s Sunday press had been printed with the damning photograph.)
The special weakness of the Morning News is its lack of energetic editorial leadership that could inspire this abundant talent. The lines of promotion at the Morning News are unimaginative and predictable; they favor those who simply wait in line for their turn to come. “There no one to root for at the News,” says one energetic staffer who left for greener pastures. “You can see exactly who’s coming up the ladder, and they’re just like the ones at the top now.” Simmons and two of his three assistant managing editors (Terry Walsh and Buster Haas) all attained their present postions by moving up the production side of the paper; they have been desk men, not reporters, for many years, and the reporters find this stifling. “It’s not that they are unintelligent,” says another former News man who has gone on to a successful career elsewhere. “It’s just that they all came up one way. They’ve had nothing to do with writing for a long time.” Some staffers are more harsh: “The Peter Principle has worked far beyond itself at the Dallas News,” sighs one.
Simmons’ blessing, if not his initiative, seems essential for any change from above. A reticent man (“a mummy without tape” is the way one staffer describes him), he is not talkng now. But if past experience is any guide, the best reporters will gradually drift away. The News has an uncanny knack for attracting first-rate talent to replace those of similar abilities who get disgusted and leave. Outsiders are often surprised by the liberal bent of the reporters at the News (its news staff is considerably to the left of the Times Herald‘s), but the men who do the hiring know that a good journalism major is a good journalism major regardless of his politics. They rather enjoy hiring young liberals who write well, get their work done, and run loose the rest of the time grousing and grumbling and prophesying the millenium at the Morning News. They know the editors can keep a lid on, and the sheer visibility of those rampant young liberals guarantees a steady flow of future talent that would surely shun the place if conformity were demanded.
For the first time, however, there is a strong chance that change may come up from below. Since January, a movement to organize the staff through the American Newspaper Guild has been gianing strength. The previous autumn, management had organized a series of seminars to discuss the paper’s future with small groups of staff members. Joe Dealey put in an appearance at one of the first such sessions and found himself bombarded with tough, blunt questions about salaries, benefits, and the paper’s newsgathering policies. Inquiries about the future course of the News were answered with vague generalities about how the paper was one big happy family that could working things out informally. “If it’s such a happy family,” one reporter asked, “how come you never come down to the third floor? I’ve been here three years and I’ve never seen you in the newsroom once.” Eventually a sportswriter tore aside the veil. “What’s it going to take to get you people moving,” he demanded to know. “A guild?” Next morning the story circulated that Dealey had told an associate he avoided the newsroom because “it looks like a pigsty down there.” The guild movement was born.
The initiative on the guild has come from younger staffers for whom job security is less crucial. But organizers claim to have widespread support from many long-time News employees. “We have people signing cards [for guild representation] that are 62, 63 years old. They’ve been here forever, and they’re facing a pension, of $135 a month. We’re nt having to do much selling, I’ll tell you that.” At press time, supporters of the guild claimed that nearly 70 per cent of the staff have signed cards calling for a guild vote, and they are optimistically predicting success in the vote that is tentatively set for early summer.
It is significant that so many of the staff object to the very concept of the newspaper that Dealey seems to value most: its paternalism. There is nothing callous about the way the News responds to its employees’ personal misfortunes; time and again, the paper has picked up the hosptial bills of reporters who were seriously ill, or continued to pay full salary to those whose health prevented them from carrying their normal load. A position on the News is a comfortable niche well-sheltered from the vicissitudes of the cold, cruel world. To Dealey this seems like gracious magnanimity; to many of the staff, it smacks of the plantation. “Their attitude is, ‘We’ll take care of you,'” says one young reporter. “That’s wonderful,” she adds, “but you shouldn’t have to depend on the company for that.”
The staff is aware, too, that their day-to-day salaries and living conditions rank rather low on the Belo Corporation’s scale of priorities. They regard the Communication Center’s lavish physical plant as an ostentatious extravagance while some reporters are still trying to make ends meet on $165 a week. By and large they accept these things stoically while working to change them. But on one subject they all cut loose. Ask a Morning News reporter about the E.M. “Ted” Dealey Animal Care Center, and you will see what happened to Doctor Jekyll. They are irrational. They are livid. They crush ballpoints into desk tops and smash furniture with their feet. Small animals flee from them in knowing terror.
The cause of this fearful reaction is a beautiful new shelter for homeless animals operated by the Dallas chapter of the SPCA. The air-conditioned, centrally-headed facility opened on March 15 with 48 kennels, dog runs, medical and surgical rooms, and an adoption lobby for the 115 dogs and cats who were its first tenants. It exists as a direct result of $175,000 in contributions from the Dealeys and their associates. Like the Communications Center, it is orderly, with signs that read
and suffused with a sense of history:
Given in Memory of
By Mrs. I.T. Houston, Sr.
As a refuge for the affectionate and healthy animals who might otherwise be a slick spot on a city street, the Center is A Good Thing. It is fruitless to suggest this to the reporters, who fantasize themselves and their colleagues sitting cross-legged on the floor divvying up that $175,000, one-for-you, one-for-me; fantasies punctuated by visions of beribboned housepets savoring caviar from velvet pillows.
Immediate improvements in the excruciatingly low salaries and fringe benefits are obviously uppermost in the guild organizers’ minds. Nothing unusual about that. What is interesting is the unabashed affection most of the organizers seem to feel toward the News as an institution. In many ways they are typical of a younger generation of Texans who would rather stay at some and work for chnage than move away to the North or East, as so many of their predecessors have done. They see the guild and the material benefits it could bring not merely as a source of personal gain but as a lodestone to transform the News into a magnet for journalistic talent of national caliber. If we didn’t want to stay with the News, they say, we would look elsewhere instead of trying to organize a guild. It is a hopeful sign.
Critics of the Morning News, both in Texas and outside the state, have long contended that Dallas residents get a warped view of the world with their cup of breakfast coffee. They are right—despite the fact that much well-reasoned, well-writted work appears in its pages every day, some of it superior to anything else being published in the state. If the News were nothing more than a basket of mediocrity it would have lost its reputation long ago. Instead, the paper takes the basket and hides the light under it, consigning good stories to obscure back pages, ignoring things that should be covered, and elevating a mishmash of basically unimportant information to the status of Big News.
Manipulation is perhaps too strong a term for the way news is managed at Communications Center, but a story that raises controversial questions or puts established interests in a bad light must run a gauntlet before it sees print. Information that the chairman of Southwestern Medical School’s surgery department was preparing to resign because of dissatisfaction with conditions there reached the News education reporter months before he finally quit; her scoop was blocked by the upstairs management for weeks.
A series of tough, penetrating articles on the ramifications of the proposed Trinity River Canal appreared in the News for about a month, then dwindled to back pages and languished on overset after Trinity River Authority officials asked for, and got, an hour-long meeting with the paper’s editors and reporters. No one thinks the reporters were ordered to stop writing what they had found, but fellow staffers found “a different mood” afterwards, “a definite feeling that the Morning News didn’t care so strongly about its coverage.” In the early days of the Sharpstown scandal the News reporters were far ahead of any others; then they too began to see their stories slip into obscurity while competitors were beginning to hit their stride. Earl Golz, a top investigative reporter who at press time was still employed by the News, prepared an article last year that explored the connections between Bunker Hunt, son of billionaire H.L. Hunt, and Libyan oil affairs. After being held up for an unusually long time, it was finally published on page 6C in the back of the women’s section. Even so, it attracted nationwide attention—and perhaps startled some women. The story Golz considers the best of his career was a documentation of the relationship between a wealthy, politically-active Dallas family and a shadowy figure in the international underworld who surfaced in Dallas at the time of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It was first rejected in a form letter by the News as “unsuitable for our publication” and ultimately printed last November 22 on page 12AA.
Editorial bias creeps into the handling of political affairs. A timely example is the indefatigably optimistic view the News takes of President Nixon’s problems. Last year Nixon’s tax disclosures appeared on page 23 at the same time the Herald was running them on page one. But let the lead headlines tell the story:
January 21: Transcripts Support Nixon, Source Says.
January 31: Nixon Wants Speedy End to Watergate Investigation.
February 26: Impeachment not Expected, Nixon Says.
On March 9, the News ran Wilbur Mills’ re-election announcement on page eight after excising the congressman’s prediction that tax revelations would force Nixon to resign; the Houston Post put the whole story on page one.
Long cloying stories about the Dealey’s social affairs often infiltrate the society section in a way that would have appalled old G.B. Dealey, who strictly forbade famiy news himself. The February 5 issue contained this jewel:
Amy and Bill Saluted
By Jeanne Prejean
The driveway leading to the Charles Mayhew place in Sunnyvale was lined with Cadillacs, Mercedes, Porches, and an occasional Volvo or two.
It was a self park deal which meant that it was an small informal get together. One of those intimate little gatherings that is fun.
The hosts were Joe and Mandy Dealey [jr] honoring Bill Dean and Amy Arquilla who will be doing the aisle waltz in Chicago come Feb. 23.
Say isn’t that the same night that Ban Bywaters is marrying Kathleen Hazlehurst?
But they just announced last week they were getting hitch.
Yeah, but they’ve been secretly engaged since October.
Engagements have changed!
But back to Bill and Amy…
And on… and on… for ten more inches plus a photograph of the Dealeys “with their newest family member, a baby Scottie.” A classic of this genre was the 25-inch article in the March 21 amusements section headlined “80 Here to Enter Dealey Competition.” It listed the names of no less than 87 people responsible for refreshments, buffet supplies, parties, and various other activities surrounding the “1974 Dallas News—G.B. Dealey Awards Competition” without once mentioning who was competing or what they were competing for.
But the front page is the place where the News fails its readers most consistently. No other major Texas daily outside San Antonio so misuses this most important page. The Dallas Journalism Review hurled a dart in their direction for running a page-long picture of a dancing cat. It is far from their worst offense. On two consecutive days in early March, over half the page was dedicated to excerpts from Rose Kennedy’s book, Times to Remember. Pictures and a story of two window washers trapped on a downtown building ledge consumed forty per cent a few Sundays earlier. Aldolph Ochs might have reconsidered.
Front-page emphasis on crime and disasters, however, does the most to turn that morning cup of coffee bitter. The day-to-day handling of crime in the News inflames panic and hysteria in the community for more irresponsibly than the Herald‘s Black Sunday blunder did.
Readers who picked up the sissue of Thursday, February 7, found the most important news events in the world to be these: the FBI circulates photos of Patty Hearst’s possible kidnappers (six column headline lead); a suspect in the convenience store robberies is arrested; a three-alarm fire slows rush hour traffic; terrorists seize the Japanese Embass in Kuwait; a truck driver is shot in South Texas; and a new residential fire code is announced. Paul Crume’s daily column occupied one corner. Purist often condemn the News for putting Crume on page one, but with this sort of gloom everywhere else, his gentle humor and unfailing compassion are urgently needed there.
At times in January up to 80 per cent of the front pages was devoted to the convenience store killings. As late as three weeks after the Hearst kidnapping and long before things began to take a bizarre twist, the News was still leading its front page with non-stories like “The FBI said Sunday there had no response from the abductors of heiress Patricia Hearst…” A redictio ad absurdium of crime coverage was reached on February 9 when the News ran police sketches of Patty’s abductors across the top of page one, despite the obvious likelihood that the suspects were 1500 miles away. What sort of horror grips Dallas parents when the see the headline, “Masked Men Torture Baby?” The News went all the way to Philadelphia for that one and put it on page two. Even the following iten, reprinted here in its entirety, was deemed worthy of front page publicity:
OLYMPIA, Wash. (UPI) — Two suspects were arrested by Thurston County sheriff’s deputies for siphoning gasoline from a vehicle owned by Glen Pettit of Rainier, Wash. The youths were charged with petit larceny.
Overemphasis on crime is by no means a monopoly at the News. The Times Herald often gives it as much space or more (a six-column lead on the Hearst kidnapping as late as March 17 was followed the next day by an equal display for a Minnesota abduction), but the tone of their articles is less calculated to produce anxiety.
Neither paper has any reason to take pride in the way it handles crime. Their attitude is a symptom of a deeper disregard for their proper journalistic role. News, after all, is whatever the news media say it is. When Moses came down from the mountain, the decalogue became news because someone took care to record the event. A million things happen in Dallas every day. The newspapers (along with other media) define which are important by printing them as “news.” Their excessive emphasis on crime hides an unwillingness to deal with the myriad social, economic, and political realities that actually shape people’s lives. Seven-11 holdups become the most important news in Dallas if a newspaper treats them that way. The reader is given his daily dose of crime, is patted on the head, and is told, “that’s the way it is, fella; that’s the ‘news.'” The fault doesn’t lie in reporting crimes, but rather in allowing some literary Gresham’s Law to crowd more important matters out of the reader’s ken.
Now you can try to change your views,
But that doesn’t change the Dallas Morning News…
So sings a rising young country rock star Michael Murphey, a Dallas native. To the generation that has grown up after the Second World War, few things must seem as changeless as the editorial columns of that newspaper. Its conservative daily editorials may be cruel, callous, perverse, obstinate, reasonable, persuasive, sensitive, or charitable, depending on who is writing them. They are seldom dull, however, and never bland.
The News knows what it is, and (editorially at least) what it wants to be. The Dealeys make no apology for their decision to turn its editorial pages rightward; they feel these pages are the heart of any newspaper and the owner is entitled to use the to reflect his views. At least as far as the actual editorials are concerned, their claim is refreshing and defensible. Texas has too many mealy-mouthed newspapers already. It is easy enough to disagree with some of the things the News writes, but the News is entitled to write them and the rest of use are entitled to be provoked by them, which we often are. The Times Herald, by contrast, has traditionally taken aimiable and amorphous stands, straddling issues and giving as little offense as possible. It does not even bother to have an editorial page on Saturdays. The motto that Edwin Kiest painted in his marble lobby expresses the Herald‘s diffuseness of purpose as well as anything could:
THE TIMES HERALD STANDS FOR DALLAS AS A WHOLE
Under Tom Johnson this policy has changed very little. Editorials occasionally have more punch, but Johnson seems strangely disintereste din making the paper’s voice more forceful and articulate. If you ask him about editorials he responds by discussing the diversity of his editorial page columnists, which is not the same thing at all. A newspaper that puts diversity into its editorials is a newspaper that doesn’t know what it thinks. Johnson’s critics contend that in spite of his thorough intellectual credentials, this is exactly his problem; he has, they say, a pragmatist’s lack of any firm commitment to philospohical ideals. His friends point out that the Herald‘s editorial board actually sets the paper’s policy, and they suggest that its hodgepodge of differing viewpoints may inhibit him for a while from saying what he thinks.
But are the Dealeys right when they throw their conservative blanket over the editorial page columnists as well? Here Johnson’s seems the better view: a newspaper has no business shutting off the circulation of ideas. On occasion the News has even scissored portions of William F. Buckley’s syndicated column to remove “liberal” thoughts. Except for an occasional piece by the New York Times’ James Reston, the News has shuttered its window to the world.
The importance that the Dealeys attach to their editorial page is indicated by the fact that they administer it seperately from the news side of the paper. Neither Tom Simmons nor his predecessor, Executive Editor Jack Krueger, has any say in the editorial product. Editorial Director Dick West handles it all.
Like separate planets, the two departments rotate in different orbits. No reporter could ever recall being invited upstairs for a background session about a forthcoming editorial. “I just wake up in the morning and it’s there,” says Earl Golz. Sometimes the opinions are 180 degrees at odds from the drift of the news stories. The Times Herald works differently: reporters are invited to meet witht the editorial board from time to time, and the editorial backing for their stories often mentions them by name — a potent morale-booster.
West himself is often blamed for the strident tone of his pages. The charge seems close to the mark, considering his direct responsibility for them. While G.B. Dealey lived, the News had a national reputation for thoughtful, moderate editorial stands; he died in 1946, West’s influence grew enorously during the Fifties, and after he became editorial director in 1960 the News has been a far more narrow-minded voice.
West has put together an unusually large staff of local columnists, all conservatives of course. Only two are especially distinguished. Mike Kingston is a careful analyst of the political process and the criminal justice system; his best columns, like his recent study of the parole system, show a sense of humanity and an awareness that few problems have simple answers. Bill Murchison, whose views are as rigidly conservative as a pine box, regularly produces the most literate, well-crafted, and stimulating columns in town. His topics range from capital punishment to national health insurance to cigarette controls, the Dallas symphony, Solzhenitsyn, preservation of the historic Sanger buildings, and a moving recollection of a childhood teacher.
Bitterness and fear are the hallmarks of West’s own Sunday columns. “Thousands in this country have a perverted image of Texans,” he growls in a piece headlined “Public Stupidity about Oil-men,” going on to blame radio, TV, and “frustrated comics on the vaudeville circuit” for our unflattering stereotypes. Criticism of the Regional Airport is a “new coat of smear” for Dallas. There is danger that the “lords of the underworld” will use their “subtle and devious techniques” to infiltrate the Metroplex by “controlling the collection of garbage” at the airport—just one of several dark Mafioso nights that the city has so far escaped by virtue of having hardboiled law enforcement officials. Rising waves of alien criminality crash against the Moral Island of Dallas like hurricane breakers upon a seawall: in Washington, “the Capital of Fear,” hotel clerks “advise you to leave your billfold at the desk and take only some pocket change,” and they warn never—absolutely never—to go out on the streets at night alone.” Tell this to the thousands of Washingtonians who fearlessly stroll Connecticut Avenue and M Street, who rest with their shopping bags on the F Street Mall, who flock to the crowded sidewalks of Georgetown, and they will laugh in your face. Dallas-ites who know no better can be pardoned for not laughing too, but one of the puzzling aspects of this increasingly sophisticated city is the absence of evident embarrassment among its well-traveled, well-informed leaders at the sight of such overwrought pastiches of terror in their local newspaper.
To drive home his abhorrance of “loopholes,” West does not hestitate to “remember the case of the teenage hitchhiker” who stomped an elderly woman to death on the way to Dallas and had his conviction reversed “because the indictment failed to say that he stomped her with his feet”—omitting to mention that the case occured in 1947 and is taught in law schools today as a ludicrous example of judicial nit-picking.
Only a special sort of mind hoards fear this way. The thousands of individual anxieties it must have amplified over the years: who can measure those?
The guild fight at the News illuminates a larger problem—some might even say the problem—of Texas journalism. A good staff alone cannot create a first-rate newspaper, but no first-rate newspaper can exist without a good staff. Despite a number of notable individual exceptions, the overall qualiy of Texas journalism is embarrassingly poor. Texas journalists’ salaries are abysmally low. There is a connection.
The lack of good money has driven out some of the state’s best newsmen, scared away others who might have like to immigrate, and kept many of the rest in a permanent condition of low-grade, numbed depression.
“A tremendous amount of newsaper talent comes in to city rooms every year all over Texas,” says Bill Porterfield, one of the state’s best writers and a veteran of newspapers in Texas and the Midwest. “If they’re weak, they conform to a massive numbing kind of mediocrity based on the fact that the only way you can rise above a cerain point in salary is by getting a column, or becoming management. There’s not really any honor, professionally, in becoming a good reporter. A fine reporter in Texas would never make what his peer makes, as, say, a city editor. In Detroit, Chicago, you’d have a city room with maybe 50 reporters who were good writers, making good money, and there was pride in it. Sometimes they’d get called on to take an editor’s job and they wouldn’t do it. Management up there is just willing to reward excellence in a way they don’t down here.
Professor Darwin Payne of the Southern Methodist University Journalism Division has been observing the Dallas media since 1960. In a thoughtful article for the Journalism Review, he points to the heart of the matter:
“Reporting—at least in this part of the country—has been a young man’s business… If they are to make a decent living they must become something else—editors and/or administrators. And when you consider the extent to which our society functions of the basis off information it recieves through the mass media you begin to realize that things somehow are topsy-turvy. Reporters, in a very real sense, are more important than doctors or lawyers because reporters deal with matters and problems that confront society as a whole.”
Like manual laborers,’ reporters’ salaries are still quoted and paid by the week, as though they were undependable ne’er-do-wells who might up and skip town overnight. The starting salary at the Times Herald is $150 a week. Anyone who tried to marry, raise a famiy, and lead a middle-class life on that kind of money—and most reporters are solidly middle-class people—is so preoccupied with making ends meet that he has little time to be an aggressive, creative newsman. It’s all he can do to stay afloat. Middle-bracket salaries for reporters, photographers, columnists, and copy editors who have been at the Times Herald for more than two years range from $175 to $260. A few experienced, proven senior staffers can look forward to a maximum of $300. The News pays a little better, but not much.
These wages can scarcely hold a good reporter who knows that the starting salary at the New York Times is $333 a week, at the Chicago Sun-Times & News $208, and at the Honolulu Advertiser $212. Even cities like Oakland; Sacramento; Eugene, Oregon; and Harrisburg, Pa., have newspapers with higher salary scales than Dallas. “I’ve made less money as assistant city editor than I made as a straight reporter on a rural North Carolina daily with a circulation of 20,000,” says Olin Briggs.
For all too manyt reporters, low salaries subtly erode self-esteem, leading them to think they must be worth no more than what they are paid. Their pessimism can be self-fulfilling. Losing interest in the intellectual challenge of their work, they come to consider it merely a trade. Of his years at the Houston Chronicle, Porterfield remembers, “We used to call it the Valley of the Broken Dream.”
Texas newspaper publishers are disinclined to remedy this situation because they are preoccupied with churning out revenue. They need competent reporters but they do not need the best, because they would rather produce a mediocre newspaper with a good profit margin than a top newspaper that made less money. A superstar reporter offers them nothing useful. He may even rock the boat, upsetting decorum as well as the advertising manager. “The publishers,” says a Dallas journalism professor, “would rather have reporters who will take the established source’s word for things.” As they see it, an agile mind is the devil’s workshop. Why pay extra for that? Far better to hire the waves of enthusiastic youngsters just out of journalism school, work them hard for a few years, and replace them with other when they leave, disenchanted. In an important sense, therefore, the problem of salaries is a symptom of the publishers’ refusal to let Texas journalism deliver the goods.
There is a myth we all absorbed in childhood, the myth of the great newspaper as the tribune of the people. We have seen enough journalistic courage to know the myth is not wholly false. But our particularly American faith in the invincibility of the truth impels us to suppose that there is something in he nature of the press that ensures our own local daily will be as incorruptable and as vigilant as the Menckenesque newspaper of our imagination. We esteem “freedom of the press” because we have implicit trust that the press is independent enough to tell the truth. Part of ourtrust comes from our assumption that the press exists on an island apart from the political and commercial power structure about which it writes; from our assumption that the press is somehow immune to conflict of interest.
Even in the best of times this myth was riddled with fallacies. Few newspapers have ever enjoyed the independece we ascribe to them. When Dallas was a boom town in the 1880s, ephemeral newspapers sprang up like dandelions—struggling, flourishing, merging, dying—and among those, perhaps, there were some that answered to no one but themselves, some that were newspapers and nothing more. Today that is rarely the case, in Dallas or anywhere else.
The Belo Corporation, for example, controls not only the Morning News and its companion radio and television stations; it also controls KDFM-TV in Beaumont; Comunications Reality, Inc.; Visual Panographics, Inc; Optigraphics Corporation; and the Atlas Match Corporation. Throught News-Texan, Inc., the owners of the News control the Garland Daily News, the Richardson Daily News, the Arlington Daily News, the Grand Prairie Daily News, the Irving Daily News, and the weekly Suburban Daily News.
The Dallas Times Herald is only a small fraction of parent Times-Mirror Company’s worldwide operations that include Dallas’ KDFW-TV, Austin’s KTBC-TV, timber companies in the Pacific Northwest, six general and professional book publishing companies, cable television, four magazines (Popular Science, Outdoor Life, Golf, and Ski), vocational instruction programs for airline pilots, and a press that printed 27 billion pages of telephone books last year.
This corporate jigsaw puzzle, fraught with possibilities of conflict of interest, is the rule rather than the exception in major American dailies today. Only the unrealistic expect it to disappear. A good newspaper overcomes it; a bad one succumbs to it.
As long as these potential conflicts of interest are laid out in the open, the reader can determine for himself whether the newspaper he reads in unfairly distorted by the owners’ econimic allegiances. In this connection the behavior of the Times Herald and the News is instructive.
The Times-Mirror company is a publicly-held corporation whose subsidiaries and interests are matters of record, as are its earnings. But the privately-held Belo corporation can legally withhold most information about itself. As far as can be determined, Belo’s owners are relatively careful to avoid conflicts of interest, despite occasional lapses; but when these lapses occur, how do the readers of the News become aware of the fact? Is secrecy about one’s economic dealings really compatible with the responsibilities of a major newspaper? Consider the image the newspapers have of their duty to the public. Management at the Times Herald (and at the Times Mirror in Los Angeles) is accessible, open, communicative; there is a distinct awareness that private enterprise is mixed with public trust. At the Morning News, by contrast, inquiries about the corporation’s holdings produced the sketchiest of responses, and both Joe Dealey and Managing Editor Tom Simmons refused to be interviewed by this magazine. There was nothing particularly unusual about that: it is simply not their habit to answer questions.
Newspapers are in the business of inquiring into other people’s lives, so it is more than a little disconcerting when they refuse to let others inquire into theirs. Ought an institution with such public influence as the News simply cite the fact that the fact that it is a “private corporation” and, retreating behind the corporate veil, shield its motives from reasonable scrutiny? The news media, which have been so articulate in demanding accountability and financial disclosure from public officials, should be the last to mask their own essentially public nature with legalisms. But the Morning News can and does, thereby casting a lengthening shadow over the oft-quoted observation that “Freedom of the press belongs only to those who own one.”
What is happening in Dallas may well set the tone of journalism in Texas cities for years to come. It is too soon, really, to ascertain what the eventual outcome will be. At press time the guild movement at the News seemed strong and optimistic; backers were even suggesting that the management might secretly be glad to see the guild arrive because it represented evidence of staff loyalty. But few newspapers have ever welcomed the guild in this fashion, and it is not unusual for management to remain superficially calm until the closing weeks or days of a guild election campaign. Even if the guild wins, its representatives must of course still negotiate for any change in salaries and benefits. Heading management’s side in these negotiations will probably be Richard Blum, a member of the Belo Corporation Board who has the reputation of being tougher then nails. That will not be an easy fight.
A News guild would certainly affect other major Texas dailies, but its influence could be indirect and slow in coming. The same cannot be said of the Times Herald if Johnson achieves his goals. one popularly-acknowledged, exciting, first-rate newspaper could upset the competitive situation in Dallas and siphon enough talent away from other Texas papers to jar them out of their lethargy. Can he do it?
It is easy to look at Johnson’s current situation and see only his problems. His open-door policy has left him confused by too many conflicting opinions and suggestions; he is so personally involved in up-and-down-the-line details of running the newspaper that he fails to delegate authority, an oversight that contributed the the Black Sunday debacle; he has missed opportunities to hire some excellent reporters. His faults are the flaws of a man who is instinctively a politician: a desire to be loved, a desire to project openness. But the politician in him may be his salvation. The upper echelons of Dallas journalism have long been infatuated and eventually absorbed by the city’s established commerical and social mileu, losing their professional discernment in the cameraderie that cheerfully envelops them. But Johnson of the White House, Johnson of the LBJ family interests, has been around all that; he knows how to respect it and still keep his distance. If he can sustain the infectious spirit of his first nine months with clear results in the next eighteen, he has the personal strength to guide the Times Herald into the elite company of Newsday and the Los Angeles Times.
The real question is whether he can get results. And that is less a question of editorial freedom than of money. Johnson is in the awkward position of being responsible to local Times Herald management (including publisher Jim Chambers and president Bob Jensen) that failed to create a dynamic paper when it had the chance, and which, as a result of the Times Herald‘s aquisition by the Times Mirror Company, is responsible in turn to a Los Angeles management (Otis Chandler) that is one of the most dynamic outfits in the business.
Despite a policy of strict local autonomy emanating from Los Angeles, the time will inevatably come when Johnson believes he must have more resources than Chamber and Jensen are willing to commit. Can he then appeal directly to Otis Chandler? If so, with what result?
The relationship between Otis Chandler and Tom Johnson will determine the ultimate success of the Times Herald experiment. Is Chandler a sort of deistic god who has simply wound Johnson up to play out his part, regardless of the outcome? Or is he a deus ex machina, watching Johnson’s successes, failures, and frustrations, and waiting to intervene when the time is ripe? Although Johnson insists that his local management has given him “stong support” for “everything” he is trying to accomplish, there is evidence that he has already appealed to Otis Chandler once, (seeking higher salaries for the staff) and been rebuffed. There are those in Dallas who take this episode to mean that Johnson is on his own. More likely, it means that the Los Angeles management is reluctant to barge in and impose its will at the first sign of disagreement. Other tests will come in time. And Chandler, a fierce competitor who still surfs the windward side of Oahu, is unlikely to acquiesce for long in policies that make the Times Herald a weak sister in his publishing empire.
You have it then: the predictable ending. Bold young editor meets publisher with vision, and together they ride off into the sunset to build a great newspaper near the banks of the Trinity. Texas journalism will never be the same. Articles are expected to give answers. This one seems plausible. It could happen that way—you expected to hear that it would happen that way. Perhaps it will… But one wonders…
Pan from the Times Herald building across the parking lors and empty spaces to Communications Center. The date: August 25, 1976. Five years after the death of G.B. Dealey’s last surviving child. The date on which, accordng to his will, the Trust shall terminate and be distributed to his designated heirs. They number twelve: Walter Allen Dealey, Joe Dealey, Betty Moroney Norsworthy, Jean Moroney Laney, James Moroney, jr., Patsy Dealey Brooks, Henry Allen Jackson, Rice Jackson, Gilbert S. Jackson, Gordon D. Jackson, Robert W. Decherd, and Dealey Decherd Herndon. They have not bothered to assemble in recognition of the event, but inside, the inexorable process of law has dissolved the legal entity that held 68 per cent of the Belo Corporation’s stock; the two trustees who yesterday absolutely ruled the Trust, the Corporation, and the News now possess together, as individuals, only 15 per cent of the voting stock.
As much as anything Tom Johnson may do at the Times Herald, this dissolution of the Dealey Trust may affect the future of Texas journalism. Some of the heirs intend to sell their interest when it passes into their hands. Some want the Corporation to go public. Others dream of offering the Morning News for sale to its employees, perhaps reserving some family role in management.
Because the heirs are not a totally harmonious family with a single view-point (they rage in age from 59 to 23; and three of the Jacksons filed, but later dropped, a suit seeking removal of the trustees last year), the outcome remains unclear. But the possibilities are fascinating. Decisions about the future of the News must soon become collegial in a way they never have been before. For it to be sold to non-Dallas interests would be unthinkable; but a shifting coalition of family members could, in time, significantly change its character. With its inherent advantages of resources and reputation, the city’s morning newspaper has the power to become a formidable creative force in Texas journalism. Goaded by the challenge of the Herald and spurred by family members who know it is capable of more than the grey decline of its past 30 years, the Dallas Morning News could still become the best of them all.