The Legacy of Citizen Robert

At 21 Robert Decherd set out to capture the prize that had eluded his father: the throne of Texas’ most powerful media dynasty. At 34 he has won control of the Dallas Morning News and much, much more—but to what end?

When his father died, Robert Decherd was 21. It was November 1972. He was a senior at Harvard, and his life was full of possibilities. He was young and smart, and he was rich, a fourth-generation member of the family that owned what had been Texas’ most important newspaper, the Dallas Morning News.

Decherd’s father, H. Ben Decherd, Jr., had worked at the paper all his life, beginning when he was 21; he had risen to chairman of the board of the News‘ parent company, the A. H. Belo Corporation. Robert Decherd had displayed his own flair for the newspaper business. In prep school he had been editor of the student paper, and now he was just finishing a year as the first Texan ever to preside over the Harvard Crimson. The family would welcome him at Belo. But Robert Decherd had made up his mind months before that he was not going back to Dallas.

It was a time of rebellion, but Decherd was no rebel. There was more to his decision than wanting to make it on his own. Decherd wanted to work for a great newspaper. Except for a few lingering pretensions, little remained of the News‘ old reputation as one of America’s foremost regional papers. And there was the lesson of his father’s career. Ben Decherd had been the most able family member of his generation, but he had been passed over for the presidency, Belo’s most powerful position, because he had the wrong last name. Dealeys had run the News since its founding in 1885, and Dealeys continued to run it. Robert decided to stay in the East, get a reporting job with a big daily, and work his way up into the editing ranks. Someday he might go back to Dallas. Not now.

On a Friday night near the end of his term as president of the Crimson, Decherd and his fellow editors gathered at a pricey continental restaurant overlooking the placid Charles River. They were there to eat a bit, to drink a lot, and finally to select their successors. In the middle of it all, Decherd was summoned to the phone. It was his mother, Isabelle Thomason Decherd.

Your father is dying, she told him. Ben Decherd had lost a two-year battle with lung cancer. After a brief remission, the disease had reappeared and spread uncontrollably, and now, in a hospital bed at the M. D. Anderson cancer center in Houston. 1,800 miles from Cambridge, Ben was slipping away. Robert returned to the meeting but said nothing about his news. He presided over the selection of the new editors, then went to his dorm, packed a few things, and had his roommate speed him to the airport for a late flight to Houston. When Robert got there the next morning, his father was in a coma. At 5:45 p.m., Ben Decherd died.

Suddenly Robert faced a radically different set of considerations. His mother was a widow, and he was the only son. Moreover, he was coming into his inheritance at a critical time in the history of A. H. Belo; the trust that had allowed the Dealeys to control the News for two generations following the death of G. B. Dealey would expire in 1976, just four years away. Then Robert and his older sister stood to get a hefty block of Belo stock, a total of 16 per cent—not enough to control the company but enough, perhaps, to give him more of a chance than his father had had. Young Decherd was at a crossroads, and the paths before him diverged widely. Down one lay the future he had wanted. Down another—the one he chose—lay Dallas.

Today Robert Decherd, at 34, rules one of the major media empires in America. The A. H. Belo Corporation owns television stations in Dallas and Houston; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Sacramento, California; and Norfolk, Virginia. It owns AM and FM radio stations in Dallas and Denver. It owns seven suburban Dallas newspapers, and, most of all, it owns the Dallas Morning News—still the most important newspaper in Texas, now once again the best.

With his downy hair, pink skin, and unlined face, the most important man in Texas journalism looks more like an overgrown cherub than a media baron. Robert Decherd rarely drinks, never smokes, and eschews all the pastimes of the old-generation Dallas executive: he doesn’t hunt, fish, or play golf. On first meeting, the most striking impression he makes is one of clean-cut, all-business wholesomeness, the sort that prompted his prep school chums to remember him with the quotation “Come on over and have a glass of milk, guys!” and his college friends to recall him as the only classmate they knew who never smoked dope. His dress is as low-key as his personality; he wears dark, conservative suits with cuffed pants, white shirts, and loafers. His office strikes the same theme of the commonplace. It contains no great art, no rare objects, no evidence of worldwide travel or consuming hobbies. The sole clue to his ambition is a glass statue of a winged lion that belonged to his father.

In a company that was dominated not just by old men but also by old relatives, Decherd’s willingness to conform served him well. He still seems slightly uncomfortable with high station. When he rides in the company limousine, he sits in the front seat, next to the chauffeur. He is unflaggingly polite, serious, and deferential. It is not a studied pose; it comes naturally. When the News staff decided to publish an in-house parody issue to mark Decherd’s thirtieth birthday, a reporter was assigned to write a funny story about the young executive who had spent three years training in the newsroom. The reporter nearly gave up in despair; Robert Decherd is not a funny man.

Because of his unthreatening personality, Decherd was able to offer his ideas without offending his elders. But he could never have risen so far so fast on personality alone. Decherd’s real genius is an instinctive

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