Deadline in Dallas

If there is cause for hope for Texas newspapers, that hope today is with the Morning News or the Times Herald.

“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

Tags: NEWSPAPERS, DALLAS,

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