The Wyly Theater, home to the DTC. Courtesy photo by Iwan Baan.

Local News

The Dallas Morning News’ Unsettling Treatment of the Lee Trull Story

Sometimes a feature profile is not the right approach.

A story posted by the Dallas Morning News on Wednesday gave voice to an alleged sexual abuser just months after accusations in a Theater Jones article rocked the local theater community. The story, likely to appear in Sunday’s paper, profiles Lee Trull, the disgraced theater artist who was fired by the Dallas Theater Center the evening before the allegations went online. The DMN’s title: “Accused of making unwanted advances, Lee Trull says he’s sorry. Now what?”

As troubling as Trull’s language in this article may be (“What happened to me was a public shaming”), as editors, we are far more concerned with the Dallas Morning News’ treatment of this story and the decisions made by writer Sarah Mervosh, her editors, and the art director.

Why run this story? As the article explains, Trull contacted the paper in March, hoping to tell his side of the story. In comments on Facebook and Twitter since the article was published, writer Sarah Mervosh has defended the story as an obligation to listen to both sides. To be clear, journalists are ethically obliged to give Trull an opportunity to respond to accusations, as Theater Jones did in December (Trull did not respond to their attempts to contact him). But the newspaper is not obliged to write 3,500-word profiles on every creep and criminal in our city.

Even more problematic is that Trull never offers a side to any story. In regard to the Theater Jones article, he tells the News it was “biased and incomplete,” with no explanation as to how or why. Then, in response to specific accusations, he declines to get into specifics, hiding behind a cloak of courteousness: “I can’t respond directly to this accusation without hurling more accusations and I’m not willing to do that.” And the News let him get away with it.

The DMN no doubt knew this story was questionable. Several graphs into the piece, the article is presented as a “case study” asking, “Beyond losing their power, what are the appropriate ramifications for men like him? Should they be able to make a living? Have friends? Go out to the bar and the grocery store? Be quoted in a news article?”

Surely, when a story is asking itself whether it’s appropriate to be published, it likely isn’t. A couple graphs later, a woman who had “distressing encounters” with Trull says it’s too soon for him to be making the story about himself. The News should have listened.

We don’t discredit the News for taking a meeting with Trull, but upon realizing the story wasn’t a story, they could have spiked it. Or they could have reframed it.

Why present it as a profile? Nearly halfway in, shoved somewhere between details on how Trull has passed the time (drawing his cat), dealt with his troubles (he’s gone to therapy, listened to podcasts, and read articles), and his background with women (he always felt a “strong connection” to them), the story reveals its most important and gut-punching takeaway: Lee Trull is now publicly accused of rape.

While the original Theater Jones article included accusations of inappropriate behavior, abuse of power, and unwanted touching and kissing, none were so disturbing as Claire Moore’s description of a drunken evening in which she passes out, then, as written in the article, “The next thing she remembers is coming out of her blackout while she and Trull were having sex.” A “What do we do with these #MeToo men?” case study is not the appropriate place to break a story on an alleged rape. The News buried the lead.

So at some point in the making of this feature, the News realizes they have an alleged rapist on their hands—and yet they invite him in for a photoshoot. They didn’t need to. If there is one thing a theater person is not short on, it’s headshots. A close-up, pulled in so tight we can count Trull’s whiskers, leans into the salaciousness of the subject matter with no regard for the trigger it may be for accusers.

Not to mention, the profile veers toward sympathy when Mervosh writes such statements as, “he’s not rich enough to simply disappear.” It doesn’t take much to start over somewhere else. Metro bus tickets run cheap. Move in with Mom. There are options that don’t involve using the newspaper as a way to prospect for paying gigs. And assuming Trull does not (yet) have a criminal record, he could surely get a job waiting tables or in a warehouse. The News didn’t check his privilege, they took it as a given.

Why now? There’s never going to be a “right time” to revisit the accused of the #MeToo movement. And certainly, the question of how we deal with the accused is a valid question, but there are so many other stories the News should have tackled before this one or as part of it. Stories that ask: How can we make sure this doesn’t happen again? How is this changing the way artists work together in our community? What has been the impact on women in theater? What was DTC Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty aware of and what actions did he or didn’t he take to protect employees and students? And most importantly, “Now what?” for the young women allegedly abused by Trull? How do they function in a community where they’re likely to run into their abuser unwinding on an Uptown patio?

So, “Now what?” Not this.

We wanted to know how the women quoted in the article felt about the story’s treatment, so we reached out to Moore via email. She responded, saying her feelings on the story are still conflicted. Moore was aware the piece was a profile on Trull and there would be a photo of him taken to use up top. She declined a shoot for herself. She does, however, take issue with the use of the photo. Moore writes:

“I knew of the photo shoot and its placement but still, it was incredibly jarring, I stayed off social media until yesterday afternoon and was so comforted by all the people who refused to repost. I do think that the conversation of what to do with men post ‘me too’ is important, lest they attempt to slide back into society unscathed. I absolutely think that it is too soon especially since he shows zero remorse. The use of the picture, in my opinion, only served to humanize him. Just, why? I definitely can’t forget what he looks like, I didn’t need reminding.”

[Ed: We don’t normally use “D Magazine Editors” as a byline. However, many of us felt so strongly about this issue that we chose not to attribute the thoughts to just one. This is a reflection of a staff-wide discussion.]

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