Sunday, April 21, 2024 Apr 21, 2024
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Washington Post Story Does Lousy Job of Explaining ‘How Dallas Burbs Spawned Domestic Extremists’

Annie Gowen, the writer, needed more than a couple days here to understand North Texas.
Photo from Google

On Sunday, the Washington Post published a 2,300-word story about North Texas that was written by Annie Gowen, the Midwest correspondent for the paper who was part of a cohort of reporters whose work received a Pulitzer nomination last year for breaking news. The Sunday Post story was titled “The Rioter Next Door: How the Dallas Suburbs Spawned Domestic Extremists.” At the paper’s site, it sits behind a paywall, but the Texas Tribune, using the Post’s wire service, ran the story Monday. You can read the entire thing there. (Oddly, the Morning News, which also subscribes to the Post’s wire service, chose instead to have a non-staffer summarize the story and then focus on political goings-on in Plano.)

The subject of this Post story is fascinating, especially if you live here. As Gowen writes, “Nineteen local residents have been charged in connection with the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, according to federal authorities, one of the largest numbers in any place in the country.” I know I’m curious to learn more about folks like Jenna Ryan, the perky real estate agent who took a moment to plug her services on a livestream before she allegedly broke into the Capitol. Why did so many of the rioters seem to hail from North Texas? What’s going on here?

After reading Gowen’s story in the Post, I still have no idea. And after thinking it over a bit (something Gowen appears not to have done), I suspect the premise of the story was flawed from the start.

Let me start with the opening sentence, which follows a Frisco dateline: “Sunlight gleamed off the tiled roofs of the taupe mini-mansions and walkable shopping centers as March 4 dawned in this corner of North Texas.” You know what you’ve got right there? A writer who normally covers breaking news has been given a chance to stretch her legs with a feature, and she just pulled a hamstring. Sunlight doesn’t gleam off tiled roofs.

It’s a small but telling mistake. And how many tiled roofs are there in Frisco? I’m going to guess that 97 percent of homes in Frisco have asphalt shingles on their roofs. So picking that detail as the entry point of your story demonstrates, I think, a willingness to use very specific details as a lens through which to view a broad landscape. Or it demonstrates ignorance. Or both.

Here’s the meat of the story, if you can call it that:

Over the past two decades, Collin County, north of Dallas, more than doubled its population to 1 million, according to census data, with newcomers drawn by the mild weather, good schools, low taxes, and the arrival of several big employers and new corporate headquarters, including Toyota, Liberty Mutual, and the Dallas Cowboys. The rapid expansion created an air of Disney World built on the clay soil of the Texas plains … .

But this utopia on the Dallas North Tollway has its fissures, which have deepened in the last year, with debate over pandemic restrictions, the country’s racial reckoning, and the divisive 2020 presidential election that pitted neighbor against neighbor and continues to divide. …

The county’s rapid growth has increased its diversity — with the Latino and Asian American populations growing, and the white population in decline — causing tensions, some residents say. In 2017, Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere was challenged by an opponent who promised to “keep Plano suburban,” which LaRosiliere, who is Black, said was a “dog whistle” for residents wanting to keep the town white and affluent. LaRosiliere won the four-way nonpartisan race with 52% of the votes, but his “keep Plano suburban” opponent won 42%.

The weather here isn’t mild. The fissures here aren’t any different than in many other parts of the country. LaRosiliere’s win to me seems like a sign of progressivism, though Gowen casts the race in an opposite light. I’m just not getting it.

Let’s go back to the notion that an inordinate number of people from here have been charged in connection with the Capitol riot. The Post story says the feds plan to charge about 400 people. We’ve got 19 of them. That’s about 4.7 percent. North Texas has 7.5 million people, about 2.2 percent of the entire country. So it looks like we’ve got more than twice the number of bad actors than you’d expect if the bad actors were evenly distributed across the country. But they’re not. If you throw out just the population of blue California (39 million), North Texas jumps to about 2.6 percent of the rest of the country’s population, getting closer to our percentage of bad actors who will be charged. If you did the math just using red parts of the country, our 19 bad actors wouldn’t stand out statistically.

What I think happened here is that some editors at the Post said, “Jenna Ryan is nutty. Get Annie Gowen to figure out why there are so many Jenna Ryans in Frisco.” Ryan, by the way, is from Carrollton, not Frisco. I think the editors would have gotten a different story if they’d said, “Who here at the paper understands Dallas and its suburbs? We’d like to know if Jenna Ryan is typical of that place.” The Post hired Avi Selk away from the News a few years back. He would have done a great job. The Post has a senior editor at their Style section named Hank Stuever. He wrote a brilliant book about Frisco (living there off and on for three years to report it). Hank would have absolutely crushed this story. (I acknowledge that I’m being unreasonable in suggesting that Hank would have taken this assignment.)

I asked Gowen via email if she’d come to town to report this story and, if so, how long she was here. She was kind enough to write back: “Sorry for the rushed response, I’m helping on shootings today. Short answer is I’m the Midwest bureau chief, based in Kansas, spent several weeks working on the story, including time in McKinney-Frisco (hence the dateline).” I apologized for bothering her on what must be a tough day. In any case, however long she was here, it wasn’t long enough.

You can ignore everything I’ve written above. Here’s the biggest problem with this story that attempts to explain domestic extremism in North Texas: it makes not a single mention of what happened in Dallas in the early 1960s. LBJ’s treatment in downtown by the so-called “mink coat mob,” Adlai Stevenson getting spit at on U.N. Day, and, of course, the assassination of JFK. Lee Harvey Oswald turned out to be a left-wing extremist, but the mood in this city 60 years ago can teach us a lot about what we’re seeing today, in terms of its origins and its pervasiveness (or lack thereof).

It’s simply impossible to write this story without at least touching on those historical events.

In 1964, a local newspaperman named Warren Leslie tried to explain what had happened in Dallas. The result was a thoughtful and illuminating book titled Dallas Public and Private. If you’re curious about extremism in this part of the country, you should read it.

Quite honestly, I’m not sure I can explain this place, and I’ve lived here for more than 40 years. So it’s not fair to send a woman from Kansas here for a week on a mission to figure it out. A little advance reading, though, wouldn’t hurt.

Update (2:36) Sorry, this is just occurring to me. How do you write that Post story without mentioning Bob Jeffress and Ray Washburne and Tommy Hicks and Gentry Beach and Doug Deason et al.? Dallas is essentially Mar-a-Lago with a side of queso.

Corrections (2:48) In the last graph of my post, I originally wrote that Gowen was sent here for “a few days.” After hearing from her, I changed that to read “a week.” Also in this post, I originally identified Hank Stuever as the Post’s TV critic. He informs me that after 11 years at that job, he ditched it in December to become a senior editor. I changed the post.

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