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Joe Bob’s Parting Shot: Who Got Hit the Hardest?

By Richard West |

DALLAS COUNTY Commissioner John Wiley Price began getting calls from angry friends and constituents as soon as the Dallas Times Herald came out on Friday, April 12. He got a copy, read “Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In” and knew why. The fictional Joe Bob’s parody of We Are the World (“There are Negroes dying; And it’s time to make ’em eat. We are the weird; We are the starv-in’; We are the scum of the filthy earth…”) had gone too far.

Price hadn’t expected a slight like this from the Herald. Last year, what he regarded as editorial insensitivity at The Dallas Morning News had allowed a story headlined “Coon Hunt Goes to the Dogs” to run on the same page with a profile of presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. And why. Price wondered, was there not one black reader on the “Nobody Beats The Dallas Morning News in the Morning” billboards around town? Price and other minority leaders had been meeting regularly with News editors about these and other problems.

Price discussed the Briggs column on his Friday afternoon radio talk show on KKDA, as did talk-show host Willis Johnson the following day. Price had offers of help from minority leaders such as Pettis Norman of the Black Coalition to Maximize Education; Ruth Allen Ollison, president of the D/FW Association of Black Communicators; Paula Walker, past president of the National Association of Black Journalists.

Herald senior editors were attending a convention in Washington, D.C., when the Briggs firestorm occurred. Executive editor Will Jarrett arrived home late Monday after arranging a meeting with Price for Tuesday. “My mind really wasn’t made up about what to do going in,” says Jarrett. “We had already apologized on Page One that morning. It was after hearing the accumulated litany of complaints regarding violence to women and racial remarks that I decided it [the “Job Bob Goes to the Drive-In” column] had to go. Previously, we had had complaints from women’s groups, but, to my knowledge, none from blacks or Hispanics.”

Jarrett points out that the 3-year-old column had changed over the years-: “It began with Briggs’ making fun of himself and the drive-in movie culture. Then he took after ex-Sheriff Don Byrd’s accident and DWI charge, the disco culture and break dancing. That’s when it got more and more racial: ’Meskins,’ Negroes, and finally, We Are the Weird. In mass-circulation media, the public will accept satire about the president or fat cats, but not about starving poor people. We were in the wrong. We do need more minority editors and writers, and we agreed to remedy the situation.”

For two hours, Jarrett and managing editors Larry Tarleton and Kerry Slagle sat before a delegation of 350 people and listened to Price and others. “We only wanted two things,” Price says. “An apology and the cancellation of the column. At no time did we ask that the writer, John Bloom, be fired. It was a reasonable meeting held among reasonable people. They had no moral stand, and they knew it.” Jarrett and Price agreed to meet again on Thursday to discuss hiring practices. It was then that City Councilman Al Lipscomb said that, to be consistent, the “Jock Talk With Joe Bob” Sunday sports column should also be discontinued. Jarrett agreed. Bloom’s regular Metro column under his own byline was to continue.

“At the Thursday meeting, I agreed to hire at least 12 minority journalists, two at high-level positions [an assistant to Jarrett and an editorial board member], by January 1986,” says Jarrett. The hiring promises were announced by Tom Johnson, chairman of the board and CEO of the Times Herald. Later that week, the Los Angeles Times-Mirror Syndicate announced it would drop the Briggs column. Universal Press Syndicate quickly announced that it would pick it up.

“It was a grievous error,” said Johnson two weeks after the fateful column was published. “The column should have been heavily edited long before. But I take great issue with those who say this paper ’caved in.’ We did no such thing. It was an issue of right and wrong. Will Jarrett did the right thing, and I support him 100 percent. It has shaken this place more than you know. I have always been sensitive to civil rights issues Form the time I was editor of the school paper and hired the first black enter the University of Georgia [Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who now on the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour].”

John Bloom disagreed with Johnson regarding the newspaper’s action. The Herald absolutely made the wrong decision,” Bloom said at a forum on April 30 sponsored by the Dallas Press Club. “They should have said, ’We think the column is deplorable, but we reserve the right to edit our paper. We printed it and we stand by it.’ They cratered. They denied the column’s existence in the front-page apology three days after three editors had approved it, L.A. Syndicate editors had approved it and it ran all over the country.

“It shouldn’t have been killed in haste,” Bloom said. “The paper gave away all its rights and lost its integrity. If they had just killed the column-which they’ve done many times-I would have fought and raised hell, gotten drunk with them, and by the following Tuesday, forgotten about it. Life goes on. I’ve been called a racist. No one can say that’s true if they examine what I’ve done over the past 17 years of writing. I’ve ridden with the Klan in Arkansas, and I know real racism does a lot more than just hurt your feelings.”

Jarrett and Bloom had lunch at the end of that tumultuous week, a lunch arranged by Bloom’s agent. Jarrett had hired Bloom, then 19, as a sports section intern at the Philadelphia Inquirer 13 years ago. When Jarrett first came to the Herald in 1975, he found Bloom writing for a newsletter in Nashville and brought him to Dallas. Bloom and Jarrett had come a long way together, but now they needed agents to arrange lunch. Midway through the meal, Bloom told his mentor he was resigning.

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