OUT FRONT Scooped!

Why the daily media miss the real stories.

I SENSED SOMETHING WAS AMISS

when Channel 8 News showed an on-screen lag identifying a ranting audience member at a recent school board protest as “Diane Ragsdale, Concerned Parent.” Ms. Ragsdale has been called many things during her long, tempestuous career in local politics, but she was probably as surprised as anyone by her domestication on the evening news.

My suspicion at the time was that whoever wrote that tag moved here last month from Omaha. That set me to wondering about other instances in which our media has seemed easily hoodwinked, and why coverage so often seems superficial and lazy. Only a few years ago the daily news was a competitive, even boisterous, business. Editors and producers knew their beats, including the history of the characters involved, and they were unlikely to bite the first bait thrown their way, if only out of fear of being shown up in their competitors’ next-day edition or broadcast. Other than the loss of one newspaper, what has happened to make our daily media seem so gullible?

On the surface nothing much seems to have changed. Tracy Rowlett and Chip Moody still preside in their accustomed anchor roles on one station; John Criswell and Clarice Tinsley on another; and Burl Osborne still sits atop the editorial hierarchy at The News. But of course these local celebrities have little to do with actual reporting. The anchors read the news off their teleprompters, and Osborne reads it with his morning coffee just like you do. The change has taken place below the surface, where producers, writers, reporters, and department editors toil in near-anonymity to fill the news holes and script the sound bites,

In many cases, these fine, hard-working people are as ignorant as dirt about Dallas. A producer’s slot at WFAA is a big step up from doing the weather in Rochester or Duluth. An editor’s chair at The News is a lot more comfortable than the police beat in Akron. If you do a good job here, and keep your nose clean, who knows what slot in a bigger market may open up? For the media, I’m afraid, Dallas has become nothing more than a bus stop on the way to L.A.

That leaves it to others to step in where the big guys are too clueless to tread. In the case of the protests over the school district’s TAG program, veteran reporter Laura Miller of the Dallas Observer decided to take a look, and it’s a good thing for Dallas thai she did. Miller discovered a slew of things that went unreported in the daily media, among them: (I) Protest leader Lee Alcorn, the local NAACP president who seemingly is so concerned about Dallas’ public schools, lives in Grand Prairie where his child attends private school. (2) Alcorn wouldn’t divulge either his group’s size or board members, leading one to suspect its distinguished name hides a phantom organization. (3 ) Ora Lee Watson, the Townview principal whose hostility to the TAG program started the whole thing, happens to be John Wiley Price’s chief adviser-and more, they have a foster child-which explains how the protests were fomented. (4) Ms. Watson and superintendent Chad Woolery, who appointed her to the principal’s post against nearly everyone’s advice, are long-time protégés of school board member Yvonne Ewell.

These facts do a great deal to clear some muddy water. They make it obvious that these protests are about power and not race, and they explain Woolery’s weakness in confronting them. But you wouldn’t have known them from following the daily media. Protests make good copy and get good airtime, and they’re so easy to cover. Why they happened and who’s behind them, once fairly important components of a story, require a little local knowledge and even a little work. It even requires-dare I suggest it?-a stake in the outcome.

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