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When black writer Denise McVea felt her white editors were shutting her out, she declared war. Her lawsuit shook the liberal weekly to its foundation.
By Glenna Whitley |

She took off her gold-rimmed glasses and rubbed her eyes, running a hand through her short, strawberry-blond hair before focusing again on the computer screen. “This is going to work,” Julie Lyons thought with relief as she read the story draft. “We’ve been to the brink, but we’ve pulled back.”

A few weeks before, on June 7, 1996, Lyons had had the painful task of sitting down with one of her writers at the Dallas Observer and outlining a performance improvement plan. Denise McVea, the first black reporter in the paper’s history, was missing story meetings and turning in slipshod stories, such a change from the raw but promising articles she’d written when first hired.

And McVea’s behavior had deteriorated. Always hot-tempered, McVea had blown up at writer Robert Wilonsky in a staff meeting, blurting out an obscenity. The other staffers were complaining that the reporter wasn’t pulling her load. Something had to change.

So that June day. Lyons-after only a month on the job as editor of the Observer-had given McVea an explicit three-month schedule of stories and deadlines. The detailed plan seemed to have had the desired effect: Though there were some holes in the reporting, McVea’s story about Napolean Lewis, principal of Lincoln High School, was well-crafted. And, after weeks of erratic behavior, McVea had seemed happier. The bombardment of peevish e-mails from McVea to Lyons had stopped. “We’re making progress,” Lyons thought. Surely they could work out their differences.

But in early August, after trying to contact McVea for two days about a story about to go to press, Lyons received a certified letter from lawyer Steve Grimmer.

“Denise McVea was fraudulently induced to join the Dallas Observer under the false pretenses that the Observer actually wanted the benefit of her considerable journalistic talents, rather than simply to have its first token black on the writing staff,” Grimmer wrote. “As a result of the ’journalistic shackles’ placed…on McVea, she finds herself virtually unemployable.” Flabbergasted, Lyons read Grimmer’s list of racially discriminatory acts McVea alleged she had endured and of her intention to file suit. “This is a bunch of lies,” she thought.

A few hours later, the editor got a further shock. McVea phoned the Observer and notified Lyons that she had checked into Green Oaks Hospital for treatment of severe depression.

McVea’s subsequent complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and in a federal lawsuit-McVea v, New Times-startled other Dallas journalists, who marveled at the irony. McVea charged the Observer, a giveaway alternative weekly known for its combative coverage and liberal sensibility, with racial discrimination. The paper’s most prominent black employee-and the first African-American reporter in the history of its parent company. Phoenix-based New Times-McVea accused her superiors of selling her up as a sort of black shill, using her to spout their own racist views. Then when McVea balked, her editors conspired to oust her, committing “malicious editing” by deliberately inserting mistakes into lier work.

McVea’s action embarrassed the Observer and New Times, which sees itself as the anti-establishment champion of the underdog, the dispossessed, the voiceless-it’s guerrilla journalism as practiced by middle-class white liberals. The Observer had gone to great lengths to recruit and promote McVea, paying her more than others on the staff with the same qualifications and more experience. Her attractive face was showcased on DART bus ads, though other writers with longer tenures and stronger track records were not. McVea’s high visibility clearly illustrated the paper’s need to portray itself as ethnically diverse. Now their prize hire hud turned on them.

The Observer’s editors insisted that New Times had bent over back-ward to accommodate McVea but that her writing and reporting were inadequate. The Observer has long been a proponent of ideas like affirmative action, but its defense echoed its fiercest critics, who contend that when race becomes a primary criteria of hiring, as it was in I McVea’s case, quality suffers.

In a world where a national uproar can result in the use of the word “niggardly,” where the integration of America’s newsrooms has stalled and race is the subtext of every interaction between black and white, Denise McVea’s story is emblematic. A one-time runaway, McVea dramatically transformed her life by turning her writing skills to journalism. But what she found at the Observer-a pressure-packed environment in a city obsessed with race-compelled her to parse every encounter for nuances of racism, to interpret every gesture as proof of discrimination, and, ultimately, to end her journalism career.

Denise McVea was betrayed by the Observer, but not in the way she believes. In the paper’s desire to have a strong black reporter to enhance its own image, the editors ignored the warning signs. McVea, too self-aware not to realize she wasn’t performing, manipulated their white-liberal guilt to get herself off the hook. Ultimately, the Observer betrayed McVea and itself by adopting the politically correct philosophy the paper derides in others.

DRESSED IN GRAY SWEATS, McVea sits in an artist’s studio in Denton in late January, her lithe 5-foot 8-inch frame pretzeled on a tall stool. She has a rare gift seen in the best reporters-a natural charm, a magnetic ability with her voice and facial expressions to quickly draw you into an intimate conversation. With a throaty, full-bodied laugh, her delight is contagious.

McVea, 35, looks very different from the Observer bus ad-hair no longer permed, but short, in natural “twists” around her face, which she twirls absent-mindedly as she talks, the better to train it as it grows out. The change emphasizes her beautiful eyes, creamy cinnamon skin, and silver hoop earrings.

But hairstyle isn’t all that’s changed about McVea-she is moving to Mexico. McVea thinks her lawsuit virtually guarantees no mainstream publication will hire her, so she is working on a memoir about her experience at the Observer and has taken a job teaching English at the Instituto Falcon in Guanajuato. It’s not what she envisioned for herself when she. accepted then-editor Peter Elkind’s job offer in 1993.

“I have never seen a group of people more lacking in integrity.” says McVea. “They weren’t very bright. They were absolutely clueless to their own prejudices.” Determined to address the issues of race relations in the newsroom and the inability of management to deal with it. McVea saw her only option as resigning and filing suit. “I wanted to expose New Times’ hypocrisy-the notion that it’s not racist-and the lengths they went to destroy me.”

When Elkind called in late 1993, McVea was 30 and making $40,000 a year at the Portland Oregonian. As a black lesbian journalist who speaks Spanish-in an industry desperate to diversify- McVea’s future seemed boundless.

The Observer’s, Elkind. a diminutive, intense editor known for his abrasive style and passion for good writing, knew the dearth of minority journalists made papers like his vulnerable to criticism. He persuaded McVea to fly to Dallas for two days of interviews, and he even picked her up at the airport.

Her initial visit to the Observer in November impressed McVea. The absence of the hippie grunge factor common to most alternative papers was surprising. The Observer’s commitment to long, in-depth investigative reporting excited her. The paper seemed like a perfect fit. But some things gave McVea pause. The paper had long had a confrontational relationship with some segments of local black leadership, and, as Elkind pointed out, the Observer had never had a black staff writer.

Indeed, it was shocking mat New Times had no African-American writers at any of its weeklies, given its leftist, counter-culture roots. Modeled on the alternative weeklies that sprouted in the antiwar movement of the late ’60s, New Times was stalled as a college publication in 1970 by two men: Jim Larkin, who handled the finances, and Mike Lacey, a bombastic, profane journalist. New Times purchased the Dallas Observer in 1991, after about 10 years in operation. Lacey, executive editor of ail New Times’ publications and still very involved in the editorial content, acknowledged in 1992 that New Times had a big problem. How could the chain that regularly attacks others for racism and sexism have no African-American reporters – in fact, few minority reporters of any kind? Lacey made minority recruiting a top priority.

But by late 1993, no black writers had been hired by New Times. Denise McVea provided a solution. It seemed to be the right one.

“I love my people, but I’m not a black writer per se,” she told Elkind. “If you’re hiring me to be a black reporter, I don’t want the job.” Elkind assured her that wasn’t the case. But it’s clear that Elkind-a Jewish liberal with a passion for social justice-needed to hire an African-American.

FROM THE MOMENT THAT SHE MOVED INTO HER CUBICLE BETWEEN writer Ann Zimmerman and music critic Robert Wilonsky in January 1994, McVea struggled to adjust to the alternative’s culture and brutal workload. Every writer was expected to publish 12 long features and 12 shorts a year. Weekends at the office or at home in front of the computer were expected. McVea knew she had a lot to learn but felt sure she could eventually keep the pace.

On Mondays, staffers attended the weekly story meeting. Elkind exnected everv writer to bring at least two ideas to pitch. The staff-Elkind, managing editor Glen Warchol, then-columnist Laura Miller, and about five other writers-offered feedback or attempted to tear the story apart. The quota system- which McVea and others describe as the “sword of Damocles” hanging over their heads-boosted productivity; Lacey ruled that writers who didn’t meet it didn’t qualify for raises.

McVea’s life became trolling for stories, then doing leg work to make sure the ideas could stand the withering scrutiny of the rough-and-tumble staff meetings. McVea felt she could hold her own, but the process seemed so arbitrary. “I would pitch a story and get blank looks,” she says. One male editor says that she seemed to take challenges to her ideas personally. “With her, it was like you were slapping her in the face by raising questions,” he says.

McVea wrote her first news story about a homeless black woman and turned it in to editor Warchol. McVea was shocked to read his edited version. Warchol not only had cut it drastically to fit that week’s news hole, but McVea felt he had taken out all her style. “It’s not my work,” she protested. “I don’t want my byline on it,”

Warchol-loquacious, bald, and a father-confessor figure for many staff writers-had immediately rubbed McVea the wrong way.

When McVea protested Warchol’s treatment of her story to Elkind, the editor told her to rewrite her version to fit the space. McVea did. and the story was published. From then on, Warchol felt they got along well. He would be shocked to learn later that McVea came to see him as her “hated nemesis.”

Though criticized by some black leaders for working at the Observer, in the newsroom McVea expressed contempt for people who played the race card. “She was not at all P.C..” says Lyons. But privately, McVea complained to fellow writers about discrimination at the Observer. More and more, when pushed by editors, she’d attribute their differences to race. “If you disagreed with a characterization of hers that you felt was intellectually dishonest,” says one Observer coworker, “she’d say, ’You don’t understand that because you’re a white male and you don’t understand the black perspective.1 I’d say, ’Explain it to me.’ And she couldn’t.”

Six months after McVea started, Elkind realized he and McVea were clashing, and he assigned McVea to work with Lyons, a former Dallas Times Herald writer who had been promoted in June 1994 to assistant editor. Though white, Lyons often wrote about African-American issues, an interest born of a dramatic Christian conversion experience in a black Pentecostal church. Her husband, who is also white, served as youth minister in a predominantly black church. New to editing, Lyons knew the pressures of being a writer at the Observer and thought she and McVea would make a good team.

Working on their first edit together, Lyons noticed quickly that McVea expressed more resistance to criticism than most writers. She took comments about the copy personally.

“She wasn’t rude,” Lyons says, “but what started as a vigorous give-and-take would become resistance to direction. I thought, hey, a strong-willed woman, a good writer.”

But their strenuous give-and-take grew more difficult. Lyons starting tip-toeing around McVea’s hot temper, Still, the conflict seemed in context with the demands of a difficult job. Lyons could not have guessed how ugly it would become.

IN LATE 1994, SEEING THAT McVea was in a slump, Lyons assigned her a story about a public school in a mostly white suburb. She missed her deadline. “She was home for a week writing,” Lyons says. “I thought it should take about three days.”

The story never materialized. McVea told Lyons she was suffering from depression as a result of delayed stress from all she experienced at the Oregonian. McVea had filed a complaint against the paper for racial discrimination with the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries on November 7; an investigation was underway.

“Is it anything here?” Lyons asked. “No, no,” McVea insisted.

Though McVea had built up no sick time, Elkind, with Lyons’ encouragement, gave McVea paid leave. From December through March, Lyons says, McVea worked only sporadically. (McVea insists she only missed a few days of work.)

At the end of the year. McVea had missed her quota, writing only seven feature stories and 10 news shorts. To encourage her, at Lyons’ suggestion, Elkind counted McVea’s unpublished stories and in January gave her a two percent raise-though two white female writers did not receive raises because they didn’t meet quota. When McVea complained that her workstation caused her pain and asked Warchol to get her a “Global Torino Leather Hi-Back” ergonomic chair and keyboard, he quickly complied. In July, Elkind gave McVea another raise, this time four percent.

DéJannette Neugent, a black editorial assistant hired by the Observer about the same time as McVea, thought Lyons “babied” McVea. McVea had to realize she was being treated differently; company policy had been spelled out explicitly.

Lyons felt gratified that the company was making every effort to get this struggling but talented writer on track. But the assistant editor noticed that when McVea returned to work full-time, she seemed emotionally fragile, erratic. She could be extremely enthusiastic one day, down in the dumps the next. McVea had few ideas of her own but never volunteered for “up-for-grabs” stories. During cigarette breaks with Zimmerman, she complained about Warchol deliberately inserting mistakes into her work to make her look bad-even at the expense of making the paper look wrong. To Zimmerman, familiar with libel law, the accusation seemed absurd.

As 1995 progressed, McVea fell farther and farther behind. She seemed easily distracted, unfocused. Late in the year, Elkind got a call from Jeffrey Barnard. Dallas County Chief Medical Examiner, complaining about McVea’s behavior. On Dec. 13, while working on a story, McVea lost her temper when a clerk didn’t wait on her quickly enough, and McVea called her a “bitch.” McVea snarled, “If I see her in a dark alley, I may spit on her.”

McVea didn”t complain about racial discrimination to Lyons, but she did complain about Elkind, saying he “treated me like shit, and 1 can’t think of any reason for it, except for who 1 am.” McVea didn’t elaborate. But soon. Elkind became a moot point. Locked in a power struggle with Laura Miller-who wanted to decrease her workload so she could raise her profile by doing TV and radio-Elkind lost, In April 1996, Mike Lacey fired his editor.

Warchol took over. Alter suffering a near-fatal heart attack, Warchol wasn’t interested in the lop job. Lyons applied to be editor-in-chief. In the meantime, she resolved to get McVea back on a productive schedule. McVea-and the story she was working on. about how rebuilding in the aftermath of a devastating tornado revealed underlying racism in Lancaster-had so much potential.

The Monday morning story meeting in early May 1996 started like any other. Elkind was gone, so Warchol took charge. Across from him sal Lyons, with McVea on one side and Wilonsky on the other. That morning, Lyons had learned from Lacey that she would be named editor-in-chief. The announcement wouldn’t be made for a week, but privately she was thrilled-and apprehensive.

That morning, writers took turns offering their ideas. It finally was McVea’s turn, but even as she explained the concept-a black man being harassed by the city for a pile of mulch in his front yard-she laughed and admitted it probably wasn’t a story.

“Oh, it’s crap.” said Wilonsky, who was known for being brash and abrasive.

“Shut the f-k up!” McVea snapped.

At first, Lyons thought she was joking. But McVea’s mood had abruptly turned malignant. “Shut the f-k up!” she repealed, louder this time.

“Meeting’s over,” Warehol announced abruptly.

To Warchol, the outburst was not that unusual. Big egos, big explosions; it would all blow over. But Lyons was furious. She pulled McVea aside.

“Apologize to Wilonsky,” Lyons told her. “I’m not going to do it,” McVea retorted. “You have until the end of the day to apologize.” Lyons insisted. That afternoon, McVea asked for a meeting with Lyons and Warehol. She had apologized to Wilonsky. But it wasn’t her fault. McVea explained.

“I’ve been through so much shit with Peter.” she whined. “It’s been so hard on me here.”

McVea sounded apologetic, but Lyons’ antennae picked up a weird vibe. “This is phoniness.” Lyons thought. “You’re playing a game.” She recalled how McVea had been inundating her with e-mails that misrepresented their conversations, forcing Lyons to reply to set the record straight. The editor had a disturbing thought, logical for a reporter used to writing about legal cases: “Could she be building a paper trail to file a lawsuit?”

McVea mentioned nothing that day about race discrimination. week later. Lacey officially mimed Lyons editor. “I’m so glad,” McVea said, giving her a hug.

One by one, Laura Miller, Ann Zimmerman, Glen Warchol. Julie Lyons, and a handful of others filed into a small room in the Observer’s offices. As they had interviewed so many others, now they came under the scrutiny of Lillie Jackson, a black woman assigned by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to investigate them.

On Aug. 24, 1996, McVea had sent her bosses an e-mail, advising them that “due to discriminatory practices” by the paper, “1 consider myself constructively discharged, effective this date.” Three days later, she filed an EEOC complaint against New Times.

The staff had been unilaterally shocked at McVea’s allegations. Though she didn’t accuse anyone of using the n-word or other ethnic slurs, McVea contended that she was forced to resign because of race discrimination, that editors limited her to writing stories about blacks, refused to give her ideas, sabotaged her stories, refused to edit her work in a timely fashion, and “maliciously edited” her writing. McVea’s litany of complaints, most centering on Elkind and Warchol. picked apart each story edit for evidence of racial bias on their part.

It’s clear that McVea truly suffered from depression at one point in early 1995. But some co-workers wonder if McVea. unable to perform under the grueling conditions at the paper, made the cynical decision to sue, hoping to hit the litigation lottery. Two weeks before McVea checked into Green Oaks, Neugent ran into her in the office. “What’s up with you?” Neugent asked, after realizing she hadn’t seen the writer in the office much. “You’ll find out about it later.” McVea said. “New Times will be surprised.”

“What are you doing,” Neugent asked, “trying to get paid?” Neugent says McVea just smiled.

McVea’s complaints about the Observer echoed those she’d filed against the Oregonian on Nov. 7, 1994. “Mostly they had private meetings where they plotted how to discredit me,” McVea alleged. Staffers reached at the Oregonian declined to comment on McVea’s allegations. But the investigation by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries issued a notice of dismissal on Oct. 10, 1995, saying it found insufficient evidence to support her complaints.

Kaylois Henry, the Observer’s second black writer, hired in 1995, undermined McVea’s allegations by telling Jackson she had not encountered racism at the paper. Jackson’s examination of McVea’s stories and the editing process showed no pattern of racial discrimination. Jackson issued a report in April 1996 saying that McVea’s allegations were not substantiated by the evidence.

Undaunted. McVea filed a federal lawsuit not only against New-Times and the Observer but also against Lacey, Warchol, and Lyons individually, alleging, among other tilings, that the white editors gave the “unskilled” Henry preferential treatment.

But the lawsuit never went to trial. In late 1998, New Times settled with her for $72,500 and the Observer’s agreement to remove a story about the lawsuit from its web site. “The charges are utter nonsense from start to finish,” Lacey says. But New Times, which didn’t have employers’ insurance, made a financial decision. “When you’re looking at a six-figure minimum expense for a trial, it doesn’t make sense to fight it.”

For the Observer, touchy about its image in the black community, giving McVca money to go away was the best option. Though the paper has a graduate student in a minority “fellowship,” Kaylois Henry has moved to London. A third black writer, Muriel Simms. left to work on a book. New Times’ minority recruiting program is still in place but has made only minor inroads in integrating the newsrooms. . “I think it’s not as successful as we’d hoped it would be,” says Jeremy Voas, editor of the Phoenix paper and former head of the program. His paper has no African-American writers. “One of the lessons is that progress is incremental.”

OF ALL THOSE AT THE OBSERVER, THE LAWSUIT TOOK the most toll on Lyons. Newly named editor, she had to cope with the usual transition pains; Lyons terminated Warchol in May 1997, a year alter taking charge. Both say the termination was unrelated to McVea’s lawsuit. “He’s been unjustly tarred in all this.” Lyons says. “He hardly ever worked with her.”

In hindsight, Lyons believes it: all began to unravel when she forced McVea to apologize to Wilonsky. “I sensed she was very angry with me,” Lyons says. McVea had launched personal attacks against Lyons, sending her vicious e-mails (one read, “God don’t like ugly”) and describing her in the opening chapter of her memoir as a “red-faced blond with a demeanor and look that convinced many people that she was a closeted lesbian,”

Despite the personal slurs, it’s hard for Lyons to condemn McVea. She’s seen the soul-corroding effects of racism up close. “In my church, you’ve got the double-whantmy- black and poor,” she says. “Racism exacts a psychological toll that no while person fully understands. But the people who overcome it take responsibility lor their actions. Denise is more in control of her destiny than she makes out.”

Peter Elkind declines to be quoted about Denise McVea’s hiring and tenure. But he remembers that soon after she was hired, McVea criticized the Oregonian for racism-one editor in particular, and the system at the paper in general. “When it started happening at the Observer, I began to wonder if it was a pattem,” Elkind says.

That pattern-charges of racial discrimination, followed by personal attack.s-still seems to be in place for Denise McVea. Toward the end of my reporting, McVea called me and executive editor Mary Malouf-a former co-worker of McVea’s at the Observer-from Mexico. She left ominous voice mail messages for each of as and threatened to sue if this story didn’t meet her conditions. In an e-mail she sent me, McVea outlined those conditions: “For the record; If you print comments made by New Times parlies without printing the evidence that contradicts them, then you will have libeled me and I will sue you…If you in any way suggest or imply that my depression is the cause of my troubles at the Observer and not the other way around…then you have libeled me and I will sue you…” and so on. McVea included that if I failed to incorporate her extensive evidence in this story, then she must assume that my interest is not to clarify anything, but to “protect the myths that seem to be so important to certain white journalists.””

“It doesn’t surprise me,” says Lyons. “Denise thinks the rules apply to everyone but her. She can slander me and my colleagues and invade our privacy, and thinks she should suffer no consequences. But we should pay triple penance for every misstep of ours. What I can’t believe is she doesn’t even see the irony in that.”

Meanwhile, the irony at the Observer is obvious: The crusading paper still has no black writers on staff.