The Polemicist

Categories: Schutze

Moments ago on The Dallas Morning News' Web page, the paper's managing editor, George Rodrigue, posted a long criticism of my work in which he accuses me repeatedly of being a polemicist. According to my copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, that would make me a writer of controversial, aggressive or disputatious material.

The first thing I need to do is plead guilty. Just totally, utterly, 100 percent, slap-on-the-cuffs guilty. Because, you see, that’s what I’m supposed to be.

Rodrigue presents a laundry list of instances in which he says I have fudged facts. Not one of them is fair. I could give you a laundry list of times I have called Rodrigue to challenge him on his newspaper’s use of phony statistics and never received any of the fair disclosure I have sought.

But let’s get basic. The basic trust issue we’re dealing with right now in Dallas has to do with the Trinity River toll road issue and The News’ shameless use of its news columns to propagandize for one side in the upcoming referendum. My newspaper and my owners have no dog in this hunt. We don’t have an agenda, except to inform readers. That’s the difference.

I have a dog. George is right. I want the TrinityVote side to win. But I say that openly.

I think what we have here is really a cultural problem. George believes that in saying I am a polemicist, he is telling people something very shocking and bad about me. In this, I think he is giving you an honest and straightforward expression of the culture of The Dallas Morning News and of Belo Corp., the owners of The News. I work for a very different breed of newspaper company.

Let me try to convey the kind of bar that is set for us here at Village Voice Media. Last night the two gentlemen who own this company -- the largest alternative weekly newspaper company in the country -- spent the night in the hoosegow in Phoenix over a story they published this week about a grand jury proceeding and a sheriff who used a wide-ranging subpoena "in an attempt to research the identity, purchasing habits, and browsing proclivities of our online readership."

While George was tossing and turning in his own bed at home over my insults, the guys I work for were in the slam. What we’re expected to live up to here at Village Voice Media is not the example set by the perturbed Belo guy in his own bed. We have to try to keep up with the guys in the joint.

We push the envelope. We do. But so do the Beloans. The difference is that we know we do. They don’t. The biggest fibs they tell are to themselves.

George Rodrigue, by the way, is a very bright person whom I have known for a very long time. But I don’t think he and the other people who run the paper quite understand how their own culture operates when it runs downhill.

The News just did a Metro front story about me by Rudolph Bush. Bush had been working on the story off and on for some weeks, in between covering more demanding things like the City Hall indictments. He interviewed me a couple of times, and he spent some time calling people who have known me over the years. Here is an e-mail he sent to an old colleague of mine:

“My name is Rudy Bush and my number at the Dallas Morning News is 214-741-xxxx. I'm writing a profile of Jim Schutze because of a controversial vote coming up on the Trinity River tollway plan. Schutze has been writing on the topic for more than a decade and is important to the vote happening at all. I'm looking for loving reminiscences, illuminating anecdotes and any dirt you might have on him. Thanks, Rudy.”

You can say -- and I might say myself -- that the “any dirt” line was an attempt to be off-handed and humorous. But one person who was not struck that way by it at all was John Oppedahl, former publisher of The Arizona Republic, former publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle and a top person in the field of journalism nationally. Oppedahl sent me a copy of the Bush e-mail with these remarks of his own:
“Dear Jim: Here's the email I got from Rudy Bush at the Morning News. It clearly shows this reporter is biased against you. How on earth could a reputable reporter send this kind of note out to me, a potential interview subject, much less a former editor? Is he nuts? If I were his boss I'd can him. Bob Mong ought to be ashamed of this sort of thing. John Oppedahl.”

I’m somewhere in the middle. I like Bush. He seems smart. Of course he wanted dirt on me. Of course The Dallas Morning News wanted dirt on me. They’re mad at me. Very, very mad at me. So he tosses the line in there in a way that’s maybe a little bit deniable or soft-focus to the untrained eye. John Oppedahl is not the untrained eye. He knew exactly what this was, and you see what he thought of it. This was the first time I had heard from Oppedahl in years, by the way.

The Bush story about me was fair. I even laughed. You know, I can’t earn my living beating up people in print and then feel sorry for myself when I take a few licks myself.

Bush and I had a conversation that was not reflected in the story. He asked me if I really thought the editors at The News told reporters to lie. I said absolutely not.

But we talked about culture. I told him the editors and reporters at the good newspapers I have worked for are people who like trouble. A little bit plug-uglies. They make trouble. They stir up trouble. They like fights. They look for fights.

I said I think the effect of the years and the layoffs and the political pressure from The News’ owners has been to create a race of people in the news operation at the paper who are the opposite of the kind of people I have worked with at good papers. Most of the people who cover city news for The News are meek and mild wind-sniffers. Whichever way it blows, they go. Especially if Blow happens to be their last name.

Right now, the wind at The News is blowing in the Vote No! direction at gale force. Blow the man down! That’s what this is all about. And when that wind blows downstairs, it gets kind of dirty and kind of brass-knuckless and kind of polemic, because that’s how life is.

The difference is this: At The News the top guys are busy congratulating each other on being above it all. At our place, the top guys just got out of jail. I’d rather be a polemicist here than a wind-sniffer there any day. I bet they’re heart-broken to hear that, eh? --Jim Schutze



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