Why the News Took Seven Months to Run its Kern Wildenthal Expose, and Why That's OK
There was a day when I might have come up laughing at the big investigative package in yesterday's Dallas Morning News on University of Texas Southwestern Medical School ex-president Kern Wildenthal and his expense account madness.
It's not just that the News "buried the lede," as we say in the news biz. Worse, after they had already completed their investigation in September 2011 -- when the gun was loaded, cocked and aimed, so to speak -- they gave Wildenthal more than half a year to wriggle out of it. More on that in a moment.
My point is that I'm not laughing. Instead, I am shaking my head in sheer admiration for the reporters and editors who finally somehow got this story into print -- even if they can't get it displayed in something bigger than size 6 type on the paper's homepage.
Maybe I've been around looking at this stuff too long. But what I really see when I read between the lines is a Herculean effort to get this story onto the page in spite of Wildenthals' very close personal ties to the ownership of The Dallas Morning News. That's something you have to respect.
I remember Wildenthal when he was still a nobody, some kind of cellular biology academic wonk coming around to editorial board meetings in the late 1980s to promote UTSW. I don't think I was smart enough at the time to get it, but he was actually a key figure in an historic transformation of the city.
Until then, Dallas depended on an economic engine out of the Age of Steam. Money poured into the banks from the 1980s shallow-well oil re-drilling boom. The banks bet all of it on local real estate. Local real estate inflated and poured in more money. Then the bubble blew, the banks all went belly up, and by the late 1980s Dallas was on its ass, badly.
Wildenthal was an important leader in an effort to create a new smarter more diversified economy with a heavy emphasis on research and technology. Under his leadership, UTSW, already a nationally respected school, became a Nobel-factory and the place where every med school honor student wanted to do a residency. UTSW became the big jewel in a new economic crown for the city.
The story in the News is the tragi-comic saga of wonky little Wildenthal and his relationship with all that big money. Obviously it got to him. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of med school money on his two big passions, fine wines and opera, and trotted the globe in a grand manner straight out of what I believe was called Opera Bouffe, an absurdly over-the-top style popular in late 19th century France.
That's the part that got buried in Sunday's package. To find the juicy stuff -- his multiple med school wine cellars full of fine wines purchased from his wife's cousin, his expense-account opera junkets -- you had to put on your miner's helmet and go spelunking down deep, deep, deep into the story past entire geological strata of technical talk about IRS rules and the history of American accounting practices.
Please allow an old news hack (me) to tell you how this works. If they had this same stuff on somebody who was socially defenseless, a free target -- maybe a controversial city council member, for example -- the wine cellars and the opera trips would all have been right at the top of the story. And for good reason. They tell the story.
Somewhere in al that copy Sunday, a tax expert was quoted explaining Wildenthal and UTSW's real problem in all of this. Wildenthal was using an expense account to "support a lifestyle." And nothing says lifestyle like wine cellars and opera junkets.
So they took it way easy on him and maybe short-changed the reader a little in the process. How many readers ever did the whole spelunking exercise to get down deep through all that copy to the good stuff? Who knows? Way fewer than if they had put the good stuff at the top.
But here's the worse thing: the reporting team on this project showed Wildenthal and UTSW what they had in September of 2011. And then ... nothing! They gave them the better part of seven months to figure out a response.
Believe me. For the controversial city council member whom your publisher doesn't like anyway? It doesn't work like that. You want to give the subject of the story a fair and honest chance at responding, and you always hold open the possibility that the response will be good enough to kill the story.
But the last thing you want is for them to take forever hiring a crisis management expert and devising some bullshit spin doctrine before you can get into print. You load that gun on a Monday. You say the story's coming this weekend. You wait for the response.
In a very complicated story like this one based on months and months of difficult documentation derived from public information demands, maybe you give them two weeks. A month? Yikes. Well, possibly.
But seven months? No way. Seven months only happens because you can't get the story into the paper. Seven months is a battle -- reporter's chewing their nails, editors begging for patience, somebody at the top very, very unhappy.
As it is, UTSW had time to carry out its own "independent investigation," duplicating the News' reporting on their own terms as if they were doing some kind of voluntary due diligence.
Wildenthal and UTSW's top auditors all took a powder and left UTSW ostensibly of their own volition last week, before the story came out. And finally the News hikes up its drawers and publishes the story Sunday.
Why the ultra-kid-glove treatment? Well, if you spelunked on down to the center of the Earth in Sunday's coverage, you might have made it to this paragraph about Wildenthal's very early days as a fundraiser for UTSW, the period I remember when he was still coming around hat in hand to editorial boards asking for free pub:
"To lead his first fundraising campaign," the News reported Sunday, "he recruited Robert Decherd, then chief executive officer of Belo Corp., which owned WFAA television and The Dallas Morning News. Bob Mong, now the newspaper's editor, served on the board of Southwestern Medical Foundation, UTSW's main fundraising charity, first as a voting member and later as an honorary trustee."
It's not about Mong. He's the top journalist at the paper. This story would not have happened without him. It's Decherd.
This is a Decherd story. It's about the way the city works at Decherd's rank and level. That's what took seven months. That's also why I am admiring today, not laughing.
In the old days at the News, when former publisher Burl Osborne was running the shop, you better believe this story would never have seen the light of day. Back then the paper could still afford a Siberia, and the reporters and editors who came up with his story would have been in it.
But, look: even if it took seven months, even if they had to bury the lede, even if they gave Wildenthal and UTSW a chance to bumble out the back door in their pj's, it's still absolutely remarkable that this story ever made it onto the page -- ever in any way shape or form.
If I had a hat, I would take it off and tip my head deferentially, having witnessed the journalistic equivalent of the miracle at Lourdes. In fact, if I had a crutch, I'd go nail it over the front door of the Dallas Morning News. Wait! I do have a crutch somewhere! Oh, can I still find it?