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The Bark Starts Here

By ED BARK
Every dog has his day. So this is Bark unleashed on the new unclebarky.com.


I didn't get a chance to say goodbye to readers of The Dallas Morning News, where for better or worse my TV columns and stories had been housed since June 1, 1980. We were told that upper management approval would be required for any and all farewells. In other words I couldn't have been truthful about my real reasons for leaving a newspaper that had provided me with great opportunities and experiences, as well as a very gainful living. I'm sincerely thankful for that.

What I'm feeling now, however, is an urge to strike back in the one way that seems both just and justified. It's grounded in principle. Honest.

DMN management's recent decision to mostly cover national network television with wire service copy left me without much of a playing field. "Localism" is the new mantra, but I'd been muzzled on that front since Feb. 3, 2000. That's when Belo Corp., owner of the DMN and Dallas affiliate WFAA-TV (Channel 8), instituted a ban on critiquing or covering local TV news stations in what now is the country's sixth-largest TV market.

Exceptions to that edict have been ratings stories during the three annual major "sweeps" months and a bare handful of enterprise efforts. They've included a Nov. 13, 2003 column on anchor Clarice Tinsley's 25th anniversary at KDFW-TV (Channel 4). I had to lobby hard for that one, though, after the paper began promoting its considerable sports section coverage of anchor Dale Hansen's 20th anniversary at Belo-owned Channel 8. Somehow that didn't seem quite fair. Even top management had no defense for honoring
Dale and ignoring Clarice.

So how did it all start?
A lot of people, including many of my former DMN colleagues, are confused as to when this all began and why it hasn't ended. I can tell you.

On the morning of Feb . 3, 2000, an entertainment section editor and I were summoned to the office of then managing editor Stuart Wilk, who since has left the paper. It just happened to be the same day that former Channel 8 mainstay Tracy Rowlett would make his anchoring debut on KTVT-TV (Channel 11), which recently had been bought by CBS. I had intended to review his opening night performance.

Rowlett's move to Channel 11, after a quarter-century at Channel 8, made for stunning news when we first broke the story in April of the previous year. In the interim, he had been benched by a "non-compete" clause that Channel 8 chose to enforce in part.

We were told by Wilk that the DMN's escalating cross-promotional "synergy" with Channel 8 meant that we no longer could cover local TV news objectively, or at all. He said this was happening all over the country, and cited the Tampa Tribune's recent decision to adopt the same policy because of cross-ownership issues. Wilk said I could do something else at the paper if I chose, or continue to cover television under those constraints. I decided to stay the course, believing that the policy wouldn't endure for long.


The Tampa Tribune ban lasted for only a few months. On March 19, 2000, the newspaper's then editor-in-chief, Gil Thelen, liberated TV critic Walt Belcher, who still holds that position.

Belcher's newspaper and Tampa's NBC affiliate, WFLA-TV, are both owned by Media General. Not only that, they're located in the same building. Still, Thelen did the right thing. After searching in vain for an "outside" journalist to cover local TV, the paper went back to square one. In a published statement to the Tribune's readers, Thelen wrote in part:

"We kept looking, and last week we finally settled on a journalist we can live with. He's been a full-time television critic for 19 years, and he has earned the trust and respect of his readers and his peers. Walt Belcher. We think it's the best way to handle a sticky situation. There will be plenty of potholes in the future, but we think Belcher has the best chance of getting us through them."

That left the DMN, then and to this day, as the only newspaper in the country with a "don't ask, don't tell" policy on coverage of local TV news. Except that I wouldn't stop asking. Nor would several of my outspoken colleagues, including the late radio critic Al Brumley. Bless you, Big Al.

House of mirrors
Upper DMN management, led by publisher James M. Moroney III, kept saying publicly and in staff meetings that the policy would change and change soon. It was a new day, after all, and the newly appointed Moroney had the enthusiasm of a bear cub in a honey factory. He's instead turned out to be The Music Man in the minds of many of us who took the Belo buyout while at the same time feeling sold out.

For me, things came to a head this year just when it seemed that a new day indeed was at hand. After considerable agitating, we finally got the go-ahead to start a new feature called "Tele-types: Eyecatchers in Local TV News." It would be nothing more than short profiles of interesting people working in D/FW's four major TV news departments. All management wanted was a prototype. I decided to write about Channel 4 news director Maria Barrs under the agreement that it would be unseemly to start the series with someone from Belo-owned Channel 8. But we all agreed that Channel 8 could be second in line.

A full-color, full-page prototype of the profile was delivered to Moroney in late January. And there it sat, month after month. What was going on? I was told not to worry, that approval still was all but certain. Moroney had a busy schedule, after all.

But nothing happened, and it became clear that nothing ever would despite Moroney's repeated assurances that he had it on his "agenda." On June 14, the prototype was returned upon my request. It arrived folded up in inter-office mail, without comment from Moroney. (You can read it for the first time in the "
Dallas-Fort Worth TV" section of this site.)

Managing editor George Rodrigue, whom I believe sincerely tried to end the ban, wound up running into the same brick wall that others had before him, including his predecessor, Stu Wilk. Now living in New York City, and lately critical of the DMN, he told me that one of his biggest regrets was the stifling of local TV coverage and his inability to undo it.

Being a bad boy
Rodrigue seemed to feel the same way.
"I'm sorry we can't get this done now, but I'm not saying the possibility is forever foreclosed," he said in a June 14 email to me. "We've just been asked to let this rest, sort of until the end of summer. So your setup work, which I much admired, may yet have value. Hang in, if you can."

Things escalated after that. My particular bubble began bursting on Aug. 3, when Adam McGill of D magazine's FrontBurner blog complimented me on a story I'd written on NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. He concluded, "Man, I wish the DMN TV critic could write about local newscasts."

I couldn't resist responding, particularly in light of the newspaper"s decision to steer sharply toward "localism" after calling on at least 85 staffers to take a "buyout" package that 111 eventually took. My email to McGill, which I wanted him to post with my name on it, said in part that the paper's ban on local TV news coverage "is a continued source of frustration and embarrassment. I've argued the case for years, but recently got smacked down again by various levels of decision-makers."

Now you're gonna get a good spanking
This triggered a quick "Letter of Reprimand" from Rodrigue.

"Both the forum you chose and the timing of your remarks are troubling and disappointing," he wrote in part. . . . "I recognize your unhappiness over the policy call on TV coverage, but it is necessary that in the future you express your disagreement through proper channels."

I had. For years. Rodrigue's letter got a little more pointed than that, with possible "termination" among the penalties for any future infractions. But that's not the point. And in truth, he wasn't the real author anyway.

(Nor was DMN editor Bob Mong, to whom a copy was sent. Mong and I go back 30 years, to our days as renegade reporters and eventually newspaper strikers in Madison, WI. We struck in support of trade unions whose members were being automated out of jobs. Seems almost quaint now. We then worked side by side at the newspaper we helped to birth -- The Madison Press Connection

Mong eventually went to the DMN as an assistant city editor, and greatly encouraged me to apply for a reporter's position. I owe him a lot and still believe him to be a good and compassionate man. So I won't speak ill of him here, although it's ironic that we're now on opposite sides of the fence all these years later.)

The great emasculator
In my particular case, though, Mong is no more the problem than Rodrigue is. That became abundantly clear in recent weeks. I was told by one editor that "corporate is convinced you're out to get Channel 8." And by another: "You pissed off corporate."

Most people at the DMN know exactly who "corporate" is. He's longtime Belo chairman, president and CEO Robert W. Decherd, who in the 1980s used to send me complimentary notes on my coverage of local TV news. Of course, those were the days when archrival Channel 4 was in turmoil, and when Channel 8 was the league leader in both news ratings and news content.

That's simply not the case anymore, and Decherd presumably knows it. It's hard to know, though. Many veteran employees at the newspaper have never even seen him. He's not known as much of a "people person."

Throughout the spate of layoffs followed by buyouts, Decherd has never once addressed the ground troops he commands. Imperious, mysterious and exercising fearsome veto power, he calls the shots from his offices high atop Belo's corporate offices, located across the street from the DMN and the adjacent Channel 8 studios. On the eve of the final day for many longtime DMN newsroom staffers, he issued a statement that can't even be called bloodless. You've got to read it to believe it. Here it is:

"Belo is intensely focused on the right allocation of resources enterprise-wide, building up necessary competitive capabilities, and maintaining marketing and new product investments, while reducing costs wherever possible. Thus far in 2006, Belo has eliminated more than 200 positions company-wide, with approximately 30 of these reallocated to more Internet-centric roles. We've reduced overall employment and other operating expenses by more than $21 million on an annualized basis, including The Morning News' projected savings related to the voluntary severance program."

Voluntary unless enough didn't take it. Otherwise the involuntary layoff ax would have swung. Have it your way.

Stand and deliver
So yes, I took the buyout. And no, I don't have the check yet. None of us will until at least Sept. 29. Some people have told me I'm risking everything, and should say nothing until the check clears. But free speech and truth-telling are non-negotiable. And everything in me says that this is the right and honorable thing to do. Right here, right now.

That said, I'm no martyr. And I bear no animosity toward any of the journalists who have remained at the DMN. Many of them are as determined to remake the newspaper into something special as I am to drive a truck through the void created by the demise of homegrown TV coverage and criticism in a big-time TV market.

That's what this brand new Web site is all about. My son, Sam, and my daughter, Liz, have separate non-TV "bureaus" that I hope you'll check out, too. Hey, it's the least the old man could do. But if TV's your game, then I'm going to try to make a go of it. I'll need lots of help and "hits" to put up more than a token fight. The stamina of 10 Tarzans would help, too. But I feel I've got one more battle cry left in me. Maybe I'm not "dynamic" enough for the new DMN. Those of us who parted ways basically are being portrayed that way in the well-practiced rhetoric of upper management.

In the end, though, I figure it comes down to this. Robert W. Decherd and James M. Moroney III were born to lives of wealth, privilege and entitlement.

I'm the son of working class parents from Racine, WI, both of whom are deceased and neither of whom finished high school.

Dammit, I kind of like my chances.



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