Regrettable as the layoffs were at the Dallas Morning News, there might have been a silver lining for at least one very important person: Joe Barton.
Barton, a Republican congressman, represents Ellis County, just south of Dallas, where cement plants and other industries contribute mightily to the area's smog problem. But besides contributing to the smog, the companies that own these plants also contribute to Barton's political campaigns, and Barton fights doggedly to shield them from government clean air rules.
Before they were laid off in October, two of the News' editorial writers, Timothy O'Leary and Jim Frisinger, had given Barton a very hard time, accusing him of using sneaky legislative maneuvers, regulatory loopholes and plain old political pressure to protect some of North Texas' worst polluters.
Local advocates for clean air drew comfort from these editorials. They felt that the paper was on their side in the fight against Barton.
But now, says Wendi Hammond, executive director of Blue Skies Alliance in Dallas, "There are a lot of people in the environmental community who are not happy with what's going on at the paper." They fear that political pressure may have played a role in the two writers' departures, says Hammond, and in what they perceive to be a toned-down editorial policy.
The newspaper denies this, but here is why suspicion lingers:
The paper's hard-hitting criticism of Joe Barton goes back to a March 3, 2003, editorial depicting him as a card shark in a high-stakes poker game. "Smokey Joe should keep his hands where everybody can see them," the editorial said. Extending the poker metaphor, it went on to say: "The pot belongs to the defenders of clean air and the people on whose behalf they work--the region's many victims of asthma and other life-threatening respiratory diseases."
The Texas Associated Press Managing Editors honored O'Leary for three of his editorials that year, including this one. It ran with a cartoon drawing of "Smokey Joe" Barton with belching smokestacks rising from the top of his head and toxic pollution pouring from his ears and nostrils.
The nickname "Smokey Joe" caught on. It reappeared in several subsequent editorials and also in postings on the editorial page's blog. It was taken up by some local environment and health advocates, and it even appeared in at least one article in the Morning News' rival paper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Last spring, Barton met privately with the News' publisher, James M. Moroney III, and top editor, Robert W. Mong Jr., to rebut the editorials. Moroney and Mong both confirm that Barton argued that the News was wrong about the dangers of air pollution in his district.
In June, O'Leary wrote another editorial about Barton and the pollution. "That editorial was spiked," O'Leary told me. "I wrote it, and I got it sent back to me with a lot of interior bracket questions, do this, do that, fix this, fix that." O'Leary made the requested changes, he says, "and I sent it back to [Editorial Page Editor Keven Ann Willey], and it never appeared. There was no explanation as to why it never appeared."
Mong says he did not ask Willey to change her position on air pollution. But he did tell her to stop calling the congressman "Smokey Joe." "I felt that it was an ad hominem attack, and I stopped it," Mong told me. He says the paper was not retreating on the issue of air quality. Instead, he says, "we took it from a campaign that was really trying to bring attention to air quality to what I think is now a more cogent, sober analysis, [but] we have not backed off at all."
Since last spring, the few references to Barton on the editorial page have been much more respectful in tone. Readers active in air quality issues have complained, in letters to the editor and on their Web sites, about the perceived change.
Although the News had favored Barton in past elections, many hoped the paper would come out against him this past fall. O'Leary told me that the journalists on the editorial board wanted to recommend a vote against Barton. "Keven Willey ran the idea up the corporate flagpole," O'Leary says. "The higher-ups shot it down."
Willey says she is "not at liberty to disclose the arguments and positions taken by individuals that culminate in our collaborative board view."
What emerged was an editorial compromise that seemed carefully conciliatory toward Barton. It listed some issues on which he and the paper agreed and others, including clean air, on which they disagreed. The editorial didn't recommend for or against his reelection. It merely concluded: "Whatever the future holds for Mr. Barton, we will maintain our end of this dialogue and speak plainly and respectfully about the issues we both care about but sometimes see differently."
This editorial violated the paper's written policy on candidate recommendation editorials. According to that policy, all major candidates are supposed to be mentioned in such an editorial, along with basic biographical information and their positions on issues. The Barton editorial not only failed to mention Barton's Democratic opponent, it did not even indicate that he had an opponent.
Jim Schermbeck, a veteran environmental activist who is part of a broad coalition of public officials, business groups and health advocates, says he saw the editorial as "an about-face."
Five days after this editorial, on October 27, O'Leary and Frisinger were laid off. "There was a lot of suspicion in the local environmental community," Schermbeck says, "that the motive for firing the only two guys that were writing about this on the editorial board was pressure from Barton and the other forces in Ellis County. And that suspicion has not been totally abated yet."
Shortly after the layoffs, Schermbeck, Hammond and Tom Boyle, an attorney who lives near the worst of the polluting plants in Barton's district, paid a visit to Willey at her office. They asked her whether the board had backed away from its previous hard stance against Barton and the polluters. They also asked whether political pressure had played a role in the firing of O'Leary and Frisinger.
Willey answered no to both questions. She repeated those answers to me.
She says she doesn't remember the particular editorial that O'Leary says was spiked, "but I can tell you categorically that I have never been asked by anybody above me to spike any editorial about air quality." If she did kill this one, she says, it would have been because she was unhappy with some aspect of the rewrite she'd requested.
Readers concerned about the region's dirty air were somewhat heartened by an editorial on New Year's Day, which promised that air quality would remain a top priority for the paper. That editorial didn't mention Barton, but it did note the problems caused by the cement plants. Schermbeck says he thinks "the jury is still out" on whether the editorial board will stay committed to the fight against the polluters.
Joe Barton is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which handles legislation affecting media companies. Now and for many years to come, he may be the single most important legislator in Washington on issues affecting the Belo Corp., which owns the Dallas Morning News, three other newspapers, 19 television stations and various cable and Internet businesses.
Hammond and others point out that Belo's chairman, president and CEO, Robert W. Decherd, has lobbied Barton's committee this year on cable television policy.
When I asked Decherd about Barton's influence over government policies affecting his company, the CEO said, "If people want to worry about Joe Barton being the chairman of the commerce committee, fine. We as a company have dealt in public
policy for a long time, and I defy anyone to cite and prove up a single instance where we have compromised the journalistic integrity of this company."
Barton's office didn't respond to a request for an interview.
Senior writer Charles Layton wrote about lobbying by media companies in AJR's October/November issue.
Research for this article was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.
For more on the layoffs, See "The Dallas Mourning News," April/May 2005 by Charles Layton.