Seeds of Trouble, Part II

Chronicle management asked its staff to critique the paper for "diversity." It got a whole lot more than that.

Metz then bulletin boarded an almost line-by-line deconstruction of several of the section stories to back his claim the journalism was negligent and insulting to blacks. He boldly dismissed Pederson's defense of the section, writing that "it illustrated to me that he knows less about journalism than he would like to let on -- and that he knows absolutely nothing about 'minorities.'"

A sample of Metz's criticism: "The 'Seeds of Trouble' project offered no insights into the issue of juvenile crime. It was more like picking at a scab. (A better title would have been "Violent, Hopeless, Black Teens") Some of the writing was very good. But I kept looking for certain things and not seeing them."

Metz then drafted a mass resignation letter to Chronicle personnel honcho Ann Turnbach that falsely indicated the paper's entire minority staff was prepared to resign, and left it in his computer, correctly anticipating it would also be copied and circulated. The following day, he tendered his own resignation with two-weeks notice, convinced it would not be accepted. "I expected ... they would say 'Oh, no Wayne, it's not at that point. You don't need to go that far. We don't want to lose you.' But that's not what happened."

Metz says he gave the letter to Dovalina, who deadpanned: "Why don't we make this immediate?" The copy editor says he was planning to quit, but not right away. "People have said to me, 'Wayne, you shouldn't have quit. When you quit, they win.' I said, 'Even if I stay, with them putting out this kind of sloppy journalism and nobody cares enough to say anything about it, sitting in meetings where even if you say something it's ignored, even if I stay they win.' The best thing for me to do is get out of Dodge."

Mike Tolson, an awarding-winning reporter who came to the Chronicle after the Hearst Corp. closed its San Antonio Light and who is considered one of the paper's best writers, authored the piece in "Seeds of Trouble" that drew most of Metz's wrath. He doesn't recall having ever spoken to Metz, so "I didn't know him and I was kinda surprised at some of his reactions." The story in question, "Where Hope Dies Young," examines the shooting death of 18-year-old Neiman Jenkins, and paints a grim, dead-end world for the black youth of Houston's Fifth Ward. Tolson defends the journalism in the section and finds Metz's criticism loaded with a political agenda "that predates the appearance of this project."

"His comments in their entirety, along with the contents of the letter, pretty much speak for themselves," says Tolson. "He has a point of view that may, in some context, deserve to be aired in different ways in newspaper and television reports. I think he goes far beyond the bounds of what we intended to write about. If you took all his comments to heart and wanted to do something with each of his suggestions, you'd end up writing a book."

As to Metz's contention that the project should have had a black copy editor, Tolson points out that one reporter on the series, Robbie Morganfield, is black, and the photographer, Ben DeSoto, is Hispanic. Morganfield did not return a phone call from the Press and DeSoto simply says he had no creative input into the series.

Tolson finds the idea of racial formulas for processing stories objectionable.

"As far as copy editors, I think its totally inappropriate to start talking about quotas and start talking about having a black or Asian or Hispanic or any particular ethnicity or race have to be involved with a story that dealt with his or her particular race or ethnicity," says the reporter. "You can carry that to some pretty ludicrous extremes, and I don't think anybody wants to."

Tolson points to the Gannett chain as an example of a shop that imposes coverage guidelines based on race and gender (even requiring a certain percentage of pictures that appear on its papers' front pages to be of minorities or women).

"I think the failures of any paper, this or any others, are not always racial in origin. My biggest point is that a lot of times if you fail to properly cover a community, it's the fault of your own imagination and your own limitations, and it's not necessarily because you're white or black or Asian or Hispanic or otherwise."

Tolson says diversity audits have value "because they ask us to look at ourselves and look at the content. Now, to go beyond that and say we want 'X' percentage of stories to be about this, that and the other thing, would be imposing a rigidity that nobody wants ... to the contrary, everybody's saying, 'Oh God, no, what a nightmare.'"

As for Metz's use of Tolson's work to solicit criticism from outside, Tolson says "of course it bothered me. Somebody who was a fellow employee being paid by the same employer as you is sending out your work inviting disparaging comments. ... nobody in their right mind would appreciate something like that. I wouldn't do it."

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