Head Ways

You say you've been shopping at Dillard's for years and you've never heard that the department store chain was accused of having problems? You didn't have a clue about claims by minorities that they'd been discriminated against there — that there had even been deaths? Maybe we can help you with that.

A look in the front section of the Houston Chronicle or pretty much any newspaper in other cities where there is a Dillard's will reveal several pages of hugely lucrative Dillard's ads. Dillard's also advertises on television.

The same media outlets that faithfully reported on discrimination claims against Denny's — that restaurant chain doesn't do a lot of newspaper advertising — have been much quieter in cases involving Dillard's, sometimes not covering them at all.

During the wrongful death lawsuit of Darryl Robinson v. Dillard's, the Chronicle's Bill Murphy provided well-written daily coverage when it went to trial in April 2001.

But not a single headline had the word "Dillard's" in it. Instead it was referred to as the "hogtying case." And in the end, when the verdict was returned, the headline read: "Family wins hogtying case: Jury finds deputies, retailer's staffer were negligent."

But the Chronicle is far from alone in its approach to relaying bad news about one of its major advertisers.

When the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported in November 2002 about a shoplifting suspect's death in a Dillard's there, the headline was "Shoplifting Suspect Dies at Guard's Hands." A 2000 El Paso case was headlined "Shoplifting Suspect Killed" in the El Paso Times. (Later the Times did a more comprehensive piece on Dillard's and did use its name in the headline.) In 1998, The Topeka Capital-Journal headlined its story about alleged discrimination at Dillard's "Chain Apologizes in K.C. Lawsuits' Wake." A 1992 story in the Nashville Banner about a suit against Dillard's was titled "Franklin: APSU Professor Files Damage Suit." And here's a great clarifying headline from the Beaumont Enterprise on December 11, 2002: "Judge Signs Order About Documents." There are more in like vein.

This uniquely vague style of headline writing would be akin to reporting the Enron story and calling it a "company."

After 60 Minutes aired a story on Dillard's that involved the Robinson case, the chain pulled its advertising from 11 CBS affiliates, including Houston's KHOU.

According to the Fort Worth Weekly, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram pulled a story critical of Dillard's in July 2001 because it didn't want to risk losing advertising dollars.

Dillard's doesn't want any bad publicity. When the Houston law firm Chargois & Ernster set up the Web site www.dillardsalert.com, Dillard's mounted an attack on two fronts.

Dillard's sued Damon Chargois and Cletus Ernster in federal court in Texarkana, saying the attorneys violated Dillard's trademark by using its name on their site. Dillard's got a restraining order that shut down the site for several months. It also filed a grievance with the State Bar of Texas against both attorneys.

In November both actions were dismissed.

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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing