Triangle On Trial: Firing of Paper's Co-Editor Highlights Longstanding Divisions
One of the great lies spread by homophobes in America is the notion of a "homosexual agenda" -- a great, unified conspiracy by gays and lesbians to advance some sinister program against the nation. Of course, this theory is as ridiculous as it would be if applied to any other community. There is tremendous diversity within gay and lesbian life, especially its political discourse -- a desire for equality is probably the only thread common to all. However, recent staffing changes at Texas' only statewide publication aimed at gays and lesbians has raised the question of just how much diversity is allowed in the gay community.
On Feb. 4, The Texas Triangle fired co-editor Steve Underwood. This came shortly after the Triangle printed an article by freelance journalist Wade Hyde critical of the Millennium March on Washington (MMOW), a national political rally planned for April 30 and organized by some of the heavy hitters in the gay rights movement, including the Human Rights Campaign and the Metropolitan Community Church. (MMOW's executive director is Dianne Hardy-Garcia of the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas).
The MMOW has come under criticism from some activists, who charge that the event has been organized undemocratically and without a mandate from the gay community, that minorities have been given only token roles to play, and that the march is more about pulling in corporate sponsorship dollars than equality. (More information on this debate can be found at http://www.foranopenprocess.org; info about the march is at http://www.planetout.com/mmow/).
Hyde's article reflected these concerns in, as he puts it, a "sassy" style. Reporting his observations of Dallas' local organizing meeting, he wrote, "Avoiding recent national criticism of secrecy and exclusion, the Dallas 2000 Committee carefully constructed a controlled parade of proponents, never allowing any opportunity for public dissent or discussion. Instead, the mostly white, hand-selected entourage pontificated about their glorious memories of previous pageants and how this time they would change the world. They had a dream, Dr. King."
Hyde went on to detail how, "The evening ended with a contrived speech about glory, honor, change, and other clichés, while a recording of 'We Shall Overcome' played in the background as travel agents with airline discount offerings lined up in the foyer to pounce on the departing crowd."
The article, despite the fact that it was clearly an op-ed piece, ran on Jan. 28 in the Triangle's state news section. (Underwood says he received the piece as the paper was going to press, and "only had about 45 minutes to work on it.") That day, Underwood was called into the Dallas office of Triangle publisher Todd Cunningham, who bought the paper in 1997 from Triangle founders Kay Longcope and Barbara Wohlgemuth. The Jan. 28 issue of the Triangle was on Cunningham's desk, Underwood says.
"[He] had this article highlighted," Underwood says. "His issue was, 'This is the bitchiest thing I have ever seen in my life. We are going to get so much shit about this article.' ... His argument was that 'This should have been in the Viewpoint section of the paper.' If it would have been in the Viewpoint section I could have defended myself, but 'Now we're on record that we're the smart-ass publication about this march.' And he was screaming. He was just furious."
On Feb. 2, the article was picked up by the Wockner Wire, an online gay news service, and distributed to some 200 publications, which Underwood says further infuriated Cunningham.
Then, on Feb. 4, says Underwood -- who claims to have "no personal bias either way" regarding the MMOW -- Cunningham called him into his office again and told him that he was being "asked to leave" and that he "had a judgment problem."
"He told me that he needed someone who could be more of an ambassador than what I was doing, something to that effect," Underwood says.
The other co-editor, Nancy Ford, is now editor-in-chief.
Ironically, says Underwood, the issue that went on the stands the day he was fired featured a cover story on Underwood's e-mail interview with Vice President Al Gore, which he felt was quite a scoop for a regional gay publication.
Hyde says the implications of Underwood's firing are obvious: "Without question, Cunningham coveted MMOW's ... advertising potential and may have even received pressure 'to play' from HRC leaders once the less-than-flattering article appeared nationwide," Hyde says. "Since the original article appeared, the paper has ... gone on a pro-MMOW tizzy in the editorial section, silencing any further viewpoints critical of MMOW, even though there have been both sides of the argument presented while Underwood was co-editor."
However, Underwood says that his firing was only partially related to his error in "judgment." Underwood says the Triangle is also experiencing financial difficulties, and that questions about his judgment are just an excuse to help Cunningham cut down his payroll. As evidence, Underwood claims that his final paycheck from the Triangle bounced, and that freelance writers had trouble getting paid, including Hyde, who says he is owed $2,000.
Cunningham wouldn't specify the exact reason Underwood was fired. "We were just ready to make some changes here at the Triangle, and we had some other people we wanted to promote. ... An editor of a newspaper has a great responsibility to our readers and our audience, and it's important that whoever fulfills that role exercises good judgment in the articles they write and the way that they're written," Cunningham says.
Prior to Underwood's firing, Cunningham adds, the paper "had no advertisers from the Millennium March on Washington ... so no, there couldn't have been any concern about that whatsoever. In addition to that, our editorial decisions are not made based on anything to do with advertising. They're based on the integrity of the paper."
As for Underwood's claim that the paper is facing financial difficulties, Cunningham replies, "The Triangle is bigger and stronger than it's ever been and making more money than it ever has. I categorically deny that we've ever had any trouble making our payroll or any problems whatsoever financially." He says he is not aware of Underwood's check being returned, and adds that "all the freelancers I know have been paid, except Wade Hyde, and that's a matter our attorneys are dealing with. He eventually probably will, but he's raised some issues that we don't agree with, so our attorneys are handling that."
Freelancer Steve McGaw, one of the writers Underwood claims the Triangle failed to pay, says that, in fact, he recently did get paid -- and that Underwood himself actually seemed to be the problem. McGaw wanted to deal with Cunningham himself, but says Underwood insisted on being a "middleman" between the two. Once he had submitted an invoice and request for payment, McGaw says, Cunningham was "very quick in his response."
McGaw says that although Underwood was a good editor with whom "I enjoyed a fine relationship ... I can't say there was any obstacle between me getting paid but Steve himself.
"I can't honestly say I'm pissed at the Triangle, because I don't know who to be pissed at. It left me confused. When I finally contacted the publisher, he was apologetic."
Underwood says, "I don't remember telling him he was prohibited from [talking to Cunningham]. ... He was free to fax in invoices."
As for Hyde's article itself, Cunningham says, "I thought it was terribly biased, and wasn't fair." On Hyde's assertions of MMOW elitism, "I don't have an opinion on that one way or the other, it was the overall tone of the article that I had a problem with.
"Steve Underwood's career and the fact that Wade Hyde will no longer be writing for the Triangle are not solely based ... on one article," Cunningham says. Rather, he says, the reasons Underwood was fired "were mostly internal problems. Steve's ability to get along with the rest of the staff and the community were not what I thought were adequate for someone to hold that position."
The Triangle received several letters to the editor supporting Hyde's article. Asked if the Triangle got any negative feedback, Cunningham says, "I don't know that we received letters to the editor; I know that we received some negative comments." Asked who made those comments, Cunningham says, "I don't know."
(The MMOW's Hardy-Garcia says she didn't have any conversations with Cunningham over the Hyde article, but says, "Sometimes Steve Underwood seemed to have a real bias to his reporting. ... I had communicated [my concerns] about that to the Triangle going back to the last session [of the Texas Legislature].)
This column was harshly critical of the Triangle at the beginning of Cunningham's tenure -- the new publisher made some horrendous gaffes in his earliest issues, especially regarding design and retaining talent (see "Media Clips," April 4, 1997). Since then, the design has improved considerably, but there has been some sentiment in the gay community that the paper had moved away from its political bent and gone the fluffier route of a lifestyle magazine.
"The Triangle is in a difficult position," Hyde says. "Before Cunningham got involved, they principally served Austin. [In the aforementioned 'Media Clips,' co-founder Longcope admitted that she had allowed the Dallas and Houston markets to slip away from the paper.] Todd recognized that from an advertising standpoint that the real money was in Dallas and Houston. He stopped concentrating on Austin, which is where the news is. Once they realized they had lost that base, they scrambled and floundered. If they had stuck with taking care of Austin from a political standpoint, they would have had an easier time opening up Dallas and Houston. They didn't have a clear focus."
At the conclusion of the interview with Cunningham, the publisher asked, "Are you ever going to write anything good about us?"
Actually, we would love to. Despite this column's criticisms, a statewide publication like the Triangle is badly needed in Texas. Underwood bitterly called the paper the "Tritanic." We'd like to see the ship righted, and hope to see its controversy come from its journalism, not its personnel decisions.
The original plan for this week's "Media Clips" was an interview with Suzanna Gratia Hupp, the KLBJ-AM evening talk-show host -- and notoriously pro-gun state representative from Lampasas. Unfortunately for the column -- but perhaps fortunately for radio listeners sick of conservative call-in shows on AM radio -- Hupp's show was yanked from the air March 20.
Gunning for Re-Election
The reason wasn't any dissatisfaction on the part of KLBJ management; it was Federal Communications Commission regulations regarding elections. Hupp, who began hosting her show after last spring's legislative session, is running for re-election to her District 54 seat, and giving two hours of radio time per night to one candidate could have forced KLBJ to give equal time to her opponents.
"The door is still open, and she could come back after the next session," says Scott Gillmore, vice-president of LBJ-S Broadcasting, KLBJ's parent company. "Of course, if she doesn't get re-elected, she could come back sooner."
Hupp rose to political prominence on the gun issue after her parents were killed in the 1991 Luby's massacre in Killeen; she has been interviewed by U.S. News & World Report, The Wall Street Journal, Time, and ABC's Nightline. Last year's legislative session was her first.
Hupp's 8-10pm slot has been filled by the syndicated show of Libertarian Neil Boortz, which previously aired from midnight to 2am.
KLRU viewers may have noticed a new addition to our local PBS affiliate's lineup, but they may not be aware of why it is somewhat controversial, or why its placement on that station is ironic.
The Leininger Lineup
The News of Texas, which airs weekdays at 6pm, is a 30-minute, statewide-syndicated newscast produced by the Texas Network (TXN) -- the year-old news operation owned by ultraconservative millionaire James Leininger, whose cash was instrumental in creating our current, all-Republican lineup of statewide elected officials. The show briefly appeared on KNVA (Ch. 54, cable 12); its new slot on KLRU seems rather odd, considering that KLRU's general manager is one Mary Beth Rogers -- formerly the chief of staff and campaign manager for our state's most prominent liberal in recent years, former governor Ann Richards.
Rogers herself did not return a phone call from "Media Clips," but a KLRU spokesman said that Leininger's conservative philosophy didn't factor one way or another into the station's decision to pick up the show. "The program had what we wanted, a state news program. It fits our needs for public affairs in that time slot."