If only The Dallas Morning News had attacked its Trinity River reporting with the same punch it attacked us.

Let's begin with the assumption that you, as reader and citizen, do give a damn what's going to happen along the Trinity River through downtown, where the biggest public works campaign in the city's history seems to have become a big mess.

Let's also assume you do not care too much which newspaper in town beat which other newspaper on some particular aspect of this story.

Here's my argument: You can't figure out what should happen next if you don't have some idea what went wrong. And what went wrong is, in fact, a story that involves the Dallas Observer and The Dallas Morning News.

The Dallas Morning News has floated all its hopes and
credibility on a rosy view of the Trinity River project.
The Dallas Morning News has floated all its hopes and credibility on a rosy view of the Trinity River project.

We're talking about a multibillion-dollar project to rebuild the river through downtown, improve flood protection, create lakes and parks, and build a multilane, limited-access, high-speed toll road. It's big. It's complicated.

Over the 10-year stretch since voters approved the project, the Observer has worked to cover the story at a fundamental level, reaching outside Dallas to national experts for context, challenging core assertions of the proponents of the project and endeavoring always to put the important underlying questions out in plain view so readers can make their own appraisal. In instance after instance, the News has done just the opposite, while sniping at us for being sensationalistic or polemical.

I'm writing about this now, frankly, in response to an accusation made March 26 by News managing editor George Rodrigue on his blog, "Ask the Editor."

"Hurling accusations based on intuition or personal belief is not journalism," he wrote. "It's more like propaganda, or polemicism. Which can be just fine. Sometimes a good polemic is a great public pick-me-up. But we don't write propaganda, and it's crazy, in my personal opinion, that people who do should criticize us for trying to be fairer, more careful and more precise than they are."

Let's count it out. On January 22, 1998, the Observer published an overview of the Trinity River project telling readers that the basic design of the project flew in the face of national flood-control policy. The criticisms raised in that story—not by the Observer but by recognized authorities in the field—are at the heart now of all that has gone wrong with the project.

The problem is too much stuff piled into too small a space along a river that floods. The proposed project would create enormous pressure on the dirt berms that protect downtown from disaster. That's been the nut of the story from the beginning, a story News has never explained to readers.

Our story, published more than a decade ago, reported on a then-recently completed study commissioned by the White House saying that communities should never do the two main things at the heart of the Trinity River Project: 1) build new levees to protect land not already protected by levees, 2) allow major new construction close to rivers in ways that would constrict the rivers.

Ron Flanagan, a flood-control expert quoted in that story, spoke specifically to Dallas' proposal. "It's so passé," he said. "It uses the government's money to put people at risk and then bail them out again, while private landowners reap the profit. Dallas is so far behind the curve, it's almost a joke."

In fact, the basic rationale of the Trinity River project—to promote real estate development along the levees—is a violation of national flood-control policy. Flood-control money is supposed to be spent on flood control, not real estate speculation.

The News did do some superficial coverage in 2000 of a decision by the George W. Bush White House to remove the Trinity from the White House budget as an unworthy project. But the News' coverage never explained why the project had been removed—because the White House suspected the original need for the project had been faked—and never brought home that the project ever afterward had to be funded entirely by congressional earmarks.

This chapter of the Trinity story is one where the heavy boot of the News' ownership was easy to see on the necks of the professional journalists at the paper. On September 20, 2005, the News editorial page inveighed against earmarks generally, saying they should be reined in, and added, "Several that are dear to Dallas' heart, such as funds for signature bridges across the Trinity River, should be included. This would be one more way Dallas can extend the right hand of fellowship to its neighbors."

Sounded pretty good.

But in a second editorial the very next day, the News tried to gobble back its own words: "It is now apparent to us that this was a poor example to cite," it said, going on to say that signature bridges were well worth the earmarks it took to fund them.

The turnaround was so dramatic that I called News editorial page editor Keven Ann Willey and asked her why. With admirable candor, Willey told me, "This was largely a miscommunication. The publisher was out of town, frankly, and had not been aware of our thinking or our intent on this. When the publisher saw the editorial, he wasn't particularly happy with it, shall we say."

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