Do Lies Come with that Shake?
Colleen McCain Nelson was a crackerjack City Hall reporter for The Dallas Morning News before becoming an editorial writer. She’s a very smart and accomplished pro. The tortured logic, pathetic attempts at obfuscation and ultimate dishonesty of her editorial in The News yesterday about Congresswomen Eddie Bernice Johnson served to reinforce my own longstanding personal resolve, based on my years of service as an editorial writer at a daily newspaper:
Never, never, never, under any circumstances -- even if you have to shovel shit for a living -- agree to be an editorial writer. Because if you do, sooner or later they’re going to make you write one like McCain Nelson’s ditty that ran under the Nixonian headline, “Trinity’s Dominoes.”
Sorry, but to set this up, I have to recap. The News is a huge backer and partisan promoter of putting a big fat honking high-speed highway through the new park we’re trying to build along the river downtown. They’re terrified that their side, the road whores, will lose a proposed referendum on the road. So they’re trying to convince everybody that voting is a really, really bad thing that just makes trouble.
It’s not that they want us to vote in favor of the road. It’s that they do not want us to vote. Period.
So two weeks ago, under the shrieking headline “Tug too hard, and Trinity project could unravel,” The News told its readers that a referendum could cost the city, among other things, “more than $500 million in future federal funds, which will provide flood protection and a range of other improvements. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson and Pete Sessions have been effective advocates for the Trinity plan. But their work could be for naught if Congress senses dissension about the project.”
SCARY! If we vote, the Feds will punish us to the tune of half a billion dollars. And they’ll flood us! Oh, my gaaaaawd!
But then on May 17 on KERA-FM (90.1), Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, who represents the district where the Trinity project will be built and who chairs the House water resources subcommittee, said it wasn’t true: “I'm never anti people doing a vote,” she said. “It hasn't been voted on before. So I guess that's the right of people if that's what they want to do.”
She went on to state categorically that there will be no financial penalty if Dallas votes on the road, even if we vote the road down: “There really is no impact, because what we're doing through water resources is different than what is being discussed about the tollways."
To us and, I assume, to The News, Johnson’s office has been firm: This project is about flood control. The money for it is flood control money, not road money. In the post-Katrina era, Johnson cares about flood control. She doesn’t care where the road goes or if there even is a road. She’s not going to take away flood control money because of some spat over a road she doesn’t care about.
So for a week and a half, The News simply refused to cover her remarks, even though her remarks directly contradicted what the paper had been asserting in editorials and in its news columns -- especially the idea that the proposed road was somehow paying for the rest of the project.
It’s an absolutely absurd assertion. It’s the big lie. The road is sucking wind financially, it's enormously under-funded, and it's gobbling up resources from other parts of the project. Why? Because it’s a bad road. It’s not where it needs to be. It won’t generate enough traffic to pay its own way, either as a free public highway or as a toll road. As a toll road, it’s an even bigger loser than it would have been as a free road.
The statement that the road is going to pay for other elements of the plan is a lie. Johnson’s remarks illuminated that lie. The most important thing she said is that the money for the rest of the project is not linked to money for the road. You can kill the road dead tomorrow, and it won’t cost the rest of the project a nickel, and it won’t slow the rest of the project down a day.
Unfair Park ragged on The News for a week and a half about its chickenshit refusal to touch Johnson’s remarks. Then on Memorial Day, when they are confidant no one at all will read the editorial page, as opposed to almost no one on a regular day, they run McCain Nelson’s attempt at a write-around:
She writes, “To interpret Ms. Johnson’s statement as any sort of implicit support for realigning the road would be a mischaracterization.”
Nobody said that. Ever. People said Johnson’s remarks put the lie to The News' assertion that any dissension on the road would risk de-funding the rest of the project to the tune of half a billion dollars.
So what does McCain Nelson do with that point? She says, “Scrapping the highway would jeopardize millions of dollars from other sources that are directly tied to the toll road.”
City councilmember Angela Hunt, who is leading the effort for a referendum on the road, has pointedly never said the road should be scrapped. She repeatedly says -- very clearly, whenever I have hard her -- that the issue is letting people vote on getting the road out of the park.
More to the point: McCain Nelson’s reference to “millions of dollars from other sources that are directly tied to the toll road” is an only barely more clever rendering of the same old Big Lie. The millions of dollars she’s talking about, if she’s talking about dollars, is money for the road.
Yeah, if you don’t build the road, you do jeopardize the funding for the road. In fact, if you don’t build the road but you do take the funding for it anyway, you need to keep right on going until you reach Argentina. Otherwise you’re headed to the pokey.
She’s still trying to get readers to believe that funding for the rest of the project is tied to the road. And that, dear Friends, is a lie.
A last very embarrassing note from the editorial. McCain Nelson, a woman, who works for Keven Ann Willey, a woman, refers to Angela Hunt at the end of her piece as a “sharp-tongued critic of the plan.” Anybody who has listened to Hunt speak on this thing knows that she is assiduously not “sharp-tongued.” She is always respectful of people on the other side of the question, even when they are not of her. Her manner is maybe the opposite of sharp-tongued. “Sharp-tongued” is code for bitch. Don’t believe me? O.K., tell me the last time The News described a man as “sharp-tongued.”
This editorial is so bad I actually hope Nelson will not be remembered long as its author. You see, I sympathize. When I was an editorial writer, I showed up late for work one day right after the boss told us never to be late for work. The boss said, “O.K., Jim, you can write the editorial the publisher has been insisting on for three weeks calling for an end to all research involving dogs, especially Yorkies.”
I wrote it. And I was never late again.
But guess what? After that job, I was also never a daily newspaper editorial writer again. I mean, you know, we all make choices.
Last note: If leaders in New Orleans had taken Eddie Bernice Johnson’s line and stuck to it in decades gone by, there would not have been a fraction of the devastation wrought by Katrina. What I hear Johnson telling Dallas is this: We’re going to spend federal flood control money on the best damn flood control we can get for the dollar.
Everybody in New Orleans wants to blame the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the failed levees that caused the Katrina disaster. But for years local leaders in New Orleans pushed the Corps to throw up levees fast and cheap so the locals could peddle houses to suckers right behind them.
It’s an act of courage and integrity for Johnson to tell Dallas that this thing is not about a road or real estate huckstering. It’s about flooding and what we can do to prevent it.
That’s the next chapter, by the way. Just wait until the Corps of Engineers finally gets its hands on a design for this road and starts looking at what it will do to flood control. I think the Corps is already hoping we’ll vote and kill the thing so they won’t have to.
Incidentally, the deck of yesterday's editorial was, “Topple toll road, and who know what else falls.” Very, very true, Colleen. Also true of leaving the house in the morning. Who knows what effect these things may have? Topple the toll road, and who knows what else rises? Or don’t topple toll road, and who knows what else…
You know what? There is only one true answer: Never, never, never for any reason agree to be an editorial writer. Or this will happen to you. --Jim Schutze
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.