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.
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."
Back in 1998 we began to report on an issue that is perhaps closer to the heart of the whole debate than any other—the arcane question of "valley storage." The term actually refers to watersheds, not valleys. It should be called watershed storage. Valley storage is the amount of rainfall that the whole watershed can hold before it runs off into the river.
Valley storage is everything. It's the reason this project was ever launched. Valley storage has greatly decreased in our watershed, we are told, which means more water in the river and greater flood danger for downtown. And that's why, we are told, the levees downtown need to be raised higher.
In 1998 the Observer reported that a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that the Trinity River project, when completed, will make the valley storage problem worse, not better. In a subsequent story the Observer reported verbatim an exchange between city council members and a top member of the city staff in which the staff member lied to the faces of the council members on this issue.
The council members wanted to know if what they had read in the Observer was true—that the city, in order to do the project, was seeking a special exemption from a federal court order on valley storage. The staff member said, "No." Later the staff sought and won the exemption.
The News has written about this issue, but here we get to the heart of the matter. The News has never set forth in plain terms that this multibillion-dollar flood-control project may actually make flooding worse. In the name of Rodrigue's "objectivity," the News typically reports what Person A has said, and then it reports what Person B said back. But it never says what they're talking about.
The News does what I call "technically correct" coverage. So much the better if a story doesn't make sense to the average person. Less trouble from the Great Unwashed that way.
And sometimes the News just doesn't tell us anything. Former Mayor Ron Kirk sold this project in black Dallas as environmental reparation—flood protection that previously had been denied to black South Dallas. But when maps were published showing precisely what areas the project will protect, I drove those streets and found very few black residential areas protected. Instead, what the new levee will protect is mainly commercial property prime for redevelopment.
From the News on that little matter? Radio silence.
When promoters of the project decided to add on a series of enormously expensive make-believe suspension bridges by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the council was informed that all of the existing bridges over the Trinity were slated for demolition anyway and would have to be replaced soon.
They're sort of old. Might as well toss them. It just didn't sound right.
It took the Observer months of legal demands for documents and calling around, but finally the truth was found. Michelle Releford, a spokeswoman for the Dallas region of the Texas Department of Transportation, said flatly that the bridges in question are "not on any kind of maintenance replacement list."
The News never covered that story.
In fact I could go on with this list. The stunning lack of transportation data to back up any of the extravagant claims made for the toll road; the many sleights of hand with money; the soaring costs for the inside-the-levee route for the toll road. On each of these stories Sam Merten, myself and other Observer staffers have worked hard to get to the truth.
That means digging, pushing, fighting for it. George Rodrigue would have you believe that the News has a more dignified approach. Maybe it is more dignified. But it amounts to waiting until a story bumps you in the head so hard it can no longer be ignored.
And sometimes it amounts to sitting on the story even then. The worst case, in my opinion, was one that might have turned the 2007 referendum on the project and saved us all a lot of time, money and misery.
Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and council member Mitchell Rasansky had been promising voters that Dallas taxpayers would never be asked to pay another nickel for the toll road. Weeks before the election, the chairman of the board of the toll road authority told News reporter Michael Lindenberger that the road might cost more than the authority could pay and the city might have to chip in.
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Even though the News had that story weeks before the election and even though that story might have been a deal-breaker in the election, the News did not publish that story until the day after the votes had been counted and the toll road saved.
The biggest loser in this project is always the toll road. Even if the Corps buckles to pressure and gives the city permission to build unsafe levees, the toll road is still a billion bucks in the red.
That it got this far is not the fault of the community. Not yet. For 10 long years the community has been massively and deliberately misled by its dominant news source.
This only becomes the community's fault and sin to live with forever if the community keeps believing the News.