Most of the year, I try to live up to the general rule of thumb around the offices of this newspaper, which is: "Every little chance you get, please try to tell the readers something they don't already know."
Normally I devote more of my energy to reporting than pontificating. I know this works a hardship on people out there who crack one eye open in the morning and wonder: "What is Jim Schutze's two-bit opinion today?" But, you two-bit opinion-starved devils, this is your week. This week's column is my annual end-of-the-year rant and rave.
First order of business: rant.
2005 rants and raves
I can't believe The Dallas Morning News let themselves get PC-hoodooed into doing that front-page story a couple weeks ago about Mayor Laura Miller and apartment developer Brian Potashnik.
No, wait. That's a lie. I can believe it.
In case you missed it, I recap: The News reported that Miller has received a lot of campaign contribution money from Potashnik, whose name has come up often in an ongoing FBI probe of bribery and corruption charges at City Hall.
I've been in this business a long time. Not only are you supposed to tell people something new, but when you put a story on page one with a big headline ("TIES TO DEVELOPER DON'T HURT MILLER"), there's a strong implied assumption that you are telling them something new and major. For all the spin they may have tried to put on that headline, the body language of newspapers dictates that the headline really means, "MILLER A SLICK DIRTBALL."
Another transparent logic is at work here. If the ties don't hurt her, what's the story? The implicit story is that the ties do hurt other people, and the Morning News gets to that later on. They report dutifully that some people think the FBI probe is racist because subpoenas and searches have been directed at all of the black council members who have ties to Potashnik but not at Miller, who is white.
That stuff's been going around City Hall for months. It was Maxine Thornton-Reese, a black southern Dallas council member, who said during a council meeting that it was racist for the FBI to search the automobiles of black council members and not search the automobiles of white members. She specifically called for a search of Miller's car to ensure racial equity.
Here's what's wrong with this idea, as the basis for an FBI search and as the basis for a front-page story in The Dallas Morning News:
The cops search people because they think those people broke the law or because they think those people may know something about somebody else who broke the law. The police really are not supposed to search people in order to make other people whom they have searched feel better.
Remember, too, that we have no idea how a federal case against Dallas council members will play out if a prosecution ever does materialize. A bribery case is one thing--Potashnik accused of going out hunting for influence with his checkbook, seducing otherwise virginal members of the council.
But the vibes I get tell me this case could easily go the other way--an extortion case in which Potashnik is pretty much a straight-up business guy looking for political help. If it's the latter, then the whole story is in how officials responded when Potashnik went to them.
Accepting legal campaign contributions from him--not tied to any tit-for-tat agreement on official votes--is not against the law.
Telling him you won't vote for him unless he tosses a big cement contract to your girlfriend is against the law.
Not against the law. Against the law. Is this really such an obscure distinction?
I never quite understand just what it is that we don't get here. I used to hear this stuff when Miller's predecessor, Ron Kirk, was in office and former council member Al Lipscomb was about to go to trial on federal bribery corruption charges. People would ask, "What's the difference between Ron Kirk being given a partnership in a major law firm and Al Lipscomb being given cash in brown envelopes?"
My first response was always, "What do you even mean, what's the difference?"
Same difference as buying a car from a dealership at noon and stealing one off the lot at midnight. Same difference as a tailor and a pickpocket. I could go on.
One is against the law. The other not. They make you partner in a big law firm, you call your mom. They indict you for bribery corruption, you call your lawyer.
I am all for stories about influence. I have written lots of them. If you want to compare Miller's list of legal campaign contributions with the lists for the black council members and then see what you can deduce about who backs whom financially, I am ready and willing to help. But you have to do apples and apples.
The Morning News let itself get browbeaten into doing a stupid story, and it happened because the News, as an institution, is still rife with old-fashioned Dallas white-people fearfulness about race. They lacked the spine to tell the people pushing for this story: "Legal contributions to the mayor's campaigns cannot be presented as equivalent in any way to allegations of bribery and corruption."
They did, by the way, come up with two very technical possible infractions of state ethics rules on contributions--so arcane that the state official quoted on the matter seemed unfamiliar with the rule. Even if those pan out, they might result in a letter of admonition, which I doubt. If that was supposed to be the journalistic justification for the story, it was very thin gruel, indeed.
It is truly disappointing that Mayor Laura Miller continues to push for the Trinity River project, a massive public works campaign to rebuild the Trinity River through downtown Dallas. It's appalling that the old Dallas money establishment insists on seeing this project mainly as a massive multibillion-dollar campaign of public lawn ornamentation. And the fact that the whole thing is now centered on a fake suspension bridge designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava is all the proof I ever needed that Calatrava is no architect. He's a decorator.
The Trinity River is one of nature's time bombs. So choked and corseted it is by ditches, reservoirs, dams and levees that half the people in Dallas probably don't even know we have a river.
But we do. A massive rampage is locked deep inside that pathetic dribble of a stream--a flood that can reach clean across the manmade realm of downtown Dallas and grab out hunks of neighborhoods. It has come before. It will come again.
The purpose of the Trinity River floodway extension project, as originally conceived by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was to increase the level of flood protection for downtown Dallas. But the agency allowed Dallas landholders to pile all sorts of collateral junk on top of the project, including a freeway inside the levees that somebody thinks will help kite nearby land values.
It's now a project that directly contravenes the state-of-the-art wisdom on flood control. The Netherlands is pouring resources into its "Living with Water" program--getting as much structure as possible out of the way of the big floods rather than trying to stop Mother Nature with Tinkertoys. But Dallas is piling massive structure into the floodway, reverting to theories of flood control that were rejected on the Mississippi 75 years ago.
This is our own "Katrina" in the making. If the mayor had the courage to convene a colloquium of flood control experts to review the Trinity project, I know they would urge the city not to allow that freeway down there.
And that's why there will be no colloquium. As far as that road goes, the fix is in. (Oh, by the way, I mean the entirely legal fix. You know. The BIG one.)
Let me see. Did I say rave? Sure, I can do some raves. I rave to myself all the time. Here's what I rave about.
I drive my part of town, East Dallas, and I see all of these McMansions going up on in-fill lots where somebody has knocked down a one-story cottage. And I have all of the politically correct architectural objections and the East Dallas ex-hippie class resentments and so on. Puh-leeze! I do carry my card.
But, man, isn't it really something that so many people want to invest that kind of money in inner-city Dallas? Hey, I hail originally from a northern city that is now a hollowed-out core. I don't say this out loud to my fellow East Dallasopolites, and I would appreciate it if you would not out me on this, but I secretly think it's pretty exciting to see this much interest in the old part of the city.
Come to think of it, I got another rave. Downtown! Man, have you been down there recently? It is about to be reborn. The infant new downtown may not be here exactly yet, but I would have to say we are reaching a point of critical dilation.
Well, wait, what am I thinking of? West Village! And Uptown! Cities all over the world would give their eye teeth for that stuff. Mockingbird Station. The Bishop Arts District.
Wow. I add it all up, and I feel so positive that it worries me. Do they have any of those psychological drugs out there you can take to help you stay negative? I mean, I got a living to make.
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