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Gosh, We're Just Too Trusting, or: The Dallas Morning News's Embarrassing Confession

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Oh, well, who the hell knows? Who will ever know why The Dallas Morning News turned into an Iron Curtain-style propagandist Pravda sheet in 2007 when it was so eager to see Angela Hunt's Trinity River referendum defeated?

Now they say they were seduced: "This newspaper -- and likely plenty of voters -- took leaders at their word," an editorial states in today's newspaper.

I've been in the newspaper business too long. This is what? A major metropolitan daily newspaper is claiming to have been taken advantage of by local pols? It's like Anthony Weiner sobbing and telling me, "These women played me like a flute."

Stop talking right now, or I may have to hit you.

But, like I say, who knows? In 2007 Hunt led the campaign to stop the city from building a high-speed limited access highway along the Trinity River in the area between the flood control levees, out in the zone that floods twice a year.

Nobody had ever voted for the highway. The highway would have ruined the park that we did vote for. The highway threatened the city's flood safety system. But here's the big one: glug glug glug. The highway would have flooded twice a year.

The people who wanted to keep the highway out there anyway piled up a huge war chest and managed to line up just about every high-dollar haircut in town, with the exceptions of Hunt, former council members Sandy Greyson and John Loza, and a brave but small band of others.

Now everybody has 20/20 hindsight. As The News admitted in today's editorial, former Mayor Tom Leppert misled voters when he vowed repeatedly that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had "signed off" on building the toll road between the levees -- his personal assurance that the Corps had given final approval. Not true. Now four years later the Corps is less "signed off" than ever.

Leppert also misled voters when he said the road was fully funded. The road project is deeper in the hole than ever.

But we have to remember this. Leppert was only the tenor soloist. The entire Dallas establishment was singing the same hymn with him. And, gosh, it sure seems like the choir director was The Dallas Morning News editorial page.

They painted Hunt as a nut and a bitch. "Ms. Hunt's camp is busy crafting conspiracy theories," The News said in an editorial on October 14, 2007.

They accused her of lying. When Hunt pointed out that the highway would cut off access to any park in the flood-zone, The News said there would be lots of access, a claim we now know to be false. In an editorial September 23, 2007, The News said Hunt was the one telling a fib: "Ms. Hunt and other opponents of the planned tollway know this. But 'We don't want a well-designed road along the far reaches of our park' just doesn't have the same ring to it."

On May 11, 2007, The News' editorial page painted Hunt as crazy, a wrecker who was out to trash the entire Trinity River project: "Ms. Hunt is yanking on a single thread in this carefully crafted project. If she succeeds in forcing a referendum, the entire plan could begin to unravel."

The irony there is that if any of the original park plan gets saved, the credit will go to Hunt and certainly not to The News.

The really stomach-turning aspect of The News' coverage was its lock-step consistency from editorial page to news columns, all designed to paint Hunt as a shrewish outsider, the bad girl at the party, just another Laura Miller who did not know how to behave, perhaps because of regrettable wants in her upbringing.

In this, the editorial page always led the choir: "As maverick council members before her learned," the editorial page said on May 3, 2007, "throwing rocks from the bleachers is the easy part. The hard part is ironing out flaws from the inside."

Hunt is a graduate of the Rice and UT law school. She's tough, but I don't think anybody has ever seen Hunt behave ungraciously. You'll never hear her say the stuff I'm saying here today. Never. That's one reason why I'm saying it.

Nevertheless, on October 8, 2007, in what was supposed to be straight news coverage, reporter Bruce Tomaso both misrepresented and caricatured her objection to the inside-the-levee route, falsely reporting that she was against any route for the toll road: "Since she started gathering signatures for the referendum last spring, Ms. Hunt and her group, TrinityVote, have sought to keep their message simple: We don't need no stinkin' toll road."

They never said that.

On July 29, 2007, Tomaso wrote a "profile" of Hunt, more like a hit job, painting her history of activism in her own neighborhood as proof positive that others found her obnoxious: "If such reactions bother Angela Hunt in the slightest, she doesn't admit it. In defending her position, and criticizing that of her opponents, she strikes a populist tone that may reflect her blue-collar roots."

Remember, by the way, that this ostracizing of Hunt was enforced at City Hall by Mayor Leppert, who stripped Hunt of all committee leadership assignments. Of course, Leppert was only following the prior example of former Mayor Laura Miller. In April, 2007, Miller kicked Hunt off the board of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, of which Hunt was vice chair, a position to which Miller had appointed her.

Miller said openly it was payback for Hunt's disobedient stance on the toll road. At least Miller, unlike Leppert, was honest about it.

Now that more truth is emerging about the toll road, there is understandable curiosity about what was behind the scapegoating of Hunt. Commenters here have demanded to know who owns the land along the river and who stood to gain by making a pariah of Hunt.

As time goes by, I am less and less sure that's where the answers lie. I look back, and the people who were really on the muscle about the toll road project weren't the land owners. The real strong-arms were the public works construction and engineering companies. They were the ones who sent out their own employees in droves to campaign against the referendum.

And think about it. Could landowners profit from a new road alignment? Sure, maybe, 10 years down the road. Or 20 years. But who gets some serious money in his hand right now? The guy who builds the thing.

Does that make those guys and women wicked? I don't know about that. It makes them contractors. It's their business. If they see a big fat job coming their way in otherwise hard times, something that will keep the wheels on over some rough road ahead, why wouldn't they fight for it? For them it's not about public policy. It's business. Screw public policy.

But if that's what happened -- if it was the public works sector of the business community turning the screws behind the scenes -- then the Morning News still isn't coming clean. They would rather blame elected leaders, because the last thing they have the guts to do is blame the business community.

I get that. Elected leaders don't buy ads. Business leaders buy ads. Or don't.

But I still have a serious issue with a newspaper even claiming to have been seduced by elected leaders, whether it's true or not. I can't feature saying that in public, even as a lie. It goes back to my having been in the business too long. In the version of the newspaper business I grew up in, you would never ever "take leaders at their word," as the News now says it did.

A newspaper? Takes leaders at their word? That's the opposite of what newspapers are supposed to do. It's the opposite of the role the founding fathers envisioned for a free press in this country.

To do it is one thing. Bad enough. But to offer it as an excuse? It's like an elementary teacher saying she forgot to grade the kids' papers last week because she was on a week-long toot. You know, unless you're ready for a new line of work, you need to keep that kind of stuff under your hat if you can.

If they say that's what happened to them, and if it's true, then why shouldn't they tell the truth about it? Yeah. I guess you can make a case for that. But then I try to walk a mile in that shoe myself. And you know what? I believe I might just keep right on walkin'.

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