Maybe News's Story on Cause of Levee Delays Was First Step to Rehab? Nah.

The headline of Michael Lindenberger's big front-page to-do in the paper version of Sunday's Dallas Morning News was "Grand Plans Delay Levee Fix." It was, in many ways, a remarkable story for The News to publish, exposing as a serious public lie the repeated assurances of Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert that plans for a toll road along the river played no role in creating the dangerous condition of the earthen berms or levees that stand between downtown and catastrophe.

Of course, the story doesn't close that loop. It doesn't make the logically necessary synapse between the fact the road project has been responsible for levee repairs and the parallel fact that Mayor Leppert has repeatedly said the opposite.

But let's give them a pass on that. C'mon. It's The Dallas Morning News. They've been addicted to the toll road for more than a decade. Maybe we should look at Lindenberger's story as The News going to its first group meeting on the first night of the first day in recovery. We can't expect them to be totally clean yet.

No, that's not the part that kept me away from my shed repairs Sunday. It was a couple other things, first of all this: Listing the things that have caused the city to delay repairing the levees, Lindenberger writes, "And in 2007, council member Angela Hunt led a referendum aimed at preventing a toll road from being built within the levees, citing worries about costs and impacts on parks. Things came to a halt again."

As Hunt herself has already said, that's a falsehood. It's not even a misinterpretation, because it's not attributed to anyone. It's Lindenberger's personal assertion. And: It's not true.

Generally, the process of studies and approvals required for this over-complicated project all run on federal clocks, clocks dictated by federal law. Nobody in Washington says, "Dallas is having a referendum, so suspend the environmental impact study." Nobody could do that, even if they wanted to.

Secondly, I can't imagine what part of it Lindenberger even supposes would have been paused by the referendum. He doesn't say.

Thirdly, this a controversial political assertion. From the time the referendum was announced, Leppert claimed without any basis in fact that a referendum would slow down the federal project. He never mentioned the levee repairs, of course, because he didn't care about the levee repairs, only about the road.

But this idea that allowing the people to vote on it would slow things down has been out there in the public discourse as a political argument for years. In one phrase, Lindenberger gulps it down as fact.

Fourthly, he massively misrepresents Hunt's objections to the toll road. Hunt said over and over again during the campaign that the toll road plan was a dangerous and irresponsible threat to the flood safety of the city.

Fifthly, this is the second time Lindenberger has failed to even call Hunt for a story in which her objections to the toll road project are at the very bull's-eye of the story.

Lastly, for 10 years I have been making the same point about all of The News's coverage of the toll road. The baseline core story here is about the idea of building an expressway between flood control levees: Is that a good idea?

There's a simple, obvious, necessary way to do that story. Call flood control experts. Read their academic papers. Read the Galloway Report. Get to the heart of it. What do the experts say about his idea? Good idea? Dumb idea? What's the news?

Lindenbgerger's piece Sunday was yet another installment in The News's 15-year multi-volume saga, which we might call, "What Elephant? Chapters One Through 1,000."

Once again, a News reporter purports to write about the effect of the toll road plan on flood control issues in Dallas and fails to call national and international experts and say, "What about building an expressway between aging urban flood control levees?"

Could it possibly be that the reporters either correctly guess what the answer is going to be or may even have made some of the calls and heard the answer I got when I did this story for the Houston Chronicle 13 years ago: very bad idea. Upside-down bad. The opposite of good.

During the referendum, when people pointed out that no one had ever build an expressway between flood control levees, Leppert had a line about how no one had ever built an Eiffel Tower before the French did.

But this is a flat-earth issue. Tell Tom Leppert everyone else agrees the earth is round, and he says, "We must dare to be different!"

The reporters at The News have failed to do this story for 13 years. I think there's a reason. I don't believe anybody ever really tells them not to do it. But there are two kinds of reporters in this world. You've got the kind who enjoy doing stories that piss off the boss. The good kind, in other words. And the kind who know which side their bread is buttered on. That's what we saw Sunday.

Like I say, maybe we should view it as first night at rehab. If that's it, then I think what The News and Lindenberger are telling us is, "Yes, it is possible that the hundreds of mashed-up beer cans you found in my car that I don't know how they got there may be connected in some bizarre way to the totally not-my-fault rear-end collision that was nowhere near as bad as people are making out to be in which certain people are claiming I may have been involved as a somehow contributing party."

Hmm. Maybe it's a start.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze