The Dallas Morning News does so much better about telling the truth on thorny local stories when it's easy, when we're in a news lull. But when the rubber meets the Trinity toll road, they revert to character, and watch out.
Days before the Saturday election in which the toll road is a central issue, the paper's editorial writers are again tossing around their favorite term of opprobrium, paranoid. They say anybody who suspects a connection between last week's felony charges against city council member Scott Griggs and the toll road issue is nuts.
Editorial writer Mike Hashimoto wrote yesterday on the News opinion blog, "Accusations from the Griggs' side of a grand conspiracy rooted in the controversial Trinity Parkway project only risk sounding paranoid."
Yeah, well, guess what. It's a risk we have to take.
I explained yesterday that the highly bogus-seeming felony charges against Griggs for getting mad at a city employee came on the heels of a major victory he and council member Philip Kingston scored against City Manager A.C. Gonzalez, forcing him to release a bunch of information about the toll road that he had been fighting for months to keep secret.
So why would we get all paranoid about that or about anything else to do with this 20-year-old controversy over unfulfilled plans to build an expressway through downtown on top of the river? Could it be ... maybe the one thing that makes us so willing to risk seeming paranoid is that old devil, recent history. And just for grins, let's start with something more specific: recent history of The Dallas Morning News.
They have always said that anybody who suspects or suggests duplicity in their own coverage of the toll road project or in City Hall's handling of it is a nutcase. In October 2007, George Rodrigue, then managing editor, garnered a mention on the Romanesko national media blog at the Poynter Institute for singling me out as a nutcase in an online message to readers.
Romanesko wrote: "Most daily newspaper editors ignore criticism from alternative papers, but Dallas Morning News managing editor George Rodrigue worries that if the News doesn't respond to Dallas Observer columnist Jim Schutze, people might think he's right. 'He claims to see our reporters as part of a massive conspiracy by the city's business leadership to support the Trinity River tollway. As the person who supervises our news coverage, I can say that this is lunacy.'"
Back story on that: In the campaign season before the November 6, 2007, referendum on the toll road, the biggest issue was who was going to pay for it. Mayor Tom Leppert told voters the North Texas Tollway Authority had promised to pay for it and would never ask Dallas taxpayers for a penny more than the $84 million Dallas had already committed. The News continued to report that claim as gospel until the votes were counted.
The day the votes were counted and the toll road had won, the News published a story saying they had been informed some weeks before the election that what Leppert was saying was not true. They had been told specifically and directly by the chairman of the board of the NTTA that the road was going to cost a billion, maybe billions, more than the public had been told, that the NTTA wasn't writing the check and that Dallas would be asked to pony up more money.
Did they say, "Our bad," or anything like that to acknowledge that what they had been telling readers for weeks before the election was not true? Oh, hell no. They just dropped the new truth onto the page like it was a big so-what? No big deal.
I think it was after I attacked them for that that Rodrigue wrote his letter to the readers about me in which he repeated the old saw about rassling with a pig. You know. Nobody wins, pig likes it. I read that, and I thought, "So I was right! He was enjoying himself!"
The guy who wrote the NTTA story that popped up after the election, Michael A. Lindenberger, came back four years later and wrote an excellent story about the lies the toll road backers had told before the 2007 vote. Terrific piece. Blew them away.
I confess I did find myself thinking about all the old people who had voted in 2007 and how many of them probably had passed on while waiting for Lindenberger to clear things up, but that's what I mean. They do great in the non-rubber-meets-the-road periods of relative tranquility.
D Magazine, I don't even know what to say. We're on the same side of the road now. Publisher Wick Allison has staffed the place up with a bunch of really good new people and one old one. He seems determined to leave a legacy. More power.
But in 2006 he was the one snapping those reins on the Schutze-is-nuts bandwagon. "Schutze zeroed in on the Trinity because he thinks something underhanded is going on," he wrote to his readers. "I find the accusation bizarre."
Yeah I zeroed in. I told Dallas Observer readers I had gone over to City Hall and told the city manager and the mayor my reporting showed that the city was already over budget on the Trinity project by $1.125 billion not counting the toll road. I sat with the mayor, the city manager and a bunch of assistant city managers, and they all told me I was nuts. Crazy. Delusional.
They said I was piling on and exaggerating by trying to add the $330 million cost of the Calatrava bridges to the Trinity River project, which was crazy, they said. Totally unfair. They told me to subtract that $330 million right then and there. I was intimidated. I did what they said. I took it out.
Then I wrote a column saying the project was over budget by $795 million. Then Allison wrote his piece calling me bizarre. And now, you know what? So much crap has been added to the project, so many white water features and water mazes and zip lines and God knows what, no one has any idea what all of it would cost if it ever got built, God forbid.
See also: My Brain on Crack
And I get paid to do this stuff. I hate to even go into what the News, D Magazine, the Citizens Council and political consultant Carol Reed have said over the years about former City Council member Angela Hunt, whose campaign against the toll road has been an act of unpaid public service.
I remember that in 2009 they called her a liar. "Hunt was guilty," they said, "of airing a misleading TV commercial and of making claims about the Pegasus road project that proved to be flat-out false."
That was all about the Tom Leppert/Carol Reed attack ad in 2007, published as an expensive mailer and also on TV, I think, saying "Don't Let Angela Hunt Send More Than a Billion Dollars Down the River." It was based on a claim now acknowledged by all parties including the Morning News and D Magazine to be utterly false, a lie.
The claim was that Hunt's idea of barring the toll road from being built between the levees, forcing it to go outside the flood control system, would kill a billion dollars in state and federal funding promised to Dallas to fix the downtown freeways. The freeways could not be fixed, the News insisted, unless the toll road was built first as a detour. When Hunt said the freeway funding was in no way connected to the toll road and the freeways could be fixed without it, the News called her a liar.
They waited three years to clean that one up. In an almost silly throw-away line on a blog in 2010, editorial writer Rodger Jones mentioned something he had picked up the day before in an editorial board meeting with the state highway department's chief engineer, Bill Hale:
"One interesting thing I learned from our sit-down with Hale and others from the TxDOT district," Jones wrote. "Many people had been under the impression that the Pegasus project could only be pulled off if the Trinity toll road were done first to provide a bypass for traffic relief. Not so, said Hale."
Yes, Rodger, many people had. Because you told them so. Repeatedly. On October 21, 2007, you wrote an editorial telling readers, "The Trinity toll road is essential to Project Pegasus, the planned rebuild of the downtown Canyon and its Mixmaster interchange."
See also: Lies, Damned Lies and Project Pegasus
Two years later you wrote another one calling Hunt a liar for saying it wasn't true. Then in 2010 you did your tid-bit, saying oh look, this just in, freeways can be fixed without toll road, who knew? And now, of course, the freeways are being fixed without the toll road.
It's all about when they talk to you. If the Morning News is talking to you in one of those lulls when nothing big is about to happen anyway, then it's all truth and daylight from them. Let's get the story out and get it right.
But if it's today, two days before an important election in which something could actually happen to mess up the toll road, then anybody who even suggests there may be lying or dirty tricks afoot is a paranoid tin-helmet nutcase.
Hey, the News is definitely going to tell you the full truth about the charges against Griggs, where the charges came from, who was behind them and how it happened. According to my clock, you need to wait three years for that.