This Little Piggy Goes to Town

Categories: Schutze

Apologies to the civilians in the room. I need to speak directly to the bloodhounds at The Dallas Morning News. Please excuse us while we engage in a bit of canine shop talk, just among us ink-stained wretches.

Your managing editor, George Rodrigue, posted a rebuttal this afternoon to an item I wrote for Unfair Park a few days ago, about the way your paper handled the Trinity River toll road story.

Rodrigue called me a pig and then said he had to respond to me anyway, because “I’m getting the usual demands to defend our honor.” I will assume he is getting those demands from you guys at The News. Otherwise he would not have responded at all, because who talks to pigs? So I’m grateful. Stirring him up was the right thing and an indication that maybe you have a little more blood in your veins than I thought.

But we need to talk business here, people. And, if I may say so, you need to pay attention.

Your editor takes two statements I have made and uses them to sort of cancel each other out. I have said that Mayor Tom Leppert and city council member Mitchell Rasansky made a lot of political hay during the campaign of the fact that the city would never have to pay more than $84 million for the toll road, no matter how much the road costs.

Those of you who paid attention, you do remember that, right? That was the whole thing about, “Don’t let Angela Hunt send a billion dollars down the river” and so on. What a deal. No matter how much the road costs, we don’t have to pay more than $84 million.

Rodrigue toe-dances around an important related point: that Leppert said repeatedly in debates and interviews that he had received assurances from the North Texas Tollway Authority that the city would not be expected to pay more than its $84 million. That was the “I looked them in the eye” and “I am very comfortable” part.

But now Rodrigue takes another point I have made -- that Leppert’s way of talking about these things is deliberately slippery -- and says I have contradicted myself. If Leppert is slippery, then how can I say he made a promise? “So, which of Jim’s versions is one to believe?” Rodrigue asks.

Hey, hey. Talk about slippery stuff.

All right, persons: Here is the question for you and for me. Did Leppert and Rasansky strive during the campaign to create a story to the effect that the city’s share of the toll road was paid up forever, no matter what, and that, therefore, the road was a great deal for the city? Did Leppert, with his “looked them in the eye” line, try to create the impression he had a deal, assurances, a gentleman’s agreement with the NTTA?

If a reporter discovered that the NTTA did not believe there was any such deal and might indeed ask the city for more money, was that a story? Was that possibly an important story?

Yeah, that’s what I thought. And Rodrigue knows it too. He even tries to toe-dance around it with an incredibly weak little exercise in woulda-coulda: “Had I known about the quotation [transportation writer Michael Lindenberger] gathered during his interview at the NTTA,” Rodrigue writes, “I might have asked for a short story, just to get the agency’s position on the record.”

Just to get their position on the record? What is he, a court reporter? No, George. You know it’s a story, because you know your readers would read the shit out of it. That’s what makes something a story. If you’ve been putting stuff in the paper as a means of filing it, then suddenly I think I understand your circulation problems.

And here, fellow journalists, is the heart of the matter. If it’s a story, it’s a story. It’s not half a story. It’s not a sorta story. No such thing. Half a story is no story. If it’s a story, you do the whole story. You work it. You call everybody. For example, you call Angela Hunt, and you say, “Ms. Hunt, NTTA board chairman Paul Wageman says he might have to ask the city for more money for the toll road. Do you think that’s significant?”

O.K., now come on, News folks. Be fair with me. If it’s a story now, it was even more of a story when The News first heard about it, before the election. Right? Not putting it in the paper then was a suppression.

Suppression. You guys need to not kid yourselves about this stuff. This is America. You don’t get to count points for yourselves like you were working in the Russian press. “Boy, I really snuck some cool hidden messages in between the lines today on that wheat surplus story.” You either do the story, or you collaborate in the suppression of the story. Which sucks.

Last question. Rodrigue goes on at the end of his piece to say that asking city taxpayers to pay more for the road is not necessarily a big deal. Costs go up. People can vote for bonds or vote against them. So what’s the beef?

Would it not have been a story -- a big story -- to say during the campaign and before the election that maybe we might need another bond election to pay for the toll road? Easy to say now, right, because the moment has passed. Maybe not even so big a story now, because the pro-toll road side won.

But the news value, the heat, the juice, the play -- all of it would have been far different if your paper had put that story on the page during the campaign instead of sitting on it until the day after the election.

Now maybe I have to do a little mea culpa and correction. Maybe.

I have been saying in blog items and columns that Michael Lidenberger is a good reporter. That’s because I assumed his editors sat on this story until he forced them to publish it.

Rodrigue says different. He says Lindenberger did bring back the quote from Wageman but didn’t think it was important enough to work on when he got it, a month before the vote:

"Michael wanted to ensure that readers could put the quotation in proper context, and I respect that. Journalists often must balance speed with thoroughness and self-restraint, as Michael did here."

So I need to take back all of my positive remarks about Lindenberger’s reporting. If what Rodrigue says is true -- he brought home the quote but was too stupid to know it was a story -- then he’s a really bad reporter. A dumb reporter.

If he brought back the quote but sat on it because he knew it would get him in trouble with management -- because management didn’t want stories in the paper that made the toll road look bad -- then he’s a coward. In that case. he doesn’t deserve to call himself a reporter.

I think you guys see the truth here. And I bet you don’t think Lindenberger is stupid or a coward. Just weak. I will leave the rest of this important dialogue to you and your bathroom mirrors. --Jim Schutze



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