What's the Rush, Mayor Tom? Hidin' Something?

Categories: Schutze

Wow. Now this takes a little bit of work to follow, but I think it’s worth it. And here is where we are headed: First, The Dallas Morning News hides the ball. Then, to cover themselves, they show the ball -- very briefly, sort of a sneak peek. But now -- and this is the wow part for me -- they have the nerve to hide the ball again.

Bottom line: These people do not have a high opinion of the intelligence of their readers.

Before we get to recent developments, a little background. A central issue in the Trinity River toll road referendum -- maybe the key issue for the dominant voter bloc in North Dallas -- was cost. Money. Mayor Tom Leppert and city council member Mitchell Rasansky hammered away again and again during the campaign on one theme: No matter how much that toll road downtown costs, it will never cost Dallas taxpayers a penny over the $84 million we pledged to it in the 1998 Trinity Rover bond election.

We are talking about total costs now that could reach $2 billion, so Rasansky and Leppert had a strong selling point: We get a $1.3- to $2-billion road for $84 million. Leppert said again and again that he had “looked them in the eye” at the North Texas Tollway Authority and that he was “very comfortable” that they were never going to ask the city for more money no matter what the road costs.

Part of the deal here is that Leppert is a former McKinsey and Associates consultant, and so you get all this talk from him that’s board-oom sales-pitch schmoozola, lacking the element of precision. Sounds good, but what he says always leaves him a lot of wriggle room. “Looked them in the eye” and “very comfortable” are not the same as “I have an agreement with them.”

This particular comfortable little chicken came home to roost the day after the election, when The News published a convoluted, mainly unreadable story with a surprising revelation buried deep in the text:

NTTA Chairman Paul Wageman said last month that the agency would build the road only if it is viable -- meaning it produces enough in tolls to pay for construction. He said if the costs continue to rise above the current estimate of $1.29 billion, the agency may ask its partners -- including the city and the Regional Transportation Council, which sets priorities for the entire North Texas area, to increase their investments in the road.

Translation: At some point “last month” (i.e., before the election) the chairman of the board of the NTTA looked a Dallas Morning News reporter in the eye and said that his agency may indeed ask Dallas taxpayers to kick in more money for the toll road.

NTTA spokespersons later confirmed to me that Wageman had made the statement to The News. They said he was not responsible for when The News chose to reveal what he had said to its readers -- a fair point. My point: NTTA did not look Tom Leppert in the eye and tell him it would never seek more money from Dallas taxpayers. No way. As soon as The News published it on November 7, Wageman’s statement “last month” was proof of that fact.

The election was decided by a six-point margin. That margin seems to have been delivered by fiscally conservative voters in North Dallas. I think it’s a certainty that many of those voters would have voted the other way or stayed home had The News not sat on the Wageman story.

The daily, which had campaigned for the toll road like a female canine in reproductive ardor, chose to publish the story after the votes had been counted, I am sure, because they thought sneaking it onto the page then would cover them journalistically. Later they could say, “Oh, we did that story. What, you want to quibble about when?”

So there we have stages one and two: Hide the ball, show the ball. Briefly.

Now in today’s paper we have Stage Three: re-hide the ball. In a story about our mayor and how he’s going to speed up the timetable for the toll road, News reporter Bruce Tomaso says of the toll road’s costs: “The city is committed to pay $84 million in bond money, regardless of the final cost.”

But we already know that this is far from a full picture, do we not? Did The News not tell us on November 7 that the NTTA does not consider that commitment to be final or permanent or non-negotiable? Ah, well, you see, apparently we did know it for a while, but now we don’t know it again. That truth has returned to a non-operable status.

Tomaso, who was the most shamelessly propagandistic of The News’ reporters covering the referendum, is the one they seem to choose for stories like this. The younger, less savvy fellows might have asked, “Shouldn’t we mention the Wageman story in here?” But I am sure Bruce knows better than to ask such things.

I have to say one thing here: During the campaign, News managing editor George Rodrigue wrote two long blog items attacking my credibility as a reporter. Cooler heads talked me out of responding immediately, in blog time, but I continued to do more reporting, and one by one I did eventually refute all of his points, especially about money and whether the inside-the-levees route was more expensive than an alignment along Industrial Boulevard (not).

We've repeatedly challenged The News to offer an explanation for the original suppression of the Wageman story. I would like to update the challenge to include a demand for an explanation of its brief exposure and subsequent re-suppression. So far, The News has offered not a word of justification for any of it.

As far as I am concerned, this Wageman story is a bottom line and due-bill on the question of which newspaper has integrity on the Trinity toll road issue -- ours or theirs. At every possible opportunity, in spite of having a much smaller staff, the Dallas Observer and Unfair Park have done everything humanly possible to find the truth and put it before readers.

The News, meanwhile, suppresses what it knows is an extremely important story, timing the suppression to have an important impact on the outcome of the election. They reveal what they have known all along only after the outcome is in hand. And now they are ignoring important facts they have already reported.

There’s the bottom line. We try as hard as we can to tell you the truth. They work as hard as they can to fool you.

This issue reaches beyond the realm of journalism, of course. Leppert made his remarks about speeding up the timetable for the toll road in front of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce -- the kind of yee-haw uncritical congregation where he knows he will get major points for just for sounding poz-tiv. But I suspect there is a much bigger rat than that scratching inside the walls of City Hall. Leppert's likely softening up the ground for an announcement that Dallas taxpayers must shoulder major new financial burdens for this toll road, whether it’s straight cash, taking on increased liability, re-designing elements of the road so that more of them can be called something other than what they are, whatever.

Forget the $84 million. It’s more now.

Dimes to dougnuts, Leppert’s “expediting plan” involves breaking his and Rasansky’s promise on no-more-cost for city taxpayers. And if that’s what is going on, would we trust Bruce Tomaso at The News to sniff it out for us? If he were capable of sniffing it out, would he tell us? Can we trust The News on this topic? On any topic?

Mr. Rodrigue? Your thoughts? --Jim Schutze

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