Ask the Editor: Managing Editor George Rodrigue
02:45 PM CST on Friday, November 30, 2007
One of my editors here used to have a sign over his desk. It said, “Never wrestle with a pig. You both get filthy, and the pig loves it.”
The saying came to mind as I wondered whether to respond to another set of accusations about our Trinity River coverage from the Dallas Observer’s Jim Schutze. I’ve already written about Jim’s poor command of the facts and his habit of telling falsehoods about our coverage, and about the Trinity issue. I’ve also cited a range of facts that I believe proves the fairness and accuracy of our coverage.
But Jim’s at it again, this time with a fanciful column that accuses us of “sitting on” an earth-shattering story about massive cost overruns that would cost Dallas taxpayers a billion extra dollars for the Trinity toll road. And because Jim’s a colorful and persuasive writer, I’m getting the usual demands to defend our honor.
Very well. His column’s worth discussing, because it’s another fine vehicle for understanding how a good newspaper works, and how different that is from Jim’s work.
Jim’s theory is that our editors suppressed a story by transportation writer Michael Lindenberger until after the Trinity election, because if we’d printed it beforehand it would have tipped the political balance against the proposed toll road.
Jim wrote, “I sort of hate to beat up on Lindenberger, who wrote some very solid coverage during the campaign and does a great job of covering transportation generally. He got a better interview than I did, asked a better question, and went back to the newsroom with a very big story.” Then, Jim says, “Somebody at the News sat on this.”
Part of what Jim says is true. Michael did do a better job than Jim, he did ask better questions, and he has covered the beat well.
One of Michael’s questions, before the election, was how much the North Texas Tollway Authority could afford to pay for the toll road. He dug through documents at the NTTA, but found only cost estimates, not revenue projections. NTTA maintains the revenue estimates won’t be available for another couple of years. As for the cost estimates, Michael learned that what we’d been reporting all along was correct: The road inside the Trinity River levees was the cheapest alternative.
NTTA’s best estimate was that building the highway inside the levees would cost $1.29 billion, about $300 million less than building it outside the levees, on Industrial Boulevard.
Michael talked to NTTA Chairman Paul Wageman, who told him that if the costs of the tollway rise above current estimates, the NTTA might ask its partners, including the city of Dallas and the Regional Transportation Council, to pay more to build the road.
To Michael, this just stated the obvious. The NTTA is a government entity, but it’s also a self-supporting organization. Like private businesses, it can’t make investments that would bankrupt it. There was, however, no evidence that the costs of the Trinity toll road would exceed what NTTA could pay, and Michael knew that even if costs did rise, the state and federal governments were more likely sources of extra dollars than was City Hall.
Michael concluded that the facts he had available to him fell far short of what was needed for a meaningful story. So he never even mentioned the chairman’s comment to his editors.
Instead, he wrote the other story he was researching. He pointed out that toll road supporters were wrong to claim that killing the high-speed highway would cost the city a billion dollars, because the dollars were mostly intended for the road, which would no longer be part of the plan.
Just after the election, as is common in the news business, Michael wrote a “what’s next?” story. It was a big-picture piece about all the uncertainties surrounding the toll road, including its funding. That story briefly mentioned that the Wageman interview was a month old. Jim seized upon the date as evidence of censorship.
Jim offers no evidence in support of his allegation, and simple logic refutes it.
Our own story shows we weren’t hiding anything. Jim knew the quote was a month old because Michael printed that fact high in his story. Why would we advertise the timing if it were a source of shame for us? For that matter, why would we advertise the quotation?
Next question: Was there a big story worth hiding?
Jim argues that the comment from Mr. Wageman mattered because a huge funding shortfall would leave Dallas taxpayers holding the bag. “So far,” he wrote, “The amount of money available from the tollway authority, added to our $84 million, looks like it will be less than $300 million.”
But Michael says the $300 million estimate is years old, made back when the tollway was expected to cost only about $600 million. Mr. Wageman’s own comments show how irrelevant the $300 million figure has become. In effect, he said that the NTTA would not have to ask for more help if the road cost $1.3 billion. Which is still the best available cost estimate.
Jim hasn’t shared copies of the estimates he claims to have seen predicting that costs could exceed $2 billion. In theory, if the project takes long enough to build, inflation could push it that high. But based on past experience, prudent readers would want to verify Jim’s claims about what’s in the files.
For instance, just before the Trinity vote occurred, Jim wrote that he’d discovered documents at the NTTA saying it would cost no more to place the tollway outside the levees, along Industrial Boulevard, than inside them, on vacant land.
That mystified Michael, because it went against everything he’d ever seen in the files. He wondered how it could be cheaper to build a road on land covered with businesses than on undeveloped land that the public already owned. Sam Lopez, a spokesman for the NTTA, wrote to Michael to say that Jim had simply gotten it wrong. He had apparently taken one estimate for the Trinity project between the levees, with right-of-way costs included, and compared it to another estimate of what it would take to build the road along Industrial – but without including any of the right-of-way costs. Despite Jim’s unqualified assertion to the contrary, the NTTA hadn’t reversed its longstanding position: The cheapest way to build the road was still to keep it inside the levees.
Finally, Jim argued that if we had mentioned the mere possibility that the NTTA might ask Dallas for more money to build the road, the story would have grievously wounded Mayor Tom Leppert’s credibility.
“That flies straight in the face of repeated promises throughout the campaign,” he wrote. “Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert insisted repeatedly that he had secured a personal handshake deal with the tollway authority by which they agreed never to seek more money from Dallas taxpayers.”
Soon enough, though, Jim told a different story. Here’s his description, in a later column, of what the mayor said: “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-[r]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’.”
So, which of Jim’s versions is one to believe? Were there “repeated promises”? Our reporters, who covered Mayor Leppert quite closely during the Trinity debate, never heard him promise that NTTA wouldn’t ask for more money. What they heard him say was that the city is committed to paying no more than $84 million for a highway that’s likely to cost $1.3 billion – that the 1998 bond election in which Dallas voters approved the Trinity project in effect capped the city’s commitment at $84 million.
Is there a logical conflict here that makes a liar out of the mayor? Not if you believe Jim’s more recent description of what the mayor said. And not if you believe it’s possible for the NTTA to ask for more money, and for the city to say no.
If costs rise, if NTTA asks for more money, and if the city declines to pay it, there would be many possibilities: NTTA could get the money from the state and federal governments, whose transportation spending dwarfs the city’s; it could subsidize the Trinity tollway with revenue from other parts of its system; it could scale back the project, by cutting the number of lanes or exit ramps for instance, or take other steps to cut construction costs. Or it could choose not to build the tollway.
And what if the city, when and if the funding question rises again, does choose to spend more on the road? It’s been nine years since the bond referendum. An $84 million commitment in 1998 is worth over $100 million today, factoring in ordinary inflation (road-construction costs are rising even faster). Would it be scandalous if the city chose to spend more on the tollway?
That’s a value question, and everyone’s entitled to his own answer. Mine is, “It depends.” If the decision is made openly – if, say, there’s another bond election, and voters choose to invest more in the highway – then the new spending would meet the same test of public consent as the original 1998 bonds did.
But that’s the real world. What about the world of local journalism?
As I see it, The News had a careful, well-informed reporter, Michael Lindenberger, who aggressively pursued an important story about the toll road’s financial prospects. He had a throwaway quotation that was all but meaningless without factual context. He didn’t think he knew enough to write a narrowly focused story that was fair, complete and significant. So he took more time to pull together a broader report on all the uncertainties surrounding the toll road.
Had I known about the quotation he gathered during his interview at the NTTA, I might have asked for a short story, just to get the agency’s position on the record.
But 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.
Then we have Jim. He had missed the story Michael found; he didn’t know enough to ask the right questions. His own work on the project’s economics was hundreds of millions of dollars off the mark, according to the NTTA.
Jim feels passionately that the Trinity toll road should not be built, and he routinely dedicates his columns to making that point – often torturing the facts and straining logic in the process. As he says, on some stories he doesn’t even try to be fair.
So maybe he really can’t believe that Michael chose to keep researching the financial story, rather than print something that wasn’t all that new, and might be misleading.
Still, it’s strange to see Jim, having been beaten to this story, try to turn the fact that we printed it into an argument that we were trying to hide it.