How the Observer Abdicated Its Watchdog Role

Jim Schutze has done a great job of hounding city officials and others about the Trinity Project. But last week he did something unbecoming a journalist of his stature. Worse, he did something that, to my mind, just might disqualify him from the entire debate. Let’s jump!

In the conclusion to a column about why the Trinity Project is in trouble, he wrote the following: “But the really important fact, embedded in all of this, is that we have idiots steering the ship.” Take a second to let that melt in your mouth. Schutze didn’t write that in a blog post, something hurriedly typed before he dashed off to yoga class. He wrote it in his column in the paper. He had time to consider his words. And he decided that the most important fact in the debate over the Trinity is that idiots are working on the project. And then his editor(s) read that and let it stand.

I’ve met many of the people working on the Trinity Project. Gail Thomas, Rebecca Dugger, Theresa O’Donnell, Mary Suhm, Michael Morris — those are the names that jump to mind — and they’re not idiots. In fact, in the conversations I’ve had with these people, I’ve gotten the distinct impression that I’m an idiot. These are intelligent, caring people. The Trinity Project might kill everyone in Dallas, as Schutze says it will, but if that happens, it won’t be because the people working on it are idiots.

I think if you write that down and publish it — if you call these people idiots — you’ve demonstrated something worse than a bias. You’ve shown that your mind is closed. And you’re lazy.

Now. One more thing: yesterday they unveiled the new model for the Trinity Project. See yesterday’s posts on same if you missed the news. And yesterday, on the Observer‘s blog, Robert Wilonsky summed up the paper’s reaction to the model thusly: “We’ve just posted the slide show from Sam’s trip to the Trinity Trust, where they unveiled the world’s most expensive and incomplete model in the history of glue. Seriously, after spending half a million dollars and taking two years, they couldn’t debut a finished model? What’s the rush? Somebody? Anybody?”

Here’s why that post is telling: the Observer, as an organization, can’t even appreciate what is clearly a phenomenal work of art. We’re not talking, for the moment, about whether the model actually depicts what we’ll wind up seeing in earth and water and trees and roads; we’re just talking about the craftsmanship of the model itself.

Susie and Charles Kendrick, the husband-and-wife team that built the model, are among the best on the planet at what they do. And their Trinity Project model is so complicated, so ornate, that it’s hard to get your head around.

It features 20,000 feet of fiber optics to light up street lamps and buildings. One building itself, Renaissance Tower, just six inches tall, has 600 feet of fiber optics in it. Charles said at the unveiling yesterday that it was important to him that people who live near the Trinity can come see the model and locate their house on it. That way, the mammoth project can be brought down to a personal level. So to create that intimacy, he built 40,000 houses into the model, with each foot print and roof line of every house an exact tiny replica of the real thing. And since Google couldn’t give him the detail and data he required, he drove every damn street to gather that data himself. Then he built a computer to store that data. I asked Charles how much data we were talking about and told him a terabyte was the biggest unit I’d heard of. That’s 1,000 gigabytes. He said, “Oh, more than that. At one point, I thought it would be cool to keep track of stuff like that. But it got to be too much.”

So, yeah, it cost $500,000 and has taken two years — so far. At the press conference yesterday, Charles said there was still plenty of work to be done on the model. Because you know what? With any project of this magnitude, you’re going to be forced to unveil it to the public before it’s finished. Six months before you think you’ll be finished, someone is going to say, “Can we send out the invites and do this thing six months from now?” You’ll say yes, and then you’ll realize at some point that you’ve got seven more months of work left. That’s the way it goes.

Point is, the model is very cool. No other model like it has ever been built. And the Observer took a look at it and — whether through close-mindedness, laziness, or both — all they could see was that it wasn’t finished.

As I sometimes tell my 9-year-old: you are not helping.


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47 responses to “How the Observer Abdicated Its Watchdog Role”

  1. Bethany says:

    There’s a difference between being a watchdog and reporting on an entity, and wanting to be on record as the first publication to predict a project is doomed.

  2. jrp says:

    lazy is certainly apropos, dude, you hit the nail on the head

    there’s plenty of ways to imply someone isn’t playing with a full deck without calling them an [word that gets censored here on FB, and for good reason]

    some quick examples, not saying Mr Schutze shoulda used one, but just laying out some alternatives to idiot

    couple fries short of a happy meal
    obviously not a golfer
    two beers short of a six pack
    about as sharp as a bowling ball
    not the sharpest pencil in the box, tool in the shed

  3. Dave Thomas says:

    I wonder, in this beautifully intricate model, did they include The Bridge homeless shelter? Does it show the hundreds of homeless hanging out on the streets nearby? Maybe harrassing some of the patrons at the Farmers Market?

    Because really, if you’re going to go the extra mile to get all the detail of 40,000 homes right, you really should get one of the prominent features of downtown right too.

    For the record, I’m very excited about the Trinity River Project. I’m excited about the potential of downtown Dallas, the Arts District and the Victory Park/Uptown area too. But, the homeless shelter is chasing away business and residence quickly. If the city doesn’t move it or close it, they’re going to have a big glittering ghost town in about 5 years. (along with a gorgeous riverfront no one will be there to use)

  4. Bill says:

    When all the bugs die off after the first frost this fall, I only ask that you spend a couple hours wandering around the riverbottoms in the Trinity “forest”. You will quickly understand that the area will never be a park.

    It cannot and never will be a recreation destination. You can make a Globalcon miniature model that would even make Dr. Evil jealous and it still does not convey the fact that the Trinity is an open sewer and always will be.

    The whole road thing. What a mess. Who would even use it? Commuters from Gun Barrel City to Euless?

  5. columbiasooner says:

    For the record, I like Jim Schutze and have enjoyed his writing. I have had the opportunity to sway him to my side on campaigns and have had him bash my side repeatedly on others. I 100% agree with Tim on this one though.

    Losing a hard fought, extremely public political campaign where your heart and soul is in it is very tough to get over. Sometimes it takes a year or so. There were times when I didn’t know if staying in Dallas was the best thing to do for me personally or politically after mine. But you know what? The sting goes away after awhile. Eventually you realize that Dallas is a great place to live where there are literally hundreds of smart, thoughtful people that, although they may have disagreed with you and campaigned against you, may just be a little more informed and politically savvy than you give them credit for.

    It’s time to put the May vote behind us and try and make this project work for all of us. Having worked on a very similar project in the County to the West, i can tell you dealing with the Federal Government and the Army COE is extremely complicated and sometimes frustrating. Constructive criticism is generally welcome, but nothing good ever comes from sitting on the sidelines and calling people names. It’s just in bad taste. IJS…

  6. El Rey says:

    I don’t want to come out as a DO apologist or a TRP cheerleader, but I want to point something out. Does anyone else think an incomplete model is sort of indicative of this whole project? Impossible deadlines, EXPENSIVE, far from complete in reality and in the final vision, lacking complete information, and did I mention expensive?

    I want investigative journalists (how many are left?) following this project from start to finish. I want taxpayers to be kept in the loop about the management and mismanagement of our tax dollars. If the DO is the only entity really willing to step up to the plate, I say cheer them on. If they get carried away editorially, give them the requisite slap on the wrist and encourage them to do better. I hope that is what Tim is trying to accomplish.

  7. John M says:

    First of all I don’t buy the “600 feet of fiber optics in a 6 inch tall building”.

    Is it an impressive model? Yes, but I think he is viewing it more as a metaphor for the entire project. Yes, it’s very neat that the houses match but in the grand scheme of things is it important or even recognizable to anyone but the person that lives in that house? Meanwhile, the important stuff like the bridges were left unfinished:

  8. Katherine says:

    Good start to the post, but you lost me on the beauty of a $500k unfinished model.

    On one hand, the Observer’s coverage has been over-the-top, but consistent. D has been measured, but nebulous. We know where your publisher stands, but not most of the staff. (e.g. admiring e-mails to Angela juxtaposed with attending the celebration party.)

  9. yikesdallas says:

    What a bunch of hogwash, as my Dad would say.
    No, Tim, the “Point is” the model is suppose to be representative of the Trinity Project, unless I’m mistaken. It’s not suppose to be a model of Reunion Tower or replicas of some houses in West Dallas showing each individual picket fence post.
    So it’s just fine and dandy that all that fiber optic was used, and it’s obvious that the Kendricks are amazing model builders. The lady who does butter sculptures at the Fair is talented too, but that also doesn’t have anything to do with the nuts and bolts of the Trinity Project, and how its “reality” is or isn’t shown on the model.
    Once again, it’s the old sleight of hand trick where they want you to look one place and ignore what’s really going on. And of course, Dallas being Dallas, pretty glittery things get our attention every time.

  10. Katherine says:

    PS – If one designate’s DO as the watchdog, what is the role of Frontburner in civics and the public’s greater good?

  11. Idunno says:

    The crazy thing is, all the details went into neighborhoods and downtown. The new Trinity parks, bridges and roads weren’t completed. Isn’t seeing the new stuff the point? I agree with the Observer, overall, this thing is quickly spiraling downhill and the in complete model is a symbolic representation of that.

  12. Bobby Ewing says:

    Your assumption is that The Observer and its journalists operate under the same strict standards as mainstream media. Then again, what is mainstream media and what are strict standards anymore? And let the slings and arrows begin…

  13. Wes Mantooth says:

    Maybe they can re-purpose the model to support turning Reunion into a casino that would then support the Great White Elephant Convention Center Hotel.

  14. Amy S says:

    The vote is over, the project is in, so why the necessity to “sell” us with a half-a-mill model? This PTA mom gags thinking of all the other things this money could have been spent on. Like 9 or 10 new baseball fields for kids, or soccer fields, or anything except this ginormous dust catcher.

    My vote is while lovely, it was not money well spent.

  15. Tim Rogers says:

    @Amy S: Keep in mind that Alon USA paid for the model. It didn’t come out of the bond money. Now, Alon could have paid for some soccer fields, true. But the thing is, private funds are still needed for this project. Bill Lively raised the money for the Center for the Performing Arts. He told the Trinity Trust folks: you gotta have a model to raise that money. So look at it as a $500,000 investment that hopefully will return many times that.

  16. Scott says:

    tim, it really just comes down to whether people are personally willing to pay whatever it takes to finish this project or whether they think they’ve spent enough already. you are obviously in the camp of let’s spend whatever it takes, it’s just money. jim and others like myself are not in that camp.

    do you think that the trinity project will be completed without costing the taxpayers more than it has?

    do you think that a half-million dollar model will raise enough private donations if it doesn’t?

    who is going to be paying for this park under the freeway?

    i mean, you can put lipstick on a pitbull, but it’s still… oh crap now i’ve done it.

  17. GuiltyBystander says:

    Um, lipstick on a pig?

  18. Amy S says:

    @ Tim – as in any situation where someone else is paying the check, a big thank you to Alon for this, it is lovely. I never quibble over how non-taxpayer money is spent unless it’s my husband’s allowance.

  19. Spamboy says:

    In the amount of time it took me to read this post and its comments, I could have driven to Ft. Worth, biked around downtown on their Trinity trails, and made it back to McKinney. Dallas has been dragging its feet on this project for nearly a decade — I don’t have much hope that it will be completed before I (or my growing family) can enjoy it.

  20. towski says:

    @ Katherine “PS – If one designate’s DO as the watchdog, what is the role of Frontburner in civics and the public’s greater good?”


    The answer is simple – Statler and Waldorf.

  21. Gwyon says:

    Deleted for saying that if I were a model maker, I would prey on the gullibility of wealthy investors by telling them residents will come to see their very own little houses?


  22. Josh says:

    I have to agree with Unfair Park that calling attention to the unfinished part of the model is very critical. It seems that the builders spend two years to meticulously detail downtown Dallas, OakCliff, and Vickery Park. But the when it came to the Trinity Project area on the model it looks like the builders turned this part over to their kids. With bridges to nowhere, strips of paper as roads, correct me if I’m wrong but should the majority of the detail start with the Trinity Project and all it entails then add in Dallas IF time permits?

  23. Katherine says:

    You read my mind, Towski. And I know you are not referring to the Brothers or the Salad.

  24. MushMouth says:

    So let me get this right…

    Name-calling in comments? No
    Name-calling in the post itself? Yes

    Makes perfect sense to me.

  25. IttyBittyWussy says:

    You can model the buildings and the houses because you can drive by and look at them. You are forced to leave the bridges and park imcomplete because you don’t yet know what they’ll look like. First because they haven’t been built and second because the designs are still changing.

    The park and bridges are not “models” but rather “artist’s interpretation of what might possibly happen someday.”

    That seems to my to be why the stuff that is not so important to the model is done while the main features that are basic to the functionality of the model are not done.

  26. Chris says:

    this model is exactly what the Dallas attitude is towards public projects, “incomplete”

    I am happy that a husband and wife can work on a model for 2 years and sucker $500,000 from some company.

    If I were in Vegas, I would bet on 2 things. That the city of Dallas, NEVER sees a lake in a drainage ditch. And, if it were actually built, the money required to fix everything after a flood would not be available requiring it to go back to a drainage ditch.

  27. Daniel says:

    Commenter Bill, up near the top there, has it right. It’s simple geology. You can’t turn a floodplain / lowland / seasonal wetlands into a recreational destination. You. Just. Can’t.

    Check out Trinity View Park in Irving for an example of what can be done with this particular turf … soccer fields that are under water a quarter of the time, unusably muddy a quarter of the time, and swarming with bugs five months out of the year. That’s the optimum you’re going to get — some occasional utilty. You can no more turn this regional drainage alley into a pleasant destination than you can build a boardwalk with an amusement park on Pikes Peak.

    Sure, Trinity View Park is better than nothing, but it ain’t no umpteen-jazillion dollar deal.

  28. Billusa99 says:

    You had me with you, to a degree, on the first part, Tim. “To a degree” being the idiot name-calling part. But, if D did half as much *real investigative* Trinity reporting as Schutze and Sam (at DB and now DO) have done, then I’d be standing, clapping.

    But, your model-praise part left me sitting, pondering. An incomplete model that elicits praise, for the key thing it doesn’t yet depict properly, is hogwash (or perhaps Trinity backwash).

    I don’t care who paid for it. The builders could have used their collective imaginations better, instead of spending 2 years driving around getting roof pitches and shingle colors and siding choices. All they will have to show for it is people lining up to see if they got their houses/streets right, not to see what the project is REALLY supposed to depict and sell.

    I can do the former on Google streets without lining up. I still can’t do the latter, a half-million bucks later!

  29. Billusa99 says:

    D computers now asterisk out i d i o t ???

  30. Dallasite says:

    Tim, while I appreciate that the model “…is clearly a phenomenal work of art” the real question that some of us have is why it was deemed necessary at all. This model, much like The Bridge homeless center, is nothing but an expensive trophy that politicians and beaurocrats can point to and say “look at what I’ve done”. Meanwhile, they haven’t done anything towards meeting the goals that the public expects of them.

    Dallas city government is terminally ill, and the last thing we need are its reporters and publishers applauding wasteful spending on even more wasteful projects.

  31. mm says:

    Would Schutze’s message be better received if he was less of a smartass? Yes.

    Is he still carrying a huge grudge because his side lost? Yes.

    But I fail to see how that translates to him being lazy.

    And, as others have pointed out, we’re burying the lead. We now have a half-million-dollar model, of…. what? Lights and roofline pitches are painstakingly accurate on existing structures, but the Trinity River Area (which I mistakenly thought was the whole point) looks like it was done by a kindergartner with some blunt scissors and some Elmer’s.

    Those are the details I would like to see.

  32. Bill says:

    Instead of putting the model up in the obscure office location of some building none of us have ever heard of, why not put it up for the duration at the State Fair? It would not get the same oohs and ahhs as the lifesize Land O’ Lakes Elvis but it would still draw a crowd. I’d stake an 18 coupon, 6 ounce, luke warm beer that it would get more press than sitting around some non-profit office.

    Hell, all Belo had to do 10 years ago to attract a buzz was plug in an HDTV with a static picture of some flowers in a vase.

  33. Bethany says:

    I think maybe – like the model itself – incomplete would perhaps be a better word.

    Anytime a journalist writes a project off wholesale and calls those involved the i-word-that-is-like-Voldemort-on-Frontburner, it means that his or her coverage runs the risk of being incomplete – not showing the whole picture.

    It would be equally incomplete if a journalist gave his or her wholesale endorsement of it.

  34. Brian says:

    still think I saw this model in Logans Run.

  35. LakeWWWooder says:

    If the model had been built by DISD Architecture students, TDMN would have a complete list of flaws (and maybe speculate about others). Implying they were idiots would be axiomatic.

    But the DISD students would have done a better job – my Architectural Drafting Teacher Bob Cargile would see to that!

  36. Wes Mantooth says:

    How did the model represent the dead trees at Central and Woodell Rogers? Brown fiber optic?

  37. mm says:

    @Bethany – nailed it. Lazy, no. In fact, Schutze’s zeal to prove the Trinity Project folks wrong winds up being the opposite of lazy.

    But incomplete, yes.

  38. Jesse says:

    Fitting that the model is a microcosm of Dallas: Lots of style. Zero substance.

  39. Katherine says:

    I just love watching this continuing Schutze (the Old Head) vs. Rogers (the used-to-be Whipper Snapper) grudge match.

  40. Sam Merten says:


    I’d respond, but I’m too busy building this to destroy your beloved Trinity model:

  41. Mark says:

    I believe there was a failure to communicate the true deminsions of the design to the planners. Kinda like the Stonehedge model in Spinal Tap.

  42. Spamboy says:

    @Bethany Would you consider Jim’s pieces to be true (objective) journalism, or do they fall more into the realm of (partisan) opinion? Seems to me they’ve *always* tilted toward the latter, and any opinion writer will tell you they aren’t apologetic for writing what they perceive to be the truth.

  43. Bethany says:

    Spamboy: If he would couch it as, “In my opinion, they’re idiots,” then it would have probably floated better. But even an op-ed piece needs to be grounded in facts – all of them, preferably, especially when one presents himself as a fact-based columnist.

    Don’t get me wrong – Jim Schutze’s tenacity in this Trinity project is admirable. His track record as a journalist is enviable.

    However, when you refuse to allow for any possible good outcome and write the project off, and then dismiss those involved as idiots, it makes you a less effective columnist.

    Why? Because people that are reasonable enough to see that nothing is all bad or all good are turned off. People he hopes to reach – those that perhaps think the project must be good, because people voted for it – are turned off because he just called them an idiot.

    That eliminates 2/3 of your potential audience, and the remaining third is the choir.

  44. Bethany says:

    Ugh, I forgot we can’t use the I-Voldemort-word.

  45. Jeff says:

    Journalist Bethany on Jim Schutze:

    “However, when you refuse to allow for any possible good outcome and write the project off,…”

    Journalist Jim Schutze, from his column cited above:

    “The Trinity River Project, by now, is really a bunch of big public works projects all lumped together, some of which are absolutely wonderful.”

  46. Bethany says:

    But the original Trinity River project itself – without the new “wonderful” things, he has much hate for.

  47. Jeff says:


    “The levees here are dirt walls along both sides of the Trinity River designed to hold back flood waters from downtown on one side and Oak Cliff on the other. The area between the levees is called the floodway. It’s the pipe, so to speak, that carries the water away.

    The city’s plan is to build an expressway down the middle of that pipe. There is no way to do that without clogging the pipe. If you clog the pipe, you risk pushing the waters higher until they spill over the levees, then rip the levees down and send rampaging floods through downtown or Oak Cliff or both.

    The fact that the toll road is being held up by the environmental impact studies is serious and scary. The fact that the Calatrava bridge is being delayed by engineering and money problems is significant.”

    and the interesting problems with the bridges that precede it seems more complex than your simple psychological diagnosis that Jim Schutze “has much hate for” the problems he consistently lays out, Bethany.