Late to the Party: Transit and the Fourth Estate

I’ve been plowing my way through Robert Caro’s The Power Broker since, embarrassingly, last July*, and as I hit the home stretch, finally the press of New York seems to have awakened to the disasters wrought by a wholly unaccountable Robert Moses on the city. Throughout much of Moses’s tenure, only the New York Post (astonishingly, once a bastion of populism and hard-hitting investigative journalism) seems to have been interested in the misdoings of Moses, and was the only outlet to even try and report the story of East Tremont’s destruction for the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway.

It isn’t until later, when the patronage and corruption associated with Moses’s “Slum Clearance Committee” and his oversight of Title I Housing redevelopment starts to emerge that the rest of the press picks up this whiff of something unsavory. Moses, you see, had cultivated the press – feting publishers and senior editors, enlisting officials and loyal “Moses men” to do battle on his behalf – and was able to, for decades, portray himself as an incorruptible savior of the public interest. For a time, the publishers are reluctant to confront their own mistaken judgment of Moses’s character. But as Gene Gleason and Fred Cook of the World-Telegram began to cover the story, eventually trading scoops and leads with erstwhile competitor William Haddad at the Post, soon the third afternoon paper, the Journal-American, joined in, and was followed by the Herald Tribune and even the Times, sending the coverage to new heights of “respectability.”

Obviously, this has little to do with transit directly. But it speaks to the importance of digging, to questioning the narrative, to actually refusing to accept the pat answers from the authority or or the man in charge, to expressing just the slightest bit of doubt at the rote replies from flacks and PR men. For the health of a city, an inquisitive press is a requirement. And often that will mean an adversarial press, regardless of the”access” it might cost (and when current access consists predominantly of regurgitating agency-issued press releases, there isn’t much to lose).

Now, contrast that spirit with the lugubrious malaise of Robert Thompson, the Washington Post‘s so-called “Dr. Gridlock.” Virtually his every column or live Q&A session that touches on issues of transit and WMATA is written with an air of resignation, of a man who sees no possibilities other than current reality and is uninterested in even hinting at the possibility of something else. In response to a question/complaint about long wait times on the ludicrously poorly-timetabled Blue Line (12 minute peak headways), here is his “answer”:

DrGAnswer

We can boil that down to: “delays are bad. It’s cold outside, too.” Some real ace reporting, there.

And of course, were there other options, it would be a different story. Even an otherwise odious outlet, like the Washington Examiner, can feature top-notch reporting from gems like Kytja Weir. But when that paper axes its local coverage entirely, there are few places to turn to. The Washington Times‘s big feature story of the past few years was a three-part exposé on the inner workings of WMATA’s “culture of complacence,” but its relentless focus on race above all present the whole story in a weird, quasi-racist tone. There are important facts they’ve discovered, but things like managerial incompetence seems outweighed by the fact that said manager is black.

In other words, press, elected officials, and aloof authority personnel have conspired – presumably unwittingly – to render the status quo the only possible state of affairs. Long-term planning for the future on anything resembling the Second System or the first 105 miles of planned WMATA Metrorail – all of which were built – is absent. The current situation is accepted as the only one. Relatively loud voices that could be a clarion call for improvement are absence. Dr. Gridlock tells us, essentially, to “get used to it.” And it’s here where Caro’s writing on the dismal state of transit (specifically, the Long Island Rail Road) at the time bears an unwelcome resemblance to today:

“Get used to it!” Accept as part of your daily existence two or three – or more – hours sitting amid dirt, crammed against strangers, breathing foul air, sweating in summer, shivering in winter … “Get used to it!” One has to think about what those words, so casually uttered, really mean. One has to realize that a man uttering those words has accepted discomfort and exhaustion as a part – a substantial part – of the fabric of his life. Accepted them so completely that he no longer really thinks about them – or about the amount of his life of which they are, day by day, robbing him. We learn to tolerate intolerable conditions. The numbness that is the defense against intolerable pain has set in – so firmly that many of the victims no longer realize that the pain is pain.

“Get used to it,” indeed. Dr. Gridlock and the rest of the Washington-area media aren’t responsible for the decline of WMATA, but they’ve done little to arrest its fall. Of course, part of the problem plaguing local coverage of transit issues is the fact that so many journalists drive, just as with the politicians who have allowed mass transit to atrophy. And that windshield perspective has led to a great collective ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

In any event, without a press willing to antagonize and question the dominant narratives put forth by WMATA (an unaccountable public authority, as Caro might emphasize), their word will remain gospel truth, even when hundreds of thousands of daily riders experience otherwise. Who will step up to the challenge?

*Here’s my defense: it’s relentlessly depressing. Not that this makes it anything less than utterly worthwhile, but coupled with the deluge of bad news that seems to comprise the world, it hasn’t made for the best escapist pursuit before bed. It’s telling that I read approximately 4 times as many novels in 2014 as I did non-fiction books.

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