Friday, March 16, 2012

Transportation Secretary LaHood Repeats Support For Honolulu Rail, Drowns Rumors of ‘Concern’ in Cold Water, Says ‘We’re Committed to the Project.’ Question: Where Has Media’s Objectivity Gone?

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood supported Honolulu rail in Congress yesterday.
The Ben Cayetano campaign event disguised as a press conference on Tuesday seemed like a tempest in a teapot at the time. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood made it official yesterday.

Consider first that Mr. Cayetano’s “big revelation” amounted to several emails written as long as six years ago between staffers at the Federal Transit Administration that had unflattering remarks about the Honolulu rail project – emails that undoubtedly embarrass them today.

Mr. Cayetano trumpeted the emails as evidence of “lousy practices of public manipulation” by the city. If ever there truly were doubts at the FTA, its recent granting of a Letter of No Prejudice to Honolulu rail wiped it away.

Seeking to put Mr. Cayetano’s relevations in better perspective, Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) questioned Secretary LaHood in a U.S. Senate hearing yesterday on the DOT’s current view of Honolulu rail. The dialogue between the senator and Mr. LaHood is available on YouTube, including Mr. Lahood’s entire response:

“I want you to know that we’re committed to this project. This is an important project. This will deliver people all over the island. It’s an important project, and at this point, we’re going to continue to work through whatever issues need to be worked through. We’re committed to this. We’re committed to the money, we’re committed to the project, and until we hear differently from others who are intimately involved with this, I see no reason why we won’t go forward.”
Are Media Taking Sides?
It was a near certainty that the Star-Advertiser’s three news columnists would line up against Honolulu rail – a big government project of the sort that usually attracts negative comments from journalists paid to express opinion. We felt confident in making our “not-very-courageous” prediction in January that none of them “will write a single paragraph of positive content about the Honolulu rail project in 2012."

It’s another matter when presumably objective reporters not paid to report their opinions either cross the line or simply fail to exercise enough professional discipline in preparing their reports on rail – discipline media consumers could once count on in local media’s objective coverage of events.

Not Enough Rigor
Playing loose with the facts has been evident in rail coverage all week. An example as fresh as the 6:06 am today was a public radio newscast on Mr. LaHood’s statement that included a long sound bite. The report then referenced Mr. Cayetano’s earlier allegations: “Federal opposition was revealed earlier this week by former governor Ben Cayetano…” The report likely was generated by a wire service, and it is demonstrably false. The FTA does not oppose Honolulu rail; just the opposite is true.

Yesterday, Pacific Business News’ transportation reporter wrote about rail in a manner that some might believe is less precise and objective than what consumers have reason to expect:

“Cayetano is one of four plaintiffs who filed a federal lawsuit last year to stop the project. The others include former state judge Walter Heen, University of Hawaii law professor Randy Roth and Cliff Slater. They have so far been successful (emphasis added). One of their arguments is that the City and County of Honolulu has a one-track mind…and did not explore options besides the elevated rail idea.”
They’ve been “successful”? The only thing they’ve successfully done is delay the project and add to its costs, so is that what the reporter thinks is a success?

Opinion as Fact
On Tuesday, the day of Mr. Cayetano’s campaign conference, Hawaii News Now began its report: “Ben Cayetano has released some damaging emails written by the federal government….” The reporter didn’t attribute the “damaging” characterization to Mr. Cayetano; he simply said the internal emails – written several years ago as kibitzing among FTA colleagues – are damaging. If they ever were, which is doubtful, they certainly aren’t today except as fodder for Mr. Cayetano’s campaign.

That kind of reporting would not have gotten onto KGMB-TV’s air, Hawaii News Now’s predecessor, when channel 9’s legendary news director Bob Sevey was in charge under the ownership of Cec Heftel. The Sevey newsroom demanded professional discipline, and he got it from reporters Dan Chun, Bart Fredo, Bambi Weil, Bob Jones, Linda Coble and others.

Sidelight: Mr. Heftel will be honored in a ceremony this morning to attach his name to the U.S. Postal Service building in Kahala, the Honolulu neighborhood where he lived for many years. He sold the station in 1976 and was elected later that year to represent Hawaii’s 1st District in Congress, where he served five terms. He died on February 4, 2010. See the Remembering Cec Heftel website.

Past as Present
Following the same trend in other media that brings the past into the present, the Star-Advertiser’s page-one headline on Mr. Cayetano’s event declared “Emails suggest problems with rail,” a statement that also is false since it describes allegedly ongoing problems that in fact don’t currently exist. The FTA has green-lighted the project through several key steps.

These and other lapses and the ones yet to come deserve attention because they reveal an apparent tendency within the local media to treat Honolulu rail with undue skepticism in their supposedly objective reporting. Far too much deference is shown to rail’s critics, but there’s been far too little rigorous questioning of those who want to kill rail.

Mr. Cayetano says in fits and starts that he wants to create a bus rapid transit system if he’s elected and kills rail. Reporters dutifully report that, but there’s no evidence any reporter has pressed Mr. Cayetano – really worked at it – for details on his alleged BRT plan, including what it would cost, how it would be funded, what communities would be served by express lanes and which would not be served, bus travel times, routes and so on.

These questions and many more need to be answered by the candidate who wants to end the rail project and the thousands of jobs that would be created to build it. The primary election is less than five months way, and the media are still content to let Mr. Cayetano roll out his BRT plan at his leisure – a plan that so far may be the recycled 2000 plan that went down in flames during the Harris Administration.

That’s not rigorous reporting, and as the examples above show, what reporting we do see has much in it that’s false. Oahu media consumers deserve better and expect more.

No comments: