Friday, May 18, 2012

A Conversation with TV Stations' Rail Journalist: Tim Sakahara Calls to Inquire about the Rail PR ‘Sideshow’ but Ignores Elephant in the ‘Big Top’

Hawaii News Now's Sakahara begins report on "PR Nightmare."
Yesterday’s email and phone call were from Tim Sakahara of Hawaii News Now. That itself was unusual, since our work on the Honolulu rail project doesn’t include media relations.
Mr. Sakahara wanted to talk about the project’s public relations activities, since he’d been put onto that story by at least one office holder who has asked about alleged PR “redundancies.” We told him we know nothing about HART’s PR issues, if any exist.

He then asked about our own connections to the project as a “paid consultant,” a fact displayed prominently at the top of this blog. We explained our subcontractor relationship with PB Americas, the city’s principal rail contractor, then shared a few thoughts (paraphrased as follows) with this highly visible TV journalist who covers Honolulu rail for three Honolulu stations. (Mainland readers might be astounded to learn that.)

“Tim, if I may, all this interest in the rail project’s so-called public relations effort is hard to understand. Communications outreach is necessary in every major transportation project funded by the FTA, so having personnel doing that work is neither surprising nor particularly noteworthy. It seems to me you’re so consumed by the PR Sideshow that you’re missing the elephant of a news story in the Big Top – Ben Cayetano’s still-secret bus rapid transit plan.”

Mr. Sakahara’s response was non-committal at best. He didn’t evidence any agreement with our assessment, but we thought we detected a glimmer of recognition that such a story may indeed be inside the Big Top.

‘Rail’s PR Nightmare’
We waited for the 6 o’clock news last night with more anticipation than usual. Mr. Sakahara introduced his report with a remarkable graphic displayed next to him, as seen in the photo at the top of today’s post.

“PR Nightmare”? Is that Mr. Sakahara’s opinion? Is it the newscast producer’s assessment or the news director’s? Who at HNN will claim ownership of this obvious editorial comment in the middle of a newscast? The news story itself hadn’t even begun, and already PR is being trashed as a “nightmare.”

Mr. Sakahara’s piece began: “At prior rail events, there have been more public relations people than reporters.”

What is Mr. Sakahara’s point 13 words into the story – that too many staff people work at these events where the public is informed about rail?  Does he know those public relations people are there to answer the public’s questions about rail – answers they apparently can’t get in media coverage?  What’s surprising to us at these meetings is how few reporters bother to attend.

Mr. Sakahara counted up the number of communications people working for HART, key HART consultant InfraConsult and building contractor Kiewit Pacific. Then there are subcontractors,” Mr. Sakahara continued, “like the Yes2Rail blog written by Doug Carlson. He is a communications specialist paid (emphasis in the reporter’s voice-over) by Parsons Brinckerhoff to write the biased blog to advance rail.”

“Biased blog.” We’d choose any number of other words to describe this space, but that one is loaded and may say more about Mr.Sakahara’s approach to covering rail than anything we can write here.

‘Channel’ Journalism
Mr. Sakahara has shown a tendency to run with certain office holders’ criticism of the rail project and its staff, including last night’s report of the project’s communications efforts. 

Last July, less than two weeks after HART’s official stand-up, he reported on concerns in some City Hall offices that HART staff was leasing office space in downtown Honolulu. The fact that those same personnel had been in that same space for four years as employees of the City’s Rapid Transit Division was downplayed and virtually overlooked.

There’s nothing new in newsmakers seeking out friendly reporters who turn criticisms into prominent stories. The practice is as old as journalism itself, but what’s missing in Honolulu media coverage of rail is a sense of balance.

Inside the ‘Big Top’
The biggest rail-related story pregnant with potential today is what mayoral candidate Ben Cayetano would try to implement if he wins the election and kills rail. Yet that’s the story most local journalists are not reporting. They are not asking for Mr. Cayetao's bus rapid transit plan and don’t  report Mr. Cayetano’s refusal to release it.

Civil Beat’s rail reporter says he’s been asking Mr. Cayetano for the plan’s details, and the candidate is not returning his calls – perhaps a lingering hangover from February when Mr. Cayetano banished that reporter.

This “biased” Yes2Rail blog is apolitical and posts commentary on Mr. Cayetano and his anti-rail, pro-BRT efforts because they threaten a project that was planned over several years and endorsed one way or another in numerous elections by Oahu residents. That all happened before Mr. Cayetano and his Gang of Four launched their own anti-rail public relations campaign last August with their 1500-word manifesto in the Star-Advertiser – a piece Civil Beat’s Fact Check feature took apart.

Rail project communicators are charged with educating the public, and that often includes highlighting the misinformation and inaccuracies of rail opponents. Mr. Sakahara calls this blog and presumably other communications efforts “biased,” but would he use this same loaded word to describe the opinions of prominent rail opponents and critics?

We don’t think he would, since the thrust of his own rail focus parallels their attitudes. So consider today’s Yes2Rail post an Open Letter to Mr. Sakahara urging him to broaden that focus. We’ve already posted similar epistles to the Star-Advertiser’s B.J. Reyes and Pacific Business News’ Mark Abramson urging them to enter the Big Top and start describing the elephant in there.

Failing that, they risk wearing the “biased” tag themselves.

Elsewhere in rail-related news, the project generated these headlines in today’s Star-Advertiser (subscription):
Most claims over railproject’s impact on sites are dismissed

The beat goes on.


Anonymous said...

You bring up some good points Doug, but when you say Yes2Rail is "apolitical", your credibility flys out the window.

Doug Carlson said...

Thanks for the back-handed compliment, but I must reaffirm that this is not a political blog. It isn't "political" to point out the presumed inadequacies of a still-secret plan promoted by a politician who refuses to release the details of that plan. It's just commentary devoid of an adjective.

If you want to make a difference, urge the news media to demand answers about that plan from the candidate.