Thursday, October 29, 2009

The LA Weekly's Ridiculous Fear-Mongering

NOTE: We've moved! Visit us at the California High Speed Rail Blog.

The LA Weekly used to be one of the truly great newspapers in California. Founded during the late 1960s, it quickly earned a reputation as both an independent as well as an informative, investigative paper that by the 1970s and 1980s had become a must-read for anyone who wanted to know anything about Southern California politics. They kept up this reputation into the 21st century. But it has been lost, particularly after a merger with the New Times corporation. New Times' approach to "journalism" is to throw bombs and make wild accusations based on scanty evidence. It's a hollow shell of the standards the LA Weekly had been known for. Former editor Marc Cooper charted the paper's sad decline, and Harold Meyerson, a leading progressive writer, has long since left its pages.

That is crucial background for an examination of a sensationalistic and ridiculous article the LA Weekly published regarding high speed rail this week. The criticisms of the paper's appalling decline in journalistic standards aren't my own, and they predate the article. It's unfortunate that HSR is this week's target of shoddy and misleading "journalism," but, here we are.

The article is essentially a grab bag of attacks on high speed rail, none of which are new, few of which make sense. It includes a rehash of the LA River "controversy" that the LA Times already covered (it used to be the case that the Times followed the Weekly, not the other way around). Let's take some of the more egregious parts of the article:

“They need to work in partnership with us rather than shoving stuff down our throats,” says environmentalist Melanie Winter.

Winter is part of a diverse set of environmental advocates, community leaders, elected officials and taxpayer watchdogs who are banding together in the hopes of changing the direction of the rail authority.

The article doesn't say who these people are, exactly, making the group seem larger than it is. And Winter doesn't explain her concerns - instead the quote is designed to make HSR look like the bad guy, instead of the environmentally-friendly form of mass transit, well-integrated with the community and supported by a majority of Californians that it actually is.

The rail authority’s members have little, if any, connection to actual California voters, who polls say are sick of partisan politics. In fact 20 percent of California voters are now registered as “decline to state” political independents. Meanwhile the rail authority board is almost entirely made up of Democratic and Republican operatives and partisans appointed by Governor Schwarzenegger and the Legislature.

OK, this is just absurd. 80% of Californians are registered Republicans or Democrats, and most of those DTS voters consistently cast ballots for Dems. In fact, the members have quite a lot of connection to actual CA voters, if we're going to use this ridiculous metric, since 80 is larger than 20. Moreover, they are all duly appointed and confirmed by the elected representatives of the people of the state - apparently the Weekly has forgotten how representative government works.

Ironically, right after they say the board is illegitimate because it is stacked with Dems and Republicans (as is the state of California!) they write this about the CHSRA's former chairman:

Retired judge Quentin L. Kopp is one of the powerful board’s few politically independent members.

Which of course totally invalidates their earlier point. But there it is, in print, bizarrely enough.

Five years ago, ANG Newspapers published an explosive investigation by Sean Holstege, reporting on a meeting led by Democratic politico Willie Brown and attended by Katz, Diridon and Morshed, at which Brown advised a roomful of engineering and construction firms that to win contracts to build California’s bullet train they first had to pony up $1 million in fees for Katz and other political consultants. According to the story, the consultants would then pull strings in the Legislature, aimed at getting a bullet train plan on the ballot. The controversy died, but several insiders present at that May 11, 2004, meeting with the big firms hold posts on the rail board.

What does this accusation have to do with the present? Did Katz win a contract? Is Willie Brown still involved with HSR? And since HSR didn't go to the ballot until 2008, did this meeting have any relevance whatsoever to the present situation? The only reason this is mentioned is the desire of the authors to throw every possible accusation at HSR to set up their article, regardless of whether the accusation has merit or relevance.

Few California voters knew this back story last November, when they approved a vaguely worded, $10 million bond measure to begin construction of high-speed rail. The details were fuzzy on where, exactly, the tracks would go, what they would look like, and whether property might be seized.

Um, no. The bond measure was not "vaguely worded," it instead specified a very specific corridor as laid out in a very explicitly and not-vague EIR document approved by the board last summer. The details were clear on where exactly the tracks would go, though in some places the tracks could go in a number of places.

One emerging dispute involves a proposal to build the rail line down the middle of I-5. Some activists say the idea makes sense, especially when the alternative would be to run the rail lines through communities and parkland, in some cases cleaving them in half. But state officials seem to have dismissed the I-5 route long before real hearings even took place.

“There hasn’t been a rigorous study of that alternative,” says Damon Nagami, a staff attorney with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an organization of high-powered lawyers working with communities affected by potential routes. “We don’t understand why the rail authority wants to eliminate this option at this very early stage.”

If that's NRDC's position, they are fools. It's unclear where on I-5 they're referring to, but it doesn't much matter. Nobody lives along I-5 in the San Joaquin Valley, so it makes no sense to put the train there. The trains should go where the people are. If you're talking about I-5 in the LA metro area, that's a truly idiotic plan that should never be given the light of day. It would not only produce much less riders, and might not be feasible given the curves of I-5 in the San Fernando Valley, but the cost would be astronomical and it would have a far greater impact on homes and communities than would following the rail corridors as currently planned. The I-5 alternative should be eliminated because it is senseless and stupid.

Another debate is over downtown’s historic Union Station. The rail authority seems bent on making Union Station the hub for multiple lines that would meet there. But residents of mostly Latino, mostly working-class Lincoln Heights, Cypress Park and Glassell Park worry that trains will tear up their communities.

Nagami says he’s pressuring the state to consider building an annex near Union Station to serve as the high-speed hub. “We’re getting the sense the rail authority has its chosen route and is going to push for that,” adds Nagami, whose organization helped to successfully sue the state eight years ago, when it tried to sell empty land near Union Station to an unpopular developer. “The whole point of an environmental-impact review is to carefully examine a range of options.”

First off, Union Station is going to be the hub because it already is the hub of the LA mass transit system. It would be truly insane to not have trains stop there, with easy transfers to Metro Rail, buses, and Amtrak California and Metrolink trains. The trains won't "tear up their communities" since they'll follow existing ROW and corridors. This is NOT the Century Freeway, despite the LA Weekly's sensationalistic desire to paint HSR as such.

The range of options have already been carefully examined in previous EIRs, and the current program EIR will carefully examine the specific details of bringing trains to and from Union Station.

Perhaps the most emotional and complex issue is the fate of the Los Angeles River. The river has long been both a target for jokes (“L.A. has a river? You mean the giant half-pipe where they filmed Terminator?) and the object of a slow but concerted revitalization effort, which some fear will be quashed by a train route touted on some maps.

Since 2001, California has spent roughly $100 million developing parks along the river, and many of those newly green areas could be ruined by the bullet train.

“This project, if it’s done wrong, will undo years and years of work, on top of the millions of dollars that have been invested,” says Sean Woods, in charge of L.A. parks for the California State Parks department. Though employed by the state, Woods is part of the coalition fighting to make sure L.A. isn’t steamrolled.

LA isn't going to be "steamrolled," as Woods should know. The city of LA's River Revitalization Plan makes clear that the river will continue to be a railroad corridor, and specifically mentioned HSR as part of it. Further, CHSRA is well aware of the desire to connect the riverfront park to the neighborhood, which is why it plans to use the HSR project as an opportunity to achieve that, as this video makes extremely clear. Apparently some people haven't gotten the message:

“Rail has been the barrier to access to the river,” says L.A. River activist Joe Linton, who writes the “Creek Freak” blog. “For eight miles in the downtown area there are tracks along the river. The high-speed rail can either make that a worse barrier or it can make that less of a barrier.”

The plan apparently favored by political types who dominate the rail authority would make that barrier worse. Linton says the inviting green areas now envisioned could mutate into an industrialized backyard for a supertrain. “Those were huge struggles that resulted in parkland for communities that absolutely needed it,” Linton says.

First, the tracks along the river - whether north or south of Union Station - aren't going anywhere. Anyone who thinks they are is out of their mind. Those tracks have been there for a century and will be there for at least one more. Further, as the video makes abundantly clear, HSR will make it less of a barrier.

Of course, the LA Weekly doesn't anywhere mention the CHSRA's video, their plans, their scoping process. Nor does it even appear they tried to reach CHSRA for comment, the way a normal journalist would. Instead they plowed right ahead with their hit piece. Shameful.


Unknown said...

If you want further proof of worthless journalism, the bond measure was for $10 Billion with a "B", not $10 Million. Whoops...

YesonHSR said...

And lo and behold..a comment parroting all those lies and mistakes from M Engle
STILL all over the internet with anti HSR almost one year after prop 1A passed!

Matt said...

LA Weakly doesn't even deserve a response.

Anonymous said...

Is somebody getting defensive

Unknown said...

My favorite part is that they say the board is stacked with "partisan" democrats and "partisan" republicans.

Which, last I checked, is usually referred to as "bi-partisan".

Heck, with Kopp on there, it's even 8% Independent, which is a better representation of LA-weekly's own insightful voter registration demographics, than, say, our state congress.

Rafael said...

California Rail Authority notifies Ogilvy of selection
for $9 million PR contract.

Anonymous said...

I was going to ask if the board discussed and voted on Ogilvy, and how they did that behind closed doors - is that legal?

But the one liner says 'after board discusses it at their November 5th Board meeting'. I'm wondering how they've made a decision in the dark behind closed doors, without a discussion, without the presentations that were supposed to be presented by the vendors? Was there any opportunity for public comment on this decision? Did they make a decision before they had a PUBLIC board meeting to make the decision? Interesting how this works.

Do they even try to put on the appearances of doing the right thing, or are they past all that nonsense?

missiondweller said...

Its not so much that its biased journalism but that it is just really bad journalism.

Can't imagine why papers are doing so poorly these days.

Joey said...

Can we stop assuming that all of CHSRA's decisions are politically motivated and actually find evidence before pointing fingers?

Anonymous said...

Of course the only great news media is this blog....

dave said...

Anon 8:19

Shut up Martin Engel! We know it's you.

The fact that you are a foaming anti-rail particularly anti-HSR nut. The odds that you have been on here not using your name and foaming at the mouth in rage is very high.

I saw you on a Bay Area news station report about a month or two ago about one of the peninsula HSR meetings enraged like the old kook you are talking about how this project is politically motivated and a bunch of other funny stuff.

We know that you post on here all the time and since you don't use your name, you use anonymous. The same anonymous who follows this blog on a daily basis.

Anonymous said...

Earth to hsr foamers - there are Californians who do not approve of the CHSRA scheme.

Where politicans are involved, especially of the ilk of Willie Brown, concerns about corruption are in order. Even more when corporate insiders like Bechtel stand to make a great deal of money off the taxpayers. Top it off with the Palmdale con. This has the makings of a decent "noir" flick.

Get used to the lambasting - you asking for it with the likes of the Tehachapis folly and the Palo Alto berm blitakrieg.

Anonymous said...

Earth to hsr foamers - there are Californians who do not approve of the CHSRA scheme.

There are Californians who believe that man has never been to the moon too. Believing in something doesn't make you credible. Approving or disapproving of something doesn't make you credible. Facts do.

dave said...

Here's the thing, life on this planet lives on politics. Someone or some people made it this way and unless it changes we will always live in a politically driven world were corruption and profit behind closed doors exists.

Government and politics are all corrupt. That's how people get elected. If you think that is a reason to stop this project then forget about it because it will never go away and in that case lets just sit on our hands and not do anything and not build anything because god forbid someone makes a profit without your permission and on your watch.

Disclamer: Those are merely my opinions and not those of others on this blog.

Joey said...

Top it off with the Palmdale con. This has the makings of a decent "noir" flick.

Get used to the lambasting - you asking for it with the likes of the Tehachapis folly and the Palo Alto berm blitakrieg.

October 29, 2009 10:05 PM

You're not calling Tehachapi and the Peninsula areal political decisions, now, are you? Because that would be just plain stupid. Do you really think Palmdale has enough political leverage to change the route? I didn't think so. And besides the perfectly logical technical reasons why it was chosen over the grapevine, I can think of no other reason why that route would be used. As for the Peninsula, again, the only fathomable reason for choosing an elevated alignment is technical. And don't bring up contractors because they stand to benefit MUCH MORE from a tunnel.

Seriously ... when did making logical, technically competent decisions go out of style?

Hear No Evil, See No Evil said...

If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything.

I guess that's the way it is with ethics on this blog (eh, Dave?), and you foamers are falling for a massive corruption scam. Pity, because HSR could actually be designed correctly. Some Californians do stand for something, and the corruption charges are not going to go away. Get used to it until you grow a spine... and a power of reasoning and logic.

Joey said...

Back up your corruption claims with evidence - otherwise you're a foamer too.

Anonymous said...

@missiondweller missiondweller said...
Its not so much that its biased journalism but that it is just really bad journalism.

Can't imagine why papers are doing so poorly these days.

I can tell you exactly why journalism is in the toilet. The last of the real journalists have retired or died. Their young replacements, the so called journalists of today, came of age in a much trashier world. Young people today can barely read or write let alone be objective, do research or have integrity. The only thing they know is opinion, emotion, sensation combined with buzzwords and political correctness and this is what now passes as "journalism."

This is a big problem because the success of a democracy such as ours depends heavily on a well informed, accurately informed population.
Americas standards, be they monetary, social, literary or political are reaching an all time low with no hope for improvement.
BAck in the 70's, "they" warned us this would happen and lo and behold here we are.
Trash. Trash Trash everyway you look. TRasy behavior, trashy movies, trashy news, trashy environment, and ever lower standards.

I shudder to think what the future holds as these young people take charge. Thank god I'll be dead and gone.

anyway vacation started 35 mintues ago hooray time to finish off this champagne. San Diego here I come.

Hear No Evil, See No Evil said...

Joey, start with the May 11, 2004 meeting where Diridon and friends brokered "pay-to-play" deals between engineering firms and political operatives. Work from there. Or more recently, just look at this dodgy $9 million PR contract.

The FBI will be involved soon enough.

Anonymous said...

The hsr used to be David. Now that it is the CHSRA it is Goliath.

The corruption follows the power. Lord Acton's rule never fails.

Anonymous said...

Hear No Evil, See No Evil said...
Joey, start with the May 11, 2004 meeting where Diridon and friends brokered "pay-to-play" deals between engineering firms and political operatives. Work from there. Or more recently, just look at this dodgy $9 million PR contract

dont be a pollyanna. No one cares about this. Its called doing business in the big leagues of big money and big politics. No room for "hey thats not fair"

Matthew Melzer said...

Amazing takedown, Robert. I weep for the state of journalism in my hometown.

Rafael said...

@ Hear No Evil -

it's inappropriate to vaguely accuse a person or even an organization of the crime of corruption without offering any proof at all. If you have some, go take it to the police. Otherwise, go vent your libel somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

"success of a democracy such as ours depends heavily on a well informed, accurately informed population."

Yep, and it's evident here that HSR supporters are not "well-informed, accurately informed" of the consequences of a stupid, porky, dimly-thoughtout project such as this.

Hilarious. You guys probably jerk off to a picture of a Shinkansen every night.

Anonymous said...

Explain WHY ..other than its not planned by YOU!! richard

Peter said...

Sorry jim, I'm going to have to disagree with you as to why journalism is in the toilet. The reason why the papers suck is that they are all being bought up and operated by conglomerates, who then try and save money by getting rid of as many reporters as possible. They then combine all their operations for a number of local papers into a centralized location so that they can get rid of even more staff. All the desks get combined, such as copy desks. They now have one copy editor in charge of five papers. Add ta that the fact that the managers don't care about the papers, and you have a recipe for disaster. Apathy begets apathy, especially when going from managers to staff. When the reporters don't go out on assignment and get all their news from facebook, twitter, and wikipedia, and no one cracks down on them, can you blame them?

This is why ALL the major papers in Northern CA, with the exception of the Chronicle, are owned by a single company, Media News Group, and they all suck. For at least two of the locals, the papers are identical, except for the name at the top. All the content is the same. So, if you compare that history with that of the LA Weekly, you'll see that they're the same.

Peter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter said...

There are still a lot of excellent journalists out there. Newspapers, however, are not motivated by putting out good news, but solely on the profits. They are run by the bean counters, not the editors.

missiondweller said...

Jim: You said it better than I ever could have.

Anonymous said...


I tend to be a little rough on today's generation because I grew up watching the likes of Walter Cronkite etc. News used to be news. Period. Not opinion, not bias and certainly not the kind of twittery you tubey bloggy nonsense that I see people indulging in now.
From what I see, the "information age" is nothing but a way for anyone to make any point they want using "information" ( where facts may or may not be involved) to back it up.
And as someone who lives in a big city and works in customer service, what I see is that people can text a mile a minute but they can't find california on a map. They have thousands of years worth of knowledge available to them at lighting speed but can't find antyhing or figure anything out for themselves. ( that's the biggest problem of all - they can't think for themselves or solve simple problems) and I watch hours and hours of cable news and 90 percent of it is trash and 10 percent of it is actual new reporting. I see a very unsettling future for this country where reality will be purely subjective.

Kentucky Jim said...

I'm from Southern California. I don't think the Sacramento Bee sucks. I find it has some very good environmental reporting.

Now, can anybody talk about what routes would be preferable to the ones now proposed? Can anyone hazard a guess as to the amortization period to pay for this thing? What reduction in carbon emissions, especially for the central valley where the asthma rate amoung kids is so high? What/who will the ridership be? Just askin', is all.

Peter said...

@ jim

You can blame the lack of ability to think on the abysmal American education system. I'm very lucky that I grew up in Germany and got a first-rate education. My wife luckily went to one of the few remaining good schools in the U.S.

She ALSO studied journalism, but got out after the news became about scaring people, not about informing people. Her last journalism job was in fact for Media News Group, and working there truly sucked, for the reasons I listed.

You can't blame newspapers and tv news for people being stupid. I'd argue that the newspapers and "news" shows on tv simply cater to the people who are already stupid.

The cause is lack of education and the effect on journalism is that it caters to the uneducated.

Inability to process actual news and lack of interest in the same is why newspapers are going to shit, because they can't sell enough papers (or advertisements in same) if they don't bring out the "stories" that people want to read.

Anonymous said...

@peter. yes its a vicious downward cycle just as it is in today's divisive political climate. Isn't someone somewhere suppose to lead rather than pander?

That's why I say we are doomed. Doomed I tell you!

Peter said...

Isn't that why the NY Times came out with a Bay Area edition? Because there were no good local papers?

Anonymous said...

The writing at the Chronicle is horrible in every way. i remember the first time I picked up NYT. I was shocked that it was all full important news and stuff. I just thought " wow so this is how those east coast people keep track of whats really going on"

Alon Levy said...

It's not bad education in itself. Education in East Asia is pretty bad, but the newspapers are less trashy. When you look beyond stories of math whizzes in Singapore and Korea, the school systems in those countries emphasize rote learning too much, and even then have graduation rates the US surpassed in the 1950s. The Singaporean government is actually sending representatives to top US public schools to learn how to improve its own education system.

Even then, US media isn't particularly bad by the standards of, say, Britain, or even France. French newspapers are in decline, and preserve what's left of their readership by having predictable political views. British papers are all tabloid-quality, with the exception of the Guardian and maybe the Independent.

Anonymous said...

The SF Chronicle was terrible 40 years ago. It is just smaller now.

Unknown said...

The weekly article sucks, but, you'll note that the proposed alignments in the video all contain extensive trenches and cut and cover tunnels, which we all know from this blog cost hundreds of trillions of dollars per mile. So who is going to pay for that? Trust me, the local communities can't afford it.

Larry Hogue said...

Yeah, I love blogs where everyone who disagrees with the writer is "out of their minds." Thanks for taking rational discussion to new heights!