In 'Keeping Them Honest,' truth not necessary to 'report' on rail

Posted on April 12, 2013 by Nicole Schlosser

While the typical griping continues in California over its plans for high-speed rail, projects across the U.S. were subject to a recent hatchet job, ironically, by CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360◦” in the segment, “Keeping Them Honest.”

The story, “High-speed rail Boondoggle,” claims to be about how $800 million in federal funds was spent only to take 10 minutes off a rail trip between Portland, Ore. and Seattle, while promising high-speed rail. However, it was really just making out the concept of bullet trains in the U.S. as a waste of money for something nobody wants without sharing any facts.

“Investigative Correspondent” Drew Griffin begins spinning his colorful yarn about how the public is supposedly being cheated with a really premature statement: “The dream, shared by those who stand to make money from high-speed rail, is turning into a pipe dream.”

He goes on to oversimplify the situation with this generalization: “Four years and $12 billion later, scattered projects across the country that slow trains moved just a little faster.” Griffin also implied that there was no other work being done to complete the projects nationwide.

Throughout the story, Griffin gave the false impression that building an entire high-speed rail program, basically from scratch, would or should only take four years, as the U.S. High-Speed Rail Authority pointed out in a release responding to the show.

“…it takes a lot longer than four years to launch a new national program, have new high-speed rail systems fully engineered, miles of land purchased and construction already underway,” the release said. “It also takes more than $10 billion to [build] multiple HSR systems. To question results after only four years demonstrates considerable ignorance of the complexity and timelines of these mega projects, even after we carefully spelled this all out for CNN and Anderson Cooper last time.”  

Cooper and Griffin, at the end of the report, glibly referred to this attempt to let them know what they got wrong as being “email bombed.”

Additionally, in a doctored interview with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, CNN cut LaHood’s mention of the California high-speed rail project and his explanation of the progress of the comprehensive national program. LaHood at least gets to mention in the aired version that there have already been improvements in service and reliability in existing rail systems, which is the first necessary step in the process. He added that the $12 billion is just the federal portion of the funds, not including state and private funds, and that Amtrak is at an all-time ridership high, one key indicator that more, faster rail is something that the American public does want.

At the height of his patronizing tone, when LaHood explained that the goal is to get trains running at 200 mph in some parts of the country, Griffin made a stern face and asked, “When?”

Griffin, here’s your answer: We’ll get it when people like you and certain politicians stop using fear of these projects’ supposed “failures” and hiding the actual progress being made to manipulate people.

In the uncut version, which you can see on the U.S. High-Speed Rail Authority’s website, LaHood pointed out that state and private funding are also helping to support the projects.

Media Matters for America also responded, saying that "CNN shouldn't be so quick to declare these investments failures. Developing a high-speed rail system in America that rivals those in Europe and Japan is a massive undertaking akin to the construction of the interstate highway system in the 1950s. As Federal Railroad Administration Chief Joe Szabo noted last year, 'The Interstate Highway System took 10 administrations, 28 sessions of Congress, to be completed. It also cost taxpayers more than $100 billion.'"

But let’s not compare rail to highways. Griffin and Cooper probably don’t have a single unkind word about all the spending needed and the taxes we have to pay to maintain them.

I was really disappointed in CNN and Anderson Cooper for presenting the issue in such a blatantly slanted way. There are certainly reasons to be cautious about aspects of high-speed rail, and the situation is complicated; different regions of the country have different transportation needs. Because it’s such a multi-faceted issue, the last thing we need are false reports masquerading as “journalism” that are designed as yet another scare tactic to convince the public that their tax dollars are being “misspent” and turn them away from progress.

In case you missed it...

Read our METRO blog, "Building public transportation's next generation" here.

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