Anderson Cooper Gets It Wrong—Badly.

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March 27, 2013 by seradt

Though modern American politicking is impossibly divisive and contentious, it is commonly agreed upon by the politically diverse multitudes that mainstream network journalism has been failing the American public for at least a decade or more in its formerly lauded role as executors of the fourth estate. Expressions of discontent are seeded simultaneously by deepening, complex feelings: of the powerful remaining unchecked in their governance, or that the questioning of the political establishment seems trivial and lacking in focus; that network in-depth segments are frequently devoid of muckraking, or that their corporate connections to wealth and the interests of money raise concerns regarding the legitimacy of news reporting neutrality. Consequently, and naturally coinciding with the preponderance of the Internet, many are finding sources of news elsewhere in the ongoing splintering of the journalism industry, to both positive and deleterious effect.

CNN, the self professed “most trusted name in news”, was perhaps one of the vanguards of American network journalism ethics and standards following its 1985 founding by billionaire Ted Turner. Financed by the magnate’s money, the network was free to hire accomplished journalists and anchors, establish a terrific international foundation from which to extract particularly relevant sources, and ascertain a command of the developing and breaking news sector of reporting that made it, indeed, a trustworthy source of critical information for the public. That this information would be made available round the clock was a novel idea; though, in hindsight, we know it would bring forth souring implications once the network was purchased by a for-profit entity, if ever. And, sure enough, it was: the media conglomerate of AOL Time Warner (now simply Time Warner).

Primarily, Time Warner was—and remains—confronted by internal questions of how to make the cold, hard news interesting. More pointedly, how can it make the news popular enough to attract viewership and therefore increase advertising dollars to produce a return on their investment? Though CNN has arguably adapted better than the rest of the cable news networks to a changing environment of corporate ownership, profit seeking and diffuse journalistic sources, the bar has been set low by Americans who have either turned away or plainly turned off the television. As Americans no longer demanded the type of information they once craved from network news, network news responded by substituting pricey, in-depth reporting for infotainment—if not simply entertainment—or for the coverage of storms, local stories and other events of marginal consequence. Additionally, no-nonsense anchors were removed or shuffled about to make way for those of a more popular appeal, the networks redoubled on syndicated content, international networks were slashed due to a presumption, however accurate, that most Americans are not overly interested in foreign events, and, soon enough, the networks sank into their current irrelevancy. Contemporary network news is now an odd mixture of opinion, gib-gab, personality and news without context or perspective. Ratings for hard news programs have been on the decline for years.

If the connection between network news and mass transportation has seemed irreconcilably divorced from one other until now—and it has—a segment of CNN’s evening program Anderson Cooper 360° will bridge the gap. During an airing on March 25, 2013, Mr. Cooper and his on-the-ground reporter, Drew Griffin, assailed in an aggressively titled segment, Keeping Them Honest, the eight billion dollars of stimulus funds directed toward the creation of a higher speed national railway infrastructure. Labeling the planned, ongoing and completed improvements of the passenger system as boondoggles, and notably focusing on the Cascades corridor as an unapologetic symbol of government waste and even fraud, Mr. Griffin proceeds to tear apart over two decades worth of popular rail investment in this region and others without any substantive rebuttal or journalistic accuracy. In what can only be regarded as a manufactured scandal, Mr. Griffin effortlessly squanders an opportunity to benefit the American public and tackle true waste and incompetence in government—even within these very projects—to instead lampoon a desperately needed initial investment in our railway infrastructure that seeks to establish a basic, more swift, and more reliable passenger network. Please watch as the Anderson Cooper team and the most trusted name in news render their damning judgment of the government’s attempt to diversify its spending from only roadways to a bit of high-performance rail:

At once worthy of exposure is the fundamental error of the Keeping Them Honest segment, a singular fact that renders the entire piece’s raison d’etre nullified: the section of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) that deals with rail investment, and which Mr. Cooper and Mr. Griffin consistently decry has been wastefully spent on slow-speed trains, is titled the High Speed AND Intercity Passenger Rail Program (HSIPR) (Page 94: Link). In other words, as eight and a half minutes of primetime news is devoted to the skewering of basic rail investments on our existing national passenger network, Mr. Griffin horrifyingly neglects to inform their by-now angry audience that this program was intended to fund these intercity, non-high-speed improvements as well. The stimulus funds were not intended solely for projects that whisk people between big cities at very high speeds on high-speed track—though that is indeed a component piece of the HSIPR program—but to also improve the slower-speed intercity corridors that would compliment and feed passengers to any such high-speed system. Those critical slower-speed corridors are the precise corridors Mr. Griffin is alleging are a violation of taxpayer money and trust, which is an outrageously uninformed conclusion to make.

To posit a situational example, HSIPR not only attempts to be a funding mechanism for 220mph trains on high-speed track between Los Angeles and San Francisco, but also for the 79mph top-speed operations on corridors that feed into it, like from Bakersfield and Sacramento to Oakland, or San Diego and Anaheim to Los Angeles. This is how an improved, integrated, and multi-modal transportation network functions, and it is what the HSIPR aims to work toward with its inception funds, though this is clearly unbeknownst to team Anderson Cooper 360°. While Mr. Griffin might very sensibly respond by stating that the rail investments were largely sold to the public by President Obama and others using stories of fast trains connecting markets with quick journey times, and that is true to a very limited extent, even in his speeches Mr. Obama conjured images of “whisking through towns at speeds over 100 miles an hour”. While to some that might read as misleading the American public with high-speed delusions, 100mph is not-at-all high-speed by international standards—not even close. By one definition or the other, only better-than 125mph speeds on upgraded trackage, or better-than 155mph on new rights-of-way, can be considered high-speed rail. Besides, even during a hypothetical conversation promoting very high speed trains, it is natural to articulate the paramount, pride inducing benefits of a star program. Obamacare, financial reform, national defense systems, and even war, are all at times spoken of in terms of their primary benefits, or their notable material contributions to the welfare of the public.

In any case, what Mr. Obama was advocating in the quoted speech was precisely the kind of corridor development that the Cascades and the Vermont DOT’s line are undergoing, and that is a gradual improvement of conventional track that can one day provide nearby service of 100mph trains to the majority of Americans. These service speeds are now largely standard elsewhere in the developed world, but to most car dependent Americans, and to a non-technocrat like Mr. Obama, they are indeed “high-speed rail”. Further evidence that the HSIPR was not oversold with high-speed delusions is this video of the president discussing the improvement of intercity corridors as part of HSIPR, again much like the Cascades corridor. This can mean only one of two things: one, Mr. Griffin failed to read the law concerning HSIPR and was further engrossed with the term high-speed rail, which was often used as a shorthand for HSIPR when discussing the program and its benefits, or; two, he sought to produce a scandalous report on government incompetence and waste and focused on railroad infrastructure development, an admittedly easy target due to its high capital costs, oftentimes indirect societal benefits and gradually decreasing trip times. Ultimately, every suggestion to the contrary of HSIPR’s explicit intentions made by Keeping Them Honest—and there are many—are either lazy, or at worst dishonest.

Understanding these two very essential, interrelated objectives of the High Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Program permits us to dispose as uninformed the primary argument against it that is being pushed by the television piece—that money has been, or will be, misspent on slow-speed trains that are not in the spirit of the law.

This prime example of journalistic failure continues unabated with Mr. Griffin’s insistent retort of “slow trains” traveling “just a little faster”. Diving into “what happened” in Washington State, Keeping Them Honest lashes out against the $800 million of taxpayer money that has been spent to reduce the Cascades’ SEA to PDX trip time of 3:40hr by just ten minutes. So numerous are the many counterfactual claims in this aggressively flawed portion of the film that Paula Hammond should have thrown her arms into the air in contempt. First, the Cascades trip time between SEA and PDX is already currently 3:30hr and it includes schedule padding of roughly eight percent. That is a fairly significant difference from 3:40hr, as is stated. Also unmentioned in the piece, unsurprisingly, is that the 3:30hr trip time (3:15hr should a Talgo not use its padding allowance) compares very favorably with downtown-to-downtown driving times from SEA to PDX, which are typically three hours if traffic is free flowing. Traffic is very often not free flowing.

Second, the $800 million will very likely reduce trip times by far more than ten minutes. ** Those ten minutes in trip-time reduction are specifically related to the absolutely critical bypass at Point Defiance, and that stated reduction in time disregards improvements in the route near Vancouver, Kelso, and other locales, as well as improvements in signaling and general track condition. It further fails to consider the forthcoming purchase of eight locomotives that should be procured with care for exceptional performance on the corridor. While the scheduling of Cascades trains might be “only” ten minutes shorter, the popular trains should be arriving earlier than the padded schedule would suggest, and arrive on time with a regularity that is 20% better than today (from roughly 70% to 90% OTP). Additionally, that $800 million purchases trackage slots from the BNSF for two more permanent round trips, an incredibly significant advancement in passenger operations on a growing corridor that is simply balked at by Mr. Griffin and Keeping Them Honest—if, of course, they were mentioned at all. For a service with standards that currently attract nearly 900,000 riders a year, which is the biggest ridership on any corridor outside of the Northeast or California, an achievement that belies relatively weak OTP, four measly round-trips, moderate speeds and construction delays, these improvements are huge in our continued effort to link the economies of the Pacific Northwest.

Third, and finally, Keeping Them Honest continually suggests that the HSIPR monies have been spent—again, this is wrong. The monies are only obligated in Washington State, the same being true for California (e.g. the states have the money, but have not actually spent it). Indeed, no significant construction has begun in either state for: in Washington’s case, the engineering phase has only just recently moved into the construction phase, with money being spent until 2017 and; in California’s case, its senate released the state’s own $8 billion high-speed rail contribution (on top of HSIPR funds) to finance the initial construction section on July 2012, meaning that project has only had the necessary funding to oversee itself for less than one year. For a 400-mile high-speed railroad in California, less than one year of adequate funding in over a decade of planning would naturally lead to a lack of shovels in the ground, though the CHSRA still expects it will be able to maintain construction deadlines.***

The unchallenged statements by Mr. Griffin over a lack of progress on high-speed train construction, while alleging your taxpayer dollars have already been spent, is completely misleading.

While it is important that transit advocates continue to identify and eradicate these seemingly innocuous attempts to discount investment in certain types of infrastructure, the injury to public perception of these state-governed rail corridors can be inflicted as swiftly as a change in the political currents. Mr. Griffin should have never been lacking so much insight over HSIPR to demand the production of this hit-piece, and the bankrupt manner in which these investments have been touted by our elected leaders are a reflection of the poverty of ideas contained within the KeepingThem Honest segment. With these corridors 100% dependent upon state funding for operations and capital projects after October 2013, a supportive public perception of the investment being made in rail services must be maintained. Alas, it would be illogical to hope that upon watching the program, viewers researched the rail investment section of the stimulus law to seek out the truth as it is written. In all likelihood, cynical feelings on government waste and incompetence were further embedded into a vicious cycle that consistently reaffirms the uniquely American viewpoint that government cannot do anything right or meaningful. Now it apparently cannot do trains either. Hopefully startlingly misinformed viewpoints like this, encouraged by Mr. Cooper’s show, will never permeate or resonate with state voters. Passenger rail needs continued voter support, the kind of support that allows Washington State to levy taxes and fees on motor vehicle sales or car rentals to help fund rail. The Cascades are succeeding because of them.

The irony behind the Keeping Them Honest segment is that there is an implication of impropriety in the development of these rail corridors whose very nature of development are the antithesis of government corruption, waste and fraud. Incremental planning and development, all popularly funded by states through the votes of elected leaders—if not direct elections—and with projects and routing reviewed by citizens, are the proud components of a democratic investment in passenger railway infrastructure. In shedding doubt on such transparent government projects, the program does far more harm than good in its effort to keep them honest. With the facts all wrong, without any understanding of the differences in technology and cost between conventional and high-speed rail systems, lacking any perspective of the lengthy duration of time infrastructure projects languish from conception to completion, and with a prosecutorial mission to uncover government waste where none is present, Anderson Cooper 360° single-handedly ripped big-government a new one by lambasting an absence of high-speed infrastructure in an impossibly short time period for any democratic republic to build (****), ridiculed valuable investment in moderate-speed passenger trains in places where very high-speeds were never promised or expected, exposed unmet commitments for bullet trains when the government only offered modern European or Japanese-style equipment (which do not have to be high-speed, much like the Talgo sets), and labeled as pork the trains which travel at 55 miles an hour that now popularly link American communities, and whose services are gradually being made more reliable and speedy by the very program AC360 declares is just another taxpayer-funded boondoggle.

Nowhere to be found in Keeping Them Honest were legitimate gripes against trains and their infrastructure, from antique FRA rules on weights, speeds and operating practices, or even the wrongheaded routing of California’s high speed project through the mountains near San Francisco and Los Angeles—criticisms that would have actually helped citizens across the country who are clamoring for the benefits that rail improvements and services can and do provide. Where it could have made a difference, by discussing the wrong equipment being run on particular corridors or rail lines, raising awareness of planning failures, and proving the incompetence of civil engineers who have no training in operations or transit engineering, the show was sadly silent. Keeping Them Honest is keeping us uninformed of grave failures in transportation planning and operation.

Perhaps one of the better conclusions that can be written for this entry is this: these $800 million worth of improvements in the Cascades corridor, the same improvements endlessly derided by Mr. Cooper and Mr. Griffin, are the prerequisite investments in our railway infrastructure before the final phase of the Cascades build-out can begin its planning slog toward completion. The third mainline track between SEA and PDX, to be owned by WSDOT and dedicated only for 110mph passenger operations, is dependent upon the pricey upgrades of the BNSF corridor. In an admirable failure to be skeptical of government, to ask questions to power, to attempt to be the executor of the fourth estate and identify the supposed failures of the High Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail program, Anderson Cooper’s primetime news program may have angered enough unknowing Washingtonians to cast doubt onto an immensely valuable, affordable and promising alternative to driving, and perhaps has thrown our future investment into higher-speed Cascades operations in jeopardy. Wouldn’t that be something.

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** These ten minutes of reduced trip time reflect only the SEA to PDX portion of the Cascades Corridor, from here-on-out referred to as the South Line. In actuality, in light of the lack of investment into the corridor by the Province of British Columbia, the restrictions of train capacity, and the consequent lack of suitable passenger service frequencies, the North Line portion of the Cascades Corridor to VAC will remain only a prime feeder line for SEA to PDX until the distant future.

*** California High-Speed Rail Authority’s struggle to plan, design and build a statewide high-speed rail system has frequently come under intense scrutiny for a variety of reasons related to its management and oversight of the project, namely route selection, over-engineering, community engagement and political favoritism. I would imagine this is one of the consequences of not possess adequate funding to hire technical and operations professionals to oversee the realization of its project. Despite possessing component pieces which literally need to be ironed out (e.g. the routings of Pacheco and Tehachapi), the project is very deserving of advancement.

**** While Mr. Griffin and Keeping Them Honest pins blame for the lack of any high-speed infrastructure on the backs of the political establishment that struggled for its construction, the piece makes no mention of the Florida high-speed rail project that was wholly shovel ready and 100% funded, yet almost immediately canceled by the incoming Tea Party governor, Rick Scott, following decades of planning by state residents. The move was politically very unpopular. Of note, Mr. Scott canceled the project before private contractors could bid on erecting the high-speed route, citing what he claimed would be Florida’s responsibility to pay for any construction deficits remaining beyond the appropriated HSIPR monies. It would later become public that some of the private operator bids would have contractually covered any cost overruns that otherwise would have been accepted by state taxpayers. Additionally, the service was widely expected by rail, planning and other professionals to earn an annual operating profit, monies that would have gone toward maintenance, and, perhaps, to help extend the high-speed corridor to metropolitan and Downtown Miami.

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