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Friday, January 21, 2011

Why did the AJC edit MARTA boss' criticisms about paper's coverage?

Snowpocalypse was a pain for everyone in Atlanta. But it was particularly difficult for MARTA riders, a good number of whom depend on the transit agency as their only mode of transportation. And for several days following the storm, riders had no or limited access to the transit agency's bus service. Concerns over how the 40-foot beasts could safely maneuver on icy roads forced transit officials to make the historic decision to halt all routes.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which has been harshly critical of MARTA in the last year, published a story detailing the impact the lack of bus service had on some of the system's straphangers. It also critiqued the transit agency's emergency response.

MARTA CEO Beverly Scott took umbrage at the piece. Scott says the article, which she considered

MARTA CEO Beverly Scott
"patently unfair," gave short shrift to MARTA workers — some of whom she says didn't go home for three days so they could stay and monitor the system.

"I'm not trying to go to war with the AJC," Scott tells CL, adding that MARTA and other public agencies have much to learn from how they handled the snowstorm. "But this one hit a little bit too close."

So the general manager submitted an op-ed to defend the agency — and take the paper to task. (Mayor Kasim Reed's office responded similarly to a story that implied the City of Atlanta failed to clear icy roads. AJC editors bundled the two pieces together under the headline "MARTA, Atlanta grade their response.")

What the paper ultimately published, however, was missing a few key sentences from Scott's original op-ed — the ones that contained her own pointed criticisms of, you guessed it, the AJC. (Her complete, unedited column is after the jump and can also be viewed here.)

Among the redacted portions was this paragraph:


As MARTA's CEO, I found the AJC story “MARTA”s Storm Response Leaves Passengers in Doubt,” sadly ironic — but not surprising. While the AJC was unfairly criticizing MARTA for suspending bus service, the newspaper’s management was apologizing for customer delivery failures during the same severe winter storm.

Ouch. Also cut was this sentence from the end of the piece:

Hopefully, the AJC has now gained a better appreciation and greater respect for the importance of the work MARTA employees and other local transit operators do every day.

Scott was baffled. She says the paper's editors didn't ask her to cut words or decline to print the piece. So today, MARTA released her original op-ed "in order to set the record straight for our customers, employees and the public." It's since been tweeted and forwarded to the masses — barbs at the metro region's biggest daily paper intact.

So why the omission of the criticisms? Says Ken Foskett, the AJC's opinion page editor, via e-mail:

The editing was driven by the conversations I had with MARTA last week about my guidelines for letters to the editor and op-ed submissions.

Criticisms of AJC coverage are handled as letters to the editor and run under the heading “Readers write.” Op-eds are discussions of public policies and issues and appear on the op-ed page. On Friday, I gave MARTA the choice of which they’d like to submit. The op-ed MARTA submitted Wednesday did not conform to these guidelines. I edited it accordingly and, prior to publication, told MARTA how I was editing the submission.

We're sure there's lots of he said/she said to be had. We've asked Foskett why the city's op-ed, which also took issue with the paper's coverage, was allowed to stand. We'll update if we hear word. Regardless, in the hopes of conforming to a style standard, the paper instead looks like it has a thin skin.

Note from Dr. Beverly A. Scott, MARTA General Manager/CEO:

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has published a heavily edited and incomplete version of an Op-Ed I had written in response to a patently unfair story criticizing MARTA’s preparation for last week’s crippling snowstorm and the subsequent execution of our inclement weather emergency plans. In order to set the record straight for our customers, employees and the public, I offer this unabridged version of my original submission to the AJC for your consideration. Thank you.

By Dr. Beverly A. Scott

By all accounts, last week's extraordinary weather conditions and associated public safety impacts were the most severe our region has experienced in years. For all of us, there are lessons to be learned and improvements to be made — individually and collectively.

At the same time, there were exceptional efforts made by many, many people that should not be overlooked in the rush to place blame and sell newspapers.

As MARTA's CEO, I found the AJC story “MARTA”s Storm Response Leaves Passengers in Doubt,” sadly ironic — but not surprising. While the AJC was unfairly criticizing MARTA for suspending bus service, the newspaper’s management was apologizing for customer delivery failures during the same severe winter storm.

Moreover, the story was an extremely incomplete, one-sided and naive account of the extraordinary effort that hundreds of MARTA employees made — across all levels and departments — to keep our regional transit system operational.

For example, MARTA opened its Emergency Operations Center and began storm preparations well before the snow started on Sunday. Earlier, MARTA participated in a regional conference hosted by the Atlanta-Fulton County Emergency Management Agency. During the emergency, MARTA had a representative serving at Atlanta’s Joint Operations Center. In addition, we were in regular contact with the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).

MARTA supervisors worked overnight to monitor road conditions as the storm began. We proactively closed the ramp entrances to the North Springs (GA 400 entrance) and Indian Creek (I-285 entrance) stations because these areas are prone to freezing and vehicles have previously gotten stuck during inclement winter weather. MARTA provided alternate directions to access these stations and GDOT assisted us in this important communications effort with their electronic signage. Beginning Sunday, we distributed regular updates to the public via our website, customer service line, Twitter, Facebook, service alert messages and press releases.

Our MARTA Mobility team worked with our extremely vulnerable paratransit customers and medical facilities to arrange emergency transportation for life-sustaining medical treatment. On Friday before the storm, Mobility proactively coordinated with dialysis centers to reschedule 52 customers from Monday to Sunday dialysis trips.

At the highest levels, the City of Atlanta staff worked with our team to clear priority streets. Finally, Mayor Kasim Reed and I spoke several times to review MARTA's status and ensure that the public was receiving the best available information on MARTA operations.

As a public transit veteran of more than 30 years, I could not have been prouder of our employees, many of whom worked around the clock and were unable to get home for several days.

I am especially proud of the steady, experienced hand of our senior management team whose long years of operating transit systems in severe winter environments has taught them the difference between foolhardiness and ensuring public safety for customers, employees and the community at large.

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, MARTA rail provided 36,000, 50,000 and 84,000 passenger trips, respectively. On Wednesday, MARTA was the first transit operator to restore limited bus and paratransit service. Be assured that stopping bus and paratransit service was not an easy decision, but it was the right decision under the circumstances.

Throughout this winter storm, our foremost priority has been safety. With that in mind, we heeded the emergency declaration by the City of Atlanta and the State of Georgia warning drivers to stay off the roadways.

We asked our employees to remain home if they were unable to travel safely and we kept buses off the streets on Monday and Tuesday. It would have been irresponsible and reckless for MARTA to add its fleet of 40-foot buses to the region's already treacherous traffic conditions.

At MARTA, we are acutely aware of how much "MARTA Matters" to the overall Atlanta region as an irreplaceable lifeline and invaluable part of the economic engine that moves our capital city, region, and State. Hopefully, the AJC has now gained a better appreciation and greater respect for the importance of the work MARTA employees and other local transit operators do every day.

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