A little more than a year ago, longtime business journalist Maria Saporta took her former employer to task in a blog post titled, "Gift of building does not absolve the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s downtown departure." Saporta zeroed in on the paper's treatment of the news that Atlanta had won a federal grant to help build a proposed downtown streetcar to boost the long-neglected Auburn Avenue corridor:
Look at how the AJC has covered Atlanta’s significant win of $47.6 million for a $72 million streetcar project to connect Centennial Olympic Park with the King District.
“Pricey streetcar won’t ease traffic” — the 1A Sunday headline blared. One had to read way down in the story to find out that the project was not aimed at easing traffic. It is part of a growing understanding that transportation and land-use investments must be linked to create communities that are not dependent on automobiles.
Saporta, who toiled at the paper for 27 years, cited the article as emblematic of the AJC's new, anti-boosterism stance where Atlanta is concerned (which I also detail at length in this cover story).
That's a long-winded set-up for the paper's latest — and, I think, more egregious — slap at the streetcar project. After U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came to town to help break ground for the project on Wednesday, the AJC ran a story titled, "Streetcar work begins, total cost rises."
Slightly back-handed, perhaps, but factual — even though the headline arguably gives the impression that the extra cost will be borne by taxpayers. It will actually be covered largely by private-sector grants, including more than $18 million pledged by the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District.
But the real problem with the story is in its prominent references to project critics, as in, "Critics, however, say the project will not draw enough traffic to justify its cost."
So, who are these critics? Well, if you read all the way to the last few paragraphs, you'll find these gems:
“I don’t believe it’s going to improve mass transit,” said Benita Dodd, vice president at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and a consistent critic of the project. “If anything, it’s diverting needed funds from transit that is needed. It’s more a tourist attraction than a transit solution.”
Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow with the Washington-based, libertarian-leaning Cato Institute and a critic of streetcar projects, said cities routinely overestimate the economic development impact. He said “all kinds of cities are building streetcars because the [federal] money is there and if you don’t do it, someone else will.”
You've gotta be kidding. For local criticism, you ask the GPPF, a conservative think-tank that's reliably pro-road and anti-transit? That's like calling the Grand Wizard to get a quote about the MLK Day parade. And then you ring up the anti-government Cato Institute to solicit a disparaging comment about streetcar projects in general?
Speaking as a veteran journalist, this falls under the heading of quote-shopping: You call up the one person guaranteed to shit all over the very thing that everyone else is celebrating. We've all done it because it makes for good copy, but it can create the false perception that a subject is more controversial than it really is. My guess is that the reporter's editors fed him these contacts or at least instructed him to find someone willing to publicly trash the streetcar.
A similar thing happened recently when former Mayor Sam Massell — who launched MARTA, by the way — submitted an editorial to the AJC in favor of the proposed regional transportation tax titled, "Mass transit brings freedom."
Without telling Massell, the AJC's Tom Sabulis then called up the half-loopy John Sherman, president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation, got him to bad-mouth the transportation plan, and ran it as a counterpoint to Massell's editorial in a pro-con layout.
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