Transit coverage that’s for the birdsBy
Covering the ins and outs of transit news isn’t necessarily a sexy business. The vast majority of New Yorkers couldn’t care less about safety regulations, debt financing, bond issuances or the behind-the-scenes politics of the MTA Board. The stories that sell rather focus on MTA waste and bloat, fare hikes and infrastructure expansion. It’s far easier to understand and cover a story about a bunch of seemingly altruistic politicians who are trying to save something that likely doesn’t need to be saved — in a recent case, a successful five-stop extension of the G train into Brooklyn — than it is to explain how a decades-long pattern of divestment has led the MTA to be up debt’s creek without a paddle.
Lately, as I’ve tried to understand why transit isn’t more of an issue in local New York politics, as I’ve tried to understand how a small cadre of anti-transit folks, some NIMBYs, some not, have dominated the storylines, I find myself routinely looking at media coverage of transit. It’s been, in a word, disappointing.
Let’s take a story that appeared in the Monday New York Times. As we’ve heard on and off, the MTA often has to fight pigeons that like to roost in its open infrastructure. Some of the old el structures make for comfortable birds’ nests, and the droppings can be both disgusting to people and corrosive to metal. The street-level area on Roosevelt Island is particularly prone to pigeons, and the MTA has deployed a bird whistle to keep these flying rodents away.
The $375 whistles are a creative use of resources that could solve a quality-of-life and subway cleanliness problem. The Times decide it was worth a 700-word article in the New York section. Meanwhile, State Senate Republics are threatening to deny the MTA enough state funding to qualify for a billion-dollar loan for the federal government, thus jeopardizing the future of the Second Ave. Subway and East Side Access project. Plus, the head of the MTA promised fare hikes in 2013 and 2015 simply so the MTA has enough money to pay off its future pension and health care obligations. Those happenings have warranted zero words of coverage in the so-called paper of record.
Of course, once The Times picks up something, it spreads like wildfire. WABC and WNBC both re-reported the news about the bird whistle as though it weren’t something the MTA had been trying for months. It’s not a big story; it’s not going to impact riders; but it’s getting attention because The Times can drive the dialogue.
So should the Grey Lady be a driver of the news? Does The Times have a responsibility to report the news and distill complicated stories into items casual readers can understand? I think they do, and I also think that one of the reasons why New York voters aren’t as clued into transit issues as they should be rests with the stories that get coverage. Print journalism is a business, after all, and headline-grabbing tales of overtime abuse or kitschy bird whistles sells better than a diatribe on bond finances and the history of MTA debt.
Ultimately, though, the transit system is too important to go ignored. We can’t just cover the news when a fare hike looms or when the MTA is forced to cut service. The tales emerging out of Albany concerning GOP Senators playing Russian Roulette with the MTA’s capital funding warrant front-page stories. It impacts everyone from the transit-devoted among us to the person who needs the Q train to get from Midtown to Midwood. But New Yorkers can’t view transit as a major political issue because it isn’t covered like one. So how do we change that dialogue? It can’t all be about bird whistles.