A Case Study in LA Times’ Biased Reporting Against HSR
I’m not exactly sure why the LA Times has chosen to let Ralph Vartabedian write shockingly biased articles against the HSR project, but his latest hit piece is up, claiming that plans for Amtrak to use the Initial Construction Segment in the Central Valley are flawed. The problem: if you read the article closely, what you see is that the California High Speed Rail Authority and Amtrak have not yet had extensive discussions about track sharing. Vartabedian interprets this to mean that track sharing plans are either dead or unrealistic – which is a completely biased claim that has no basis in his given evidence.
Those requirements are now at the center of an intensifying political battle, waged by critics who say the state’s fallback plan to use a 130-mile stretch of track for slower Amtrak service is a sham because there’s no guarantee the national rail service will ever use it.
Vartabedian is correct that there is “no guarantee.” But what in life is ever guaranteed? More accurately, there has been no Memorandum of Understanding signed, no joint operating plan agreed, and in fact negotiations are if anything in their very early stages. Instead of presenting those facts neutrally, Vartabedian claims this is evidence that the plan is a “sham.”
Like I said: shockingly biased.
Amtrak said it has no agreement to operate on the track and has not analyzed the possible negative effects on one of its most successful rail lines. Still, the California High Speed Rail Authority has estimated 45 minutes could be shaved off Amtrak’s current service between Bakersfield and Merced.
There’s no agreement and no analysis. So? It’s early in the process. Just because that work hasn’t been done does not mean it never will be done. But Vartabedian is never one to let an opportunity to bash HSR pass him by.
Notice how Vartabedian spins the truth – that Amtrak supports the project – into an attack on HSR:
In a letter sent last year to the authority, Amtrak officials said they supported the project and interim use of the high-speed corridor. They cited potential improvements in travel time and reliability but also cautioned that cost issues and a need for faster locomotives would have to be addressed.
But now Amtrak says it has no commitment to use the track and has not been directly involved in the planning of the route. No cost-benefit analysis or detailed studies have assessed how switching to the bullet train track, which may veer around existing stations, would affect current service.
Let’s be very clear here:
1. Amtrak supports HSR.
2. Amtrak supports using the Initial Construction Segment on an interim basis.
3. However, Amtrak has not done any further planning beyond that conceptual support.
In other words, it’s early. To Vartabedian, that means it’s over. This is like Vartabedian reporting that the LA Lakers have lost a game to the San Antonio Spurs because they were behind 20-15 after the first quarter.
Vartabedian’s article is not only flawed because of this misinterpretation of the facts. He misleadingly cites Central Valley opponents of HSR without ever once mentioning its supporters:
Starting construction in the Central Valley is growing more controversial as the project nears a groundbreaking late next year. At least four local governments in the Central Valley are rebelling, fearing the effect on their communities. Also, agricultural interests are gearing up for a major legal battle against the plan, while critics in urban areas question why the project is not starting in a major population center with severe traffic congestion.
OK, but there are more than four local governments still strongly supportive of the project – and they are nowhere mentioned in this article:
City of Fresno
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin
City of Visalia
City of Merced
You would think that the San Joaquin Valley’s biggest city and some of its biggest counties would rate a mention. After all, their continued suport challenges Vartabedian’s claim that cities are turning against the project. If anything, Vartabedian is misleading readers by not providing a full picture of the debate over the project in the Valley.
Officials in Hanford, the Kings County seat, say their station is a gateway to downtown, one of the Central Valley’s cultural and historical attractions. They estimate that its loss would cost local businesses tens of millions of dollars a year.
“Plan B would be devastating for the Kings County economy,” said Supervisor Richard Valle of Corcoran, an opponent of the project. “We benefit tremendously from the passengers who come off those trains.”
What Vartabedian also doesn’t mention is that Hanford also bitterly opposes the HSR project, which would include a station for them. They claim to “benefit tremendously” from Amtrak passengers but are actually fighting to prevent more passengers from visiting their city. Isn’t that a rather important contradiction to explore?
Not for Vartabedian. Investigating that might make high speed rail look good, and he will never, ever write such an article, since it would undermine his intent to make the project look bad.
To be clear, I’m not opposed to reasonable criticism of the project. It would actually be useful for someone to write an informed article about track sharing. Here’s what that article could look like (we have to do the LA Times’ work for them, apparently, since Vartabedian refuses to be objective):
• CHSRA and Amtrak agree that track sharing could work in concept
• But nobody has actually worked out what that means in practice
• Track sharing could provide A, B, and C benefits
• But it could also generate X, Y, and Z costs.
• Current ridership on the San Joaquins is #.
• Projected ridership on the HSR is ##.
• Many Valley cities and counties support HSR, for reasons 1, 2, and 3.
• Some Valley cities and counties oppose HSR, for reasons 4, 5, and 6.
• Hanford is upset that they might lose their Amtrak service.
• However, Hanford is also turning down the opportunity for a LOT more passengers by opposing HSR.
• If this issue remains unresolved, the consequences could be good (list them) or they could be bad (list them).
See, it’s really not that hard. But that also assumes a reporter wants to be objective. And we now know, beyond any doubt, that Ralph Vartabedian will not be objective when it comes to the high speed rail project.
The result is that the LA Times is doing a major disservice to its readers by biasing their reporting and leaving out crucial facts. In a democracy, an informed population is key to making good public policy. For Vartabedian, an informed population might continue to support HSR, so he has to bias his reporting to try and produce a different outcome.