Is the L.A. Times out to destroy California High-Speed Rail?
A recent story that violated good journalistic practices led to new calls to cut funding for California High-Speed Rail. I broke down the story’s sources. I asked media watchdogs to weigh in. And I talked to the reporter behind the problematic coverage.
On January 13, the Los Angeles times published a problematic story about California High-Speed Rail. The story suggested that the project “could cost taxpayers 50% more than estimated.” Dan Richard and Jeff Morales, who head the CaHSR Authority, responded immediately. They called the charge a “serious mischaracterization,” while emphasizing that the $64 billion project is not at risk of going over-budget (PDF).
Today, I’m following up on an earlier critique of this story at Streetsblog. I wanted to know: Does this story follow the principles of good journalism? To find out, I conducted an analysis of its sources. I asked media watchdog groups to weigh in. And I talked to Ralph Vartabedian, the Los Angeles Times reporter who wrote the story.
Echo chamber fires up opponents
First, it’s important to note the impact of this story. It emboldened elected officials who oppose high-speed rail, in both the state legislature and U.S. Congress, who have called for new hearings and increased oversight of California High-Speed Rail. This week, the stakes were raised further when Congressional Republicans made it known that they now intend to zero out $647 million to electrify Caltrain because California High-Speed Rail would eventually use the same overhead wires.
The L.A. Times piece also ignited overheated rhetoric in conservative media, including stories at Reason.com, Steve Banon’s alt-right website Breitbart, and the National Review, which suggested that America’s largest infrastructure project is now “bound for cancellation.”
Reason.com and the National Review are both tied to think tanks funded by the Koch brothers, oil companies, and the auto industry. Vartabedian denied that think tanks are among his sources but his extensive use of unnamed sources undermines his credibility, which raises an important suspicion.
Like the dangers of smoking and climate change, his work fits perfectly into a pattern where powerful industry interests plant stories in the mainstream media to create doubts in the public mind. Having a story in the Los Angeles Times also lends credibility to their point of view before they blow it up in their own partisan publications. Though I found no direct evidence of it, many transportation advocates believe the same thing is happening with California High Speed Rail.
I re-read Vartabedian’s January 13 story and tracked its sources in a spreadsheet. This exercise tends to drive reporters crazy, but in this case it reveals several problems, including a majority of sources hostile to California High-Speed Rail.
I categorized sources as opponents (2), proponents (0), sources characterized in a negative light (6), and unnamed sources (3). I included officials from the CAHSR Authority (2) in their own category because they are legally bound not to advocate for the project. Vartabedian took issue with my categorization, noting that he considers CaHSR officials proponents.
Vartabedian’s story cited “proponents” twice. I didn’t count them because they were among three times when his story cited unnamed sources.
Reporters are expected to cite the names of their sources because when they don’t, it erodes trust in journalists. Unnamed sources often exaggerate or get things wrong, too, according to John Christie at the Poynter Institute.
But they can provide valuable information, which is why the choice to use them is a judgement call, one that’s taken seriously at most news organizations. At NPR, for example, permission to use an unnamed source often requires a reporter to consult both his immediate editor and the next level of editor.
The L.A. Times ethics guidelines state, “Relying in print on unnamed sources should be a last resort.”
When asked about his use of unnamed sources for this story, Vartabedian said, “I talked to some named people who didn’t have as intelligent comments. This was a lot smarter observation.”
Is an unnamed source justified simply for a smarter observation? I would argue that it is not.
What do the media watchdogs say?
After having a look at the story, Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), a progressive media watchdog group said, “It seems like someone’s trying to slant the story through the sourcing.”
Later, I picked up the phone and a boisterous voice proclaimed, “High-speed rail is a boondoggle!” It was Dan Gainor of the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group in Washington D.C.
To see if there’s an agenda behind Vartabedian’s coverage, he suggested that we look beyond this one story. For another example, Gainor pulled up a January 17 follow-up piece: Federal warning of higher bullet-train costs prompts sharp opinions, plans for congressional hearings.
Despite Gainor’s skepticism of high-speed rail, after reading this second story together, he admitted, “Being fair, it does seem like it’s leaning toward critics more than supporters.”
For further comparison, look at another version of the same story, by Melody Gutierrez at the San Francisco Chronicle. Her story is fair and accurate. It quotes a dispirited Democrat, too, making it inclusive of a perspective beyond anti-rail legislators.
While I only looked at two of Vartabedian’s stories for this piece, Streetsblog’s criticism of his work goes back to 2014: The Los Angeles Times and its Disgraceful Reporting on High Speed Rail.
The leaked document
Vartabedian’s January 13 piece was centered around an internal report by the Federal Railroad Administration that was almost certainly leaked by an opponent of the project. “Our view at the Times is that this risk analysis should have been public,” Vartabedian said.
Andy Kunz, president of the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, said the report didn’t intend to hide information from the public. He compared the risk analysis to preparing for a camping trip. Even if the weather forecast says it will be sunny and warm, you would think about what would happen if it were cold and rainy. “Vartabedian finds one of the worst case scenarios and lays it out as fact,” he said.
“I don’t see it as an attack on the project,” Vartabedian countered. “I see this as something important to the supporters of the project. If there are delays in this project that result in cost increases, it may increase the risk that it is not completed. It’s terribly important to identify the problems publicly and solve them early.”
Why so harsh all the time?
I asked Vartabedian, who covers California High-Speed Rail extensively, why not write a positive story once in awhile? Perhaps he could look at how California High-Speed Rail, even with its $64 billion price tag, is significantly less expensive than expanding the state’s highway and airport capacity.
“I’m not reporting on the concept of this,” he said. “We’ve already committed to doing it. We’ve decided that,” he said. “I’m really about covering the execution at this point.” “I’m reporting about performance.”
Conclusion: More light, less heat
California High-Speed Rail faces many significant challenges that deserve transparency and tough-minded reporting, especially around its financing and future political support.
I’m also concerned about projections for population growth, our already overburdened roads and airports, and climate change. Despite the challenges California High-Speed Rail faces, I see it as a $64 billion bargain that the state can’t afford not to build.
While Vartabedian says it’s not his job to worry about what opponents of the project do with his stories, his reporting generates a lot of heat. I’m afraid that all of that heat might burn the whole thing down.
I ask the Los Angeles Times, and all reporters, to help the public understand this complex project. The point of view of vocal, well-organized opponents is a drumbeat we hear all the time. But journalists should also bring light, not just heat, to the full range of this project’s many stories. Many Californians support this project now because we know it’s critical to the state’s future. Our voices should be included, too.