CNN’s Vermont rail story went way on the wrong track

Amtrak train

Full service for the Vermonter , which runs daily from St. Albans to Washington, D.C., resumed over the weekend as work was completed on a $74 million upgrade to 190 miles of the New England Central Railroad’s (NECR) line between Northfield, Mass., and St. Albans. Photo by Mark Beeson.

Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political columnist.

Thanks to CNN, Vermont got a journalism lesson this week as the cable network devoted eight minutes and 38 seconds to a special report on the state’s stimulus-funded rail improvement project, one of the regular “keeping them honest” features on the “Anderson Cooper 360” program.

Alas, it was a very bad journalism lesson because it was very bad journalism presented by people apparently unaware of the irony of claiming to be “keeping them honest” dishonestly.

Which is not to say that its point of view was incorrect. Points of view may be wise or unwise, but almost by definition they are not incorrect. The segment’s bias was obvious, but biased journalism can be defended. Its advocates prefer to call it “advocacy journalism,” and there is a place for it.

CNN has not generally been considered one of those places, but that’s the network’s business. If it wants to undertake an ideological crusade – in this case arguing that the $10 billion spent nationally (about $52 million in Vermont) to improve passenger rail service is a boondoggle – more power to it. In this case, a responsible, accurate, honest report might have been persuasive. But a responsible, accurate, honest report was nowhere to be found.

As a public service, then, and because they obviously need it, herewith a basic primer in journalistic practice and ethics for Cooper, investigative reporter Drew Griffin, and their bosses:

Lesson 1 — No cheap shots. Reporting from the Essex Junction Amtrak station, which he called “the busiest station in all of Vermont,” (which it may not be), Griffin noted that “11 people got off (and) no one got on.”

Well of course no one got on. That train just chugs a few miles up to St. Albans where it spends the night. Nobody takes the train from Essex to St. Albans. If Griffin knew that he was being devious. And he had no excuse not knowing it.

In fact, almost nobody takes the train from any Vermont station to another. Vermonters take the train to New York. So Griffin’s “revelation” that the project chopped only 28 minutes off the train’s voyage through the state was another cheap shot. If CNN had chosen to report out the entire story (see below), it would have figured out that the work is likely to save two hours for travelers heading to New York.

Lesson 2 – Don’t be cute. There is Griffin standing on the trainless track. “I could stand here all day long,” he says. “I could jog on the tracks,” and there he is, jogging on the tracks, and standing there as the sun set, still without seeing a train.

Forget for a moment that jogging along the tracks is illegal (criminal trespass) and dangerously stupid, thus prompting Joyce Rose, the president of Operation Lifesaver, to send Griffin a sharply worded letter reminding him that “more people are killed each year trespassing on train tracks than in vehicle-train collisions at crossings.”

More to the point here is that the rail improvement project neither envisioned nor promised oodles of trains. Its purpose was to improve the tracks so both passenger and freight trains could go faster and haul heavier loads.

Lesson 3 – Put all dollar figures in context. Yes, $52 million sounds like a lot of money. The average guy could probably live on it for a year or two. But just providing the figure and leaving it out there is meaningless.

Minimal context would note that the U.S. government spends some $69.5 billion a year on transportation, or more than six times the entire nationwide stimulus-financed rail improvement project, more than 100 times Vermont’s share. More than half of all those federal expenditures, about $41.5 billion, is spent on highways. Does this prove that the $52 million was money well spent? Not at all. But it is essential information.

Lesson 4 – Provide at least a little balance. To answer why this little state got all that federal money, Griffin relied on one authority, policy analyst Randal O’Toole. Properly, Griffin said O’Toole was associated with the “libertarian-leaning Cato Institute.” He did not point out that O’Toole has also been associated with the Thoreau Institute, which has been funded over the years by foundations with close ties to the petroleum industry.

O’Toole began inauspiciously. The Vermont project got the money, he said, because, “the federal government has one criteria when it comes to handing out high speed rail funds. And that was, had states done an environmental impact statement so they were shovel ready.”

There is no such thing as “one criteria.” There can be two criteria or 20 million. One of them is a criterion.

And according to some people, including Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Brian Searles, the state had to satisfy several of them before federal authorities approved the grant in an intensely competitive process.

“The real reason that we qualified was that it was one of the eight designated corridors in the country,” Searle said.

It’s entirely possible that O’Toole’s explanation would withstand scrutiny better than Searles’. What real journalists do in these cases, though, is talk to folks on both sides, then apply the scrutiny. It wasn’t as though Searles was unavailable. He said he “had extensive conversations (with CNN staff) over time and on that day. They came here with an agenda to attack the high speed rail program.”

Lesson 5 – Tell the whole story. Had Griffin put Searles on camera, he might have explained that the Vermont work did not stand alone. It was part of a regional project which included rail improvements in Massachusetts and Connecticut. That explains the projected two-hour reduction in the Vermont-to-New York trip.

But this project is not really limited to the U.S. Both the province of Quebec and the Canadian government are improving their rail lines in coordination with the U.S. effort. Both countries believe they have a significant economic interest in better rail links between the Montreal area, home to some 3.9 million people, and U.S. destinations.

Nor is it just passengers. The rail line improvements mean heavier loads can go over the bridges and overpasses. When completed, it will ease freight transportation between Montreal and the Connecticut shipping ports on the north shore of Long Island Sound. The potential economic development impact for the entire region could be substantial.

That’s why New England Central Railroad put up the state’s $18 million match for the project. Griffin did note that a private firm put up the money. He didn’t mention that it had a vested interest in doing so, meaning the possible economic impact here is far greater than cutting a couple of hours off the trip to Penn Station.

Jerry Vest, the vice president for governmental and industrial affairs for the Genesee and Wyoming, Inc., which now owns New England Central, said the rail improvement “will be a big plus for Vermont,” making it easier for the state to attract new business.

“Freight rail is undergoing a renaissance, Vest said, “and companies want to have access to high-quality rail service.”

Does this make the $52 million –plus some $140 million in the other states – worthwhile? Like any public policy decision, that’s open to debate. What is not open to debate is that it all should have been in the story.

In fairness to CNN, Griffin did acknowledge that the Vermont share of the work came in “on time and on budget,” and that it created some jobs. More specifically, Searles said (but CNN did not) it created 246 direct jobs and another 319 “indirect and induced.” Most of them were temporary jobs, but at the peak of the recession, even temporary jobs were useful, both to the people who got them and to the regional economy.

The CNN report did make one good point: at least in New England, these “high speed” rail projects will not bring real high-speed rail as found in Europe and Japan. Vermont’s stations are too close to one another, and the state wants to provide service to all those towns. Even Ross Capon, the head of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, agreed that the Obama administration was guilty of “hyperbole” in selling its program.

But that was the segment’s only valid point, which perhaps explains why Griffin and Cooper, in their post-tape chit-chat, kept belaboring it, thereby violating the immortal advice to writers from professor Lee Youngdahl: “Once something has been said, it no longer has to be said.”

But one more thing has to be said here. Every news story about public funding of transportation should remember – and should explain – that all forms of transportation are and always have been publicly subsidized. The Founders put it right in the Constitution, authorizing Congress to establish a system of “Post roads.” As America gets bigger and richer, more people will be doing more traveling. The alternatives to better rail service are more highways and/or more airports, all of which are expensive and all of which will be subsidized.

And both of which will put more goop in the air than trains do.

That has to be part of the story, too. Until CNN figures that out, others will have to keep them honest.

Jon Margolis

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23 Comments on "CNN’s Vermont rail story went way on the wrong track"

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rosemarie jackowski
3 years 3 months ago

I happened to see the CNN report. In reporting about transportation one need always seems to be missed. Trains are good but they will not be of much help to those who cannot afford to ride them. Especially in SW Vermont, there is no transportation available for the low income/disabled/elderly. There is some local transportation, but no way to escape to Brattleboro, Albany, Rutland, Pittsfield, etc. The solution would be a 14 passenger van. Any body out there have any grant money for us? We can get a man to the moon, but can’t get Granpa to the eyeglass store… Read more »

3 years 3 months ago

“Yes, $52 million sounds like a lot of money. The average guy could probably live on it for a year or two.”

Yowsa. This average guy could probably live on that for a lifetime or two. Does Margolis feel the need to follow his own primer on “responsible, accurate, honest” reporting? Or, as I suspect, is he in contradiction to his own rule number 2?

Jane Stein
3 years 3 months ago

You might want to look up the term “irony.” Or even just “humor,” especially if you’re going to read Margolis. He uses a lot of it.

3 years 3 months ago

I caught that; I’ll put you down, then, for his breaking his own “Lesson 2 – Don’t be cute.”

Steven Farnham
3 years 3 months ago

Let me get this straight. Griffin encouraged viewers to engage in an activity which is both illegal and deadly. Margolis employed a harmless literary device called hyperbole combined with the fine art of understatement. And this is cause for people to believe he is in violation of his own journalistic ethics? Look, everyone who’s ever been associated with Digger knows that the average guy can live way longer than a year or two on fifty-two million, (except maybe Bruce Lisman or John McClaughry). I would suggest another lesson for Margolis to add to his primer for good journalism: Lesson 6:… Read more »

Eric Benson
3 years 3 months ago

Anderson Cooper and his colleagues at CNN are not journalists in any sense of the word. They are entertainers who focus primarily on gossip, sensationalism and baseless opinion.

CNN spends more money on their distracting lead-in visuals for their programs than they do on original news gathering and fact checking.

Liz Curry
3 years 3 months ago

Not to mention that one could stand on many highways in the midwest and not see a car for hours…

Jim Christiansen
3 years 3 months ago

I wish I could have read a piece on rail in VT that spoke to actual operating and rider costs, current ridership and freight numbers, and long-term plans and goals rather than a review of another news sources piece.

We can do better.

3 years 3 months ago

Well said, Jim. A well written piece (by either source) would have done some heavier lifting, reviewed the relevant data, and provided an informed and independent analysis. Instead, we get a breezily critical broadside against a well known journo-tainment light-weight.

Perhaps our own standards need strengthening?

Randy Koch
3 years 3 months ago

Must disagree: Margolis piece is a real jewel. Apart from all else, how can you resist being won over by the Lee Youngdahl quote?

Karl Riemer
3 years 3 months ago

Jon Margolis is a professional journalist. His commentary is on the professional quality of a specific instance of journalism. That’s clearly stated at the outset. That you wish you’d read something else speaks well of your desire for education, but taking the time to criticize what you read for not being what you wished you’d read, instead of looking up the information you seek, doesn’t.

Tony Redington
3 years 3 months ago

Having just finished a commuter rail report which requires less financial support per passenger mile than the “free”parking space practically all workers enjoy, can attest the 80 mile per hour St. Albans to the Mass. border represents an outstanding investment…of the the over 7,000 added workers in Vermont 2000-2010 less than 100 more-1that’s right less than one hundred more–worker in Vermont drove or rode to work in a car. The car ave ended about 20 years ago and now by the hundreds abandon car commuting each year doe….yes!..buses, walking, bicycling, and working at home. The Burlington Link buses to Montpelier,… Read more »

Mike Fortier
3 years 3 months ago

Excellent Jon. Its refreshing to read factual, accurate, and logical reporting. There is much more involved in this major rail upgrade than increasing the number of passengers that board the train at any one station. I watched the silly entertainment feature and was disgusted at the coverage. The reporting was ignorant, the acting was “cute”, and the Amtrak station agent was made fun of, along with all of us “Vermonters”. Unfortunately the general population has no understanding of the rail industry and influences the politicians. When the subsidy (grant) became available I thought for sure the term “High Speed Rail”… Read more »

Steven Farnham
3 years 3 months ago

It has been often opined that G W Bush won two presidential elections because, of the two candidates in either election, a majority of Americans believed that Bush was the more “fun” guy to “have a beer with.” My stomach turns and convulses as I endeavour to comprehend that. The only reason I would ever want to have a beer with the man is so that I could bring him a few truckloads of pretzels. But I do, nevertheless, occasionally employ the metaphorical “have a beer” litmus test to judge people, and one population subset I might rank thus is… Read more »

Karl Riemer
3 years 3 months ago

Just a thought: it’s wonderful that the woeful condition of the NEC railbed has improved, allowing higher speeds and reduced transit times. (If that’s the case. Amtrak denies it. Perhaps it means less late, less often, so the same schedule is more accurate.) The more compelling deficiency in Vermont passenger service, though, is Amtrak’s woeful service. To my knowledge, nowhere in the state can you can buy a ticket, nor can you print or receive a ticket bought online, yet a physical ticket and reservation is required. Your only option is mail delivery and that only with > a week’s… Read more »

Alan Burden
3 years 3 months ago

Karl, Actually, as of last July, you can print your Amtrak ticket in your own house. Amtrak launched its long awaited eTicketing program last year. So it is now possible for you to book an Amtrak reservation by phone or on Amtrak.com and within a matter of minutes Amtrak will email you a PDF file containing your eTicket. Then you need only print out that PDF and bring it along with you to the station, along with a photo ID. The ID isn’t for the ticket itself, but the random security checks that the conductors are required to perform. Or… Read more »

Karl Riemer
3 years 3 months ago

Thank you, thank you, Alan! See, I wouldn’t have known that because I haven’t gotten to the end of the purchase process in > a year but that’s exactly what I was waiting for. In cities, a kiosk spits out your ticket any time up to departure (which understandably might be impractical in Vermont’s often-locked stations) but printing at home is even easier and more sure. (Kiosks require physical presentation of the same credit card used for purchase; printing at home means I only have to remember to pack ticket and passport.)
I can hardly wait to try it!

Alan Burden
3 years 3 months ago

Karl, You’re quite welcome! :) Just as an FYI, those Quik-Trak kiosks can be activated with any credit card or even one’s Amtrak Guest Rewards card. However, if you activate it with either the AGR card or the credit card that paid for the reservation it automatically brings up your reservations. If you activate it with another credit card, then you must know the reservation number and type it in to obtain an eTicket. Of course one would have to actually leave the State of Vermont in order to find such a machine. One final thought, should you somehow forget… Read more »

Paul Dame
3 years 3 months ago

Was this supposed to be journalism? It sounded more like an AmTrack PR piece. We get all defensive in Vermont about the train, but honestly the $52 million track would serve 11 people here. It would serve a LOT more people somewhere else. Trains like Amtrack are just impractical for rural communities like Vermont. I still don’t understand why many people would bother with a train when you can get there in half the time for about the same price on JetBlue. I didn’t see CNN’s piece, but sounds like it was a lot more reasonable than this piece was.

Karl Riemer
3 years 3 months ago

Far more than 11 people ride the rails. As pointed out, ESX is nearly the end of the line and, not mentioned, the train pulls in there late at night. Southbound traffic, taking people early in the morning through much of megalopolis, is a different story. Also, as you may have overlooked, the NEC rail line in Vermont is incidentally used by Amtrak. It’s primarily used for, and was primarily upgraded to accommodate, freight. As for why people prefer trains to planes, that’s hard to answer. If it isn’t immediately obvious, it’s unlikely to become obvious. For me, given a… Read more »

Benjamin Turon
3 years 3 months ago

Randal O’Toole is more than just a fierce anti-rail critic; he is an intellectual dishonest charlatan who plays a shell game with facts and figures and then fabricates transport history from whole cloth. He has gotten away with this for years because neither the media or general public have any real knowledge of the rail industry, its history, economics, operations, and technology. His Wikipedia page states… “O’Toole has been criticized for declaring that roadways pay for themselves and are the best use of public funds, even though highways are some of the most expensive public works projects. Detractors have noted… Read more »

Mark Adamcik
3 years 3 months ago

Randal O’Toole is not only a charlatan, he is also a self-admitted train buff. He is a member of the National Railway Historical Society.
His anti-rail screeds are to be expected since he receives funding from Koch family related organizations.

Bruce Pfeiffer
1 year 10 months ago

“There is no such thing as “one criteria.” There can be two criteria or 20 million. One of them is a criterion,” speaking of cheap shots :)

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