Home Media Washington Post Flunks Journalistic Ethics 101 in Anti-Streetcar Op-Ed

Washington Post Flunks Journalistic Ethics 101 in Anti-Streetcar Op-Ed


This past weekend, the Washington Post published an op-ed entitled “The Arlington board’s runaway streetcar” by someone named William Vincent. Who is William Vincent? Here’s how the Post identified him:

The writer, an attorney and private transportation consultant, is a member of Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit. From 1994 to 1998, he served in the U.S. Transportation Department, including as director of the Office of Policy and Program Support in the Research and Special Programs Administration.

Sounds good, right? Well…wrong. In fact, the Post flunked Journalistic Ethics 101 by completely failing (intentionally or accidentally?) to identify the parts of Mr. Vincent’s bio that are most relevant to his anti-streetcar stance. Namely, that Mr. Vincent works worked for the Bus Rapid Transit Policy Center (UPDATE: Mr. Vincent called me to say that he has not worked for the Bus Rapid Transit Policy Center for over a year, even though his bio remains on their website; Vincent also said that the Bus Rapid Transit Policy Center’s job is not to “advocate” for BRT, an argument which doesn’t really make sense to me) whose “mission is to educate policymakers and the public about the benefits of BRT,” and to “place BRT on a level playing field with other transportation investments, such as roads and rail.”

Which is all perfectly fine, of course – personally, I’m all for BRT as one public transit option in a wide mix of options – but the Post should have stated that right up front. Because when it comes to the debate over Arlington’s Columbia Pike streetcar project, the other option most often raised by critics is…yep, BRT, which Mr. Vincent was paid to advocate for. Again, there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with Mr. Vincent having been paid to advocate for BRT, but in an op-ed on why he opposes the Columbia Pike streetcar, it seems obvious that this would be relevant information the Post would want to provide to readers, so they could make up their own minds accordingly. But noooo.

It also might have been relevant, by the way, for the Post to mention that the Bus Rapid Transit Policy Center, which employs used to employ Mr. Vincent, is operated by the “Breakthrough Technologies Institute” (where Vincent is listed as a “staff” member), a group that focuses heavily on promoting fuel cell technology for transportation through the affiliated Fuel Cells 2000, whose “mission is to promote the commercialization of fuel cells and hydrogen” (which can be used for buses, of course, but not electric-powered vehicles like streetcars). I find it particularly fascinating, in the context of this debate over streetcar vs. BRT, that Mr. Vincent’s (former) organization recently published a paper entitled “Bus Rapid Transit: A New Opportunity for Fuel Cells”. Again, wouldn’t this be important information for Washington Post readers to know, whatever the merits of the arguments?  

Speaking of which, what ARE the merits of the argument for BRT on Columbia Pike in Arlington? There may be some (I addressed them here), but it’s hard if not impossible to tell what they are from Mr. Vincent’s article. Instead, Mr. Vincent focuses the overwhelming amount of his time and energy on bashing the streetcar option (using strange arguments, such as that a totally unrelated project, the Silver Line to Dulles Airport, has run over budget – yeah, and???; also bashing the “$1 million [Arlington County] spent on the first ‘Superstop,'” while neglecting to mention that the “Superstop” would be necessary for BRT as well as for the streetcar, and regardless has nothing directly to do with arguments either for or against BRT or the streetcar; etc.).

It’s also fascinating that in the study Mr. Vincent mentions about BRT, it specifically states that “dedicated lanes” (which are not possible on Columbia Pike) and stations that are…well, basically what the “Superstops” are designed to be (but which Mr. Vincent bashes) are both necessary for a successful BRT. Can we say “massive/fatal internal logic fail?”

Anyway, the bottom line is that while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Mr. Vincent, or anyone else, getting paid by an organization to advocate for their employer’s economic self interest (in this case, BRT and fuel cell transportation technology), there IS something big-time wrong with a newspaper like the Washington Post not mentioning those crucial ties, so readers can place the argument in context. It’s the same “mistake” (in quotes because it’s actually a consistent pattern by the media that has been called out numerous times but hasn’t been corrected, so it’s basically impossible to believe it’s a simple “mistake”) we saw in this groundbreaking study (“Fossil Fuel Front Groups on the Front Page”), which found that pro-fossil-fuel and anti-renewable-energy op-ed writers’ ties to groups that are funded by fossil fuel interests is almost never disclosed by  the mainstream media in citations, op-eds, etc.

That’s completely unethical, of course, and exactly what the Washington Post did in the case of the anti-streetcar op-ed discussed above. It’s one reason of many (sensationalism, false equivalency, shallowness, triviality, focus on personalities and horse race over policy, etc, etc.) that I’ve come to despise the corporate media. Add this example to the list.


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