Incompetent DC Media Coverage of Incompetent DC Metro Must End

Update 2/23, 3:40 p.m.: In response to fires going up 21 percent in 2014 & five fires this weekend, the WMATA response to NBC Washington was "harsher winter," as if that explains the whole year. Notwithstanding, last year's winter featured a Polar Vortex in DC while this year has not. Did NBC Washington interview anyone else? Of course not. That sort of non-reporting is why I wrote this blog post. Please share. We need appropriate coverage of WMATA, and we need it now.

A woman took the DC Metro home from work and died.

The woman did not die because of an accident, or a fire, or an Act of God. She died because the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) was incompetent. The conductor did not begin a basic evacuation plan, causing passengers to inhale smoke for 30 minutes. The fans in the tunnel – only two of which were working – were blowing smoke into the cars. When fire personnel arrived, their radios did not work underground and they were uninformed about how to proceed.

wmata delay
Let me repeat: a woman died because WMATA is incompetent. 

This week, in response to an ongoing Congressional hearing into their incompetence, The Washington Post’s editorial board had the nerve to call for WMATA to receive more funding. As a matter of reference, WMATA receives more money than the Chicago Transit Agency for a smaller transit system. No one is dying on subway cars in Chicago. (photo source) 

Think about this – The Washington Post reported that Metro knew about the issues that led to a woman’s death, yet the next day argued for WMATA to receive more money. It’s asinine and it’s dangerous.

This weekend, there were at least five reported instances of fire and/or smoke on WMATA.

The Washington Post, again, did little reporting of these possible life-threatening instances, except to pass along WMATA statements. An Associated Press story featured this headline: “Light smoke reported at DC Metro station.” Who said it was “light smoke?” A WMATA representative. It is always a WMATA representative. The Post did not feel that this incident, which was the third of five for the weekend, warranted a story.

Dr. Gridlock, the Post’s transportation blog, posted a grand total of zero items about five fires.

WAMU, a local radio station, reported on the weekend’s incidents. They did so incorrectly. They cite three smoke issues, when there were five.

Apparently, passing along WMATA statements after five fires in two days passes for sufficient media coverage.

Guess what? It is not sufficient.

The coverage of WMATA from the local media has been as disgraceful as the organization itself. As a daily rider of the system, I know all too well how terrible the service has become and how it has become dramatically worse over the past six months.

There are constant delays without explanation. There are always escalators and elevators out of service. There are incompetent station managers without answers. There is never any accountability.

While Twitter features a daily barrage of #wmata horror stories, it never rises above or beyond because the mainstream media fails to cover them properly. It only reaches that level if a death or accident occurs. The daily disasters are ignored.

I fully understand that news organizations may look at WMATA issues as “a dog bites man” story but that is exactly the point – it happens so often that it doesn’t feel newsworthy.

Yet, it’s dangerous. By not covering WMATA properly, it gives them a pass. They are able to paint incidents as “isolated” when they are not. They are able to feed statements without answering questions. They are able to insert the word “residual” in front of delay and lessen its impact. When a train is late by 20 minutes, it is a delay. It is not a residual delay. It is just a delay.

Think about the outrage in Boston when the T failed to keep full operations during a historic stretch of snow. As an outsider, one would think they would get a pass but the local media has not obliged – there has been action forced upon the T to ensure it works and failure, quite simply, is not an option.
Meanwhile, a woman dies on the Yellow Line and there are no consequences, beyond an impending settlement and the Washington Post begging for more money.

It’s a problem in the fundamental way the agency is covered. Every morning at 7:25 a.m., I tune into NBC Washington to get the weather. They also do the traffic report and every single traffic jam is shared. The Metro is never addressed. Well imagine if every morning, they presented every single WMATA delay. Don’t you think that would change non-riders opinion, if they were confronted with it on a daily basis?

Instead, an outlet like NBC Washington is there for the opening of the Silver Line and absent for delays. If you only watched the local television news, the good for WMATA far outweighs the bad. It makes sense that the woman’s death would be an isolated incident, since you wouldn’t have heard about the non-stop string of delays and malfunctioning trains that led up to it.

On the Beltway, you expect traffic and you know there’s traffic. On the Metro, the local news gives the impression – by ignoring daily delays – that it’s running on time.

I have resisted driving to work but it’s now time to re-evaluate that position. It will be more expensive to drive and pay for parking. It’s reached the point where I will not mind the added hit to my wallet.

Here’s the worst part about The Washington Post and other outlets acting as the Metro’s megaphone – the people hurt the most by WMATA’s incompetence are those in lower income brackets. I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I have a car and extra money every week will not hurt me.

The ridership for WMATA is declining because there are more people like me deciding that it’s not worth it anymore. They’re tired of being late. They’re tired of being stuck. They’re tired of the bullshit.

For those without a choice, they suffer. When WMATA threatens to raise fares and/or decrease service to make up for self-made budget shortages, they are the ones whose lives become harder. WMATA is now a regressive tax.

WMATA is a disgrace. The agency has crumbled further into decline with faulty equipment and outdated technology. The money-wasting is absurd. The staggering amount of incompetence from the top down is hard to fathom.

It’s time for a change. The media is the voice of the people. In DC, they need to start acting like it. If – when? – more people die, the local media’s incompetence will be as culpable as WMATA’s.

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