[UPDATE 3/22 3:25pm: I see some people are taking this post as a rebuttal of Ben’s, and it really isn’t.  We both agree that the afternoon post on the Times website was sensationalistic and would stoke unfounded fears, and (I think) we would agree that the next morning’s story was much better in that regard.  Aside from a philosophical difference about the usefulness of discerning people’s motives, the real point of this post was a reflection on instant-reaction journalism vs. the more traditional kind.]

I’d like to offer a somewhat feeble defense of Mike Lindblom and the Seattle Times in the whole  substandard steel fiasco.

Yesterday morning’s article, which I presume was the one in the print edition, meets what I’d consider to be basic standards of fairness and accuracy.  I won’t claim to know Mr. Lindblom’s innermost biases and prejudices, which we all have, but I believe he considers himself a professional that wants to get the story right.

In the past, newspapers have had a few hours for things to cool off before the print deadline.  Today, however, there’s a lot of pressure to get things out there as soon as you learn about them, without adequate time for reflection.  On a much smaller scale, we experience it blogging.

And speaking from that experience, the pressure to immediately react is what sets free our preconceived notions.  I’ll sometimes write a draft in the heat of the moment and then let it sit for 6 or 7 hours.  When I edit it later, the end product is almost always far better than what I had first written.  I’m more able to ask critical questions about my own assumptions, and how other viewpoints might change perceptions of the story.

For all their history and tradition, modern newspapers are grappling with the same issues in their online editions.  In a perfect world, I’d prefer a group on the transportation beat that didn’t always assume the worst about Sound Transit.  At the same time, however, I think they’re professionals and are going to figure out the new rules of the road with the rest of us.

14 Replies to “A Brave New World”

  1. The document with highlighted portions was made available before he ran the story. In fact, he gleaned quite a bit from that PDF. Time was not a factor, he wasn’t rushed when he made his implications.

    Legislators have lived with newspapers doing this for the longest time– now it’s the taxing districts and agencies tasked with major public works that are getting it. Take a situation, omit facts, fluff the suspicions and pray everyone reads your article and gets all good and frothy and wants more.

  2. Martin

    To quote Bob Dylan: “negativity don’t get you through” or should I be quoting former vice president under Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, who once referred to the press as the “chattering nabobs of negativity”?

    I admire your sense of fairness, and if Mike Lindblom’s columns were only occasionally hostile, I would agree with you, but they are not just occasional but relentnessly negative for the most part. I take no pleasure at all in reading his columns because I feel whilst the role of the critic is not to defend his beat to the hilt, neither is it to denigrate it into the dust on the ground.

    I believe I wrote a while back that Lindblom’s columns about Sound Transit are the equivalent in my eyes of a music critic covering rap concerts when his musical tastes don’t extend much further than Bob Dylan, or Bruce Springsteen. In other words, it probably would never be possible for the said critic to like the rap concert and it would be pointless for his editor to send him there unless for a laugh. His critic would never convince those who like rap to hate it and only end up reinforcing the dislike of those who hate it. So it doesn’t get us very far along the road to enlightenment, however much it may sell.

    Bob Dylan fans (and full disclosure, yes I am one of them) by way of contrast tend to both love the guy and disagree endlessly amongst themselves about the worth of the concerts they see. As critics though, they are great, (see this site http://www.boblinks.com/) because on this fan blog site they can still recognize worth when it sits down in front of them and this is what keeps them going to all the concerts they go to and writing about they like and what sucks for them. So you get the picture I hope? To the one important newspaper we have left, please send along a transportation reporter who takes into account the fact that the people have both voted for Sound Transit projects and actually like them when they see them. Sounder is very popular and so too are ST buses. I think Light Rail will be too, so we need a reporter who can reflect this and the ultimate goal in his writing. Sure, by all means, ride a low tide of disappointment when needed, but ride the thrilling waves too when they happen. It is the same water, just with a different effect on the viewer and a different character and our response should be the same. Believe me, down the years, I have had my share of disappointments in the progress of Sound Transit projects, but I do also love them when they come to life.

    As far as the Seattle Times is concerned, by way of contrast, let us take Moira Mccdonald, the film critic. She, unlike Mike Lindblom appears to really enjoy her beat as well as movies in general. But liking movies in general doesn’t mean that she cannot offer sharp criticism of what she sees out there and I trust her because I know that if she dislikes a movie, I can take her word because I know she also likes other movies. Same product, different response depending on the label and the contents. Lindblom doesn’t appear to like Sound Transit period the end whatever the content, and so I don’t trust his articles. I feel the same with the Times’ art critic, Misha Berson, who never seems to like a single play performed by the Seattle Shakespeare company. I do not trust or like her articles for this reason. It is not possible to like Shakespeare’s plays and simultaneously and almost uniformly dislike those versions of them performed by the Seattle Shakespeare company. To not see some good in the performance when you like the play seems disengenuous and odd at best and unreliable at worst and doesn’t seem to me to cover the role of the critic.

    So in conclusion, I would say that we need someone covering Sound Transit who can poke around and find things like sub grade steel used in the Light Rail columns so long as such things really are a problem but who can still nevertheless display some enthusiasm at least if funds suddenly become available for a previously underfunded project, a shiny new project opens, or if some commuters look excited and relieved that there is one extra train home they can take advantage of. I don’t think it is too much to ask. Hate Sound Transit when you must, but love it when you can. There are reasons for both, but especially the latter!


    1. > To the one important newspaper we have left,

      You mean the Seattle Weekly? :=

      > Hate Sound Transit when you must, but love it when you can.
      > There are reasons for both, but especially the latter!


  3. The problem of inaccurate reporting isn’t tied to deadlines, so much as personal / publishers’ biases. Most of all, good reporting is compromised by the urge to go sensationalist: the outraged headline, the insinuation that malfeasance and corruption are always lurking behind every government effort.

    A lot of this “activist reporting” can be traced back to the current batch of senior reporters who cut their teeth during Watergate / Vietnam. You know, when you really couldn’t trust “the man” and when politics truly were corrupt. Of course, back then, the American people trusted their government and believed almost everything it told them. I think the Lindblom generation of journalists saw it as crucial that they reverse this trend of sheep-like towing of the government line.

    Then, we had the convergence of left distrust with right-wing hatred of government, as exploited by Ronald Reagan. Who told us government was ALWAYS the problem.

    So, when Mike Lindblom wrote that famous front page hit piece (Can You Really Trust Sound Transit With Your Hard-earned Money…or, something like that) just before the November ’07 election, he was tapping into a fairly common vein. And when Lindblom wrote often of “the Monorail Dream” (the “People’s Train” response to “The Man’s” light rail) he was getting back to his counter-culture generation roots. And how’s about the incessant Times fascination with all things Discovery Institute? Now THERE is modern example of convergence: where goofy random “innovation” is joined with “market-based” solutions, and privatization.

    No wonder Times Editorial Board guy Jim Vesely wrote about every dumb idea they came up with. And no wonder Mike Lindblom covered their practically useless conferences, without evening questioning the wisdom of any of their ideas.

  4. > Reagan. Who told us government was ALWAYS the problem.

    Reagan never told anyone that. If government was the problem he wouldn’t have devoted the bulk of his life to public service. You may disagree with his policy but he was not anti government and certainly not opposed to BIG government spending. SDI for example was a big government idea. Maybe not a good one but it shows he believed government had a role to play.

    Reagan brought over a lot of Democrats to the Republican ticket. Obama brought over a lot of Republicans. Great leaders have that ability. You may not agree with them and they may not always be right but they DO get something done. It’s the far left and far right that scream the loudest when this happens. Reagan did bring in the right-wingnuts and their hatred of government but I don’t think there was any convergence of the far left. If anything Reagan galvanized the opposition of anyone to the left with a distrust government.

  5. Contrary to the AIG folks and their ilk sometimes in life you have to say no. There is a role for scepticism and for creativity in our society and our real health is measured by their presence in every functioning citizen.

    ST defective steel is not to spec, though it can function we will likely be talking about tearing that particular section down ahead of its time just as we are with the Viaduct now.

    A much bigger concern in that same regard is rail construction over I-90, which isn’t too late to stop, though you would have to go to court to do it.

    I’m curious if anyone at Seattle Transit has read the engineering study okaying it’s use – as well as analyzed how the particular way they phrased that expert opinion will impact future costs? (as well as the accuracy of current estimates?)

    1. I have read the engineering studies. In fact, I’ve linked to one of them before in the comments, I even host a copy:

      And the support data:

      There is, quite frankly, not a problem with running rail over I-90.

      Now, as to your ‘defective steel’ nonsense, I am tired of it. This steel is not defective, it is simply one step lower rating than was asked for. These rings are not even necessary for the columns to meet seismic standards. It was DISCRETIONARY to leave the CONCRETE POUR FORMS on part of the foundations of the columns. It will have ZERO impact on the lifetime of Link. Sound Transit could have simply removed them, as I quoted in my piece on the subject.

      STOP misinforming comment readers.

  6. Just wondering how STB readers would have preferred to see the story written. Maybe it would go something like this….

    “Sound Transit managers offered reassurance that the trains would run in perfect safety, in spite of the use of 1.5 million pounds of substandard steel supporting elevated portions of the line.

    ‘Fortunately,’ officials said, ‘billions were wasted in construction, building the line far stronger than any reasonable engineer would have required. Thus, in spite of the fact that the materials used did not meet the specifications, the columns will still support the trains.'”

    ST got lucky and dodged a very big bullet here, and I think it’s obvious from the ping-ponging engineering conclusions that ‘got lucky’ is the operative phrase.

    Also, a lot of commenters here don’t seem to realize how much work the skin of the column does. I’ll leave the explanation to any engineer reading, but in a lot of cases the column would be just as strong if it were hollow.

    I trust my alternate example has shown that Lindblom could have been much more critical if he had wished.

    1. Catowner, please actually read what I wrote on this issue.

      This isn’t the skin of the column. It’s a pour form. It’s like leaving the plywood forms on a concrete column. It could have been removed.

      Do YOU know something that three engineering studies don’t know about ‘how much work’ these pour forms do? Why don’t you enlighten us?

  7. I agree with Tim’s take, Martin and believe you’re being overly, um, fair with this reporter. I have my own admittedly anecdotal experience with the type of reporting Tim alludes to in his comment. Having worked in environmental public policy in Washington State since the early 90’s, I’ve had the privelege to work inside of some of the most constentious natural resources conflicts in recent Washington State history (spotted owl “wars” anyone?). I have worked directly on programs and initiatives that have been continually reported as “owls vs. loggers”, “trees vs. people”, “salmon vs jobs” etc, when of course in reality, the conflicts are far-more nuanced and fine-grained. In the end, these conflicts were about mediating decisions based on science in protection of rare resources, from which there extend fairly tangential economic results in certain communities, among hundreds of other political and economic factors and constraints.

    Yet the Seattle PI’s career environmental reporter inevitably cashed in on the simple memes of “government versus rural folks,” or “producers versus enviros.” He did so with a language that always suggested malfeasance by government or corporate interests while the rurals or the greens were portrayed as victims or freedom-fighters. To me, this reporter perpetually betrayed his biases in his reportage. I never really understood why he couldn’t add a few facts and create an authentic background in his stories, allowing the public to discern their version of the “truth.” I think the “Watergate era” mentality mentioned above might explain part of it.

    @ Bernie–Your contrarianism is growing on me buddy, but Reagan most certainly made the quote “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem” in his first inaugural address. Thus initiating the highest example of the irony of conservatives participating in public service. Said with no disrespect intended to you as a conservative.

  8. Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it’s not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work–work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.

    President Reagan
    Inaugural Address

    “Reagan. Who told us government was ALWAYS the problem.” No where in the speech does he say that. Putting the emphasis on ALWAYS and then taking a quote from the speech out of context is the type of sound bite journalism you are quite rightly opposed to.

    1. Interesting, Bernie. Reagan is widely recognized as making this statement in his first Inaugural Address:

      “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

      But, maybe that is just another urban legend? Folks attribute this quote to Reagan, even though he never said it?

      I believe this quote does belong to Reagan, however:

      “Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.”

      1. What Reagan said was “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” That’s far different than saying government is always the problem. It’s very different from what you said, “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Note that besides leaving off the part “In this present crisis” you changed “government is not the solution” to “Government is not a solution”. There’s a subtle but distinct difference.

        What Reagan believed was that government had become too big and lacked an appropriate level of accountability to the people it is in place to represent.

  9. “Reagan did bring in the right-wingnuts and their hatred of government but I don’t think there was any convergence of the far left.”

    I think what stephen was saying is that the convergence is now. Where distrust of government has come to a head from both ends of the political spectrum. Some might call that cynicism.

Comments are closed.