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May 04, 2010

Bar Cars, The NY Times & The Truth

In an earlier life I was a journalist. A pretty good one too, winning awards in my time at NBC News and local stations. We used to have a joke in the newsroom about sloppy reporting, commenting that a reporter “should never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

That rubric came to mind when I first read the NY Times’ April 20th feature on pending demise of Metro-North’s bar cars. I had spoken with the reporter, Michael Grynbaum, about the story. I even sent him to talk to others involved in the efforts to save the last commuter rail bar cars in the US.

But despite our conversations, he got the story wrong. Very wrong.

As I have written here before, the eight bar cars serving Metro-North riders in Connecticut are vastly popular but often under threat. When ridership peaked before the recession, there was some talk of adding seats to the bar cars, doing away with their 1950’s style banquette seats. Some of the old bar cars were literally being held together with duct tape while other cars of the same era went thru rehab, getting new electronics and cleaned interiors. Clearly, the priority was seats, not in-transit bar service.

But as of today, our sacred bar cars have been rejuvenated, having gone through the railroad’s CSR (Critical Systems Replacement) program. The cars are good for another 15 – 20 years and there are no, repeat NO, plans to remove them from service.

What is at question is whether we will see bar car designs for the new M8 car coming on line later this year. Here is where the NY Times got the facts wrong.
The paper implied that CDOT and Metro-North had no designs for an M8 bar car. Not so. The CT Rail Commuter Council has seen those designs and we’ve been told in recent days they are in the hands of Kawasaki, the M8’s builder, for bids.
Why would the state be seeking bids on an M8 bar car if they were being eliminated?

But remember that old newsroom mantra: “Never let the facts… etc.”

The Times also implied that when the new M8 cars come into service, all of our older cars (including the eight bar cars) would be scrapped. Not so. CDOT and Metro-North have long planned to retain about 150 of the rehab’ed cars, including the bar cars.

So even if there is no M8 bar car (and I have every confidence there will be), we’ll still have the older models. Ipso facto, the NY Times was wrong. But here’s where the fun begins.

Every media outlet in the NY area ran with the Times’ story, none of them even checking with me (as they usually do) to get the facts. If it was in the NY Times, it had to be true! Wow… what a lesson we’ve learned.

The day after the Times’ story came out, I reconfirmed my facts with the CDOT and Metro-North officials at our long-scheduled Commuter Council meeting. The next week was spent playing one-man truth squad, setting the record straight with commuters, lawmakers and media.

I even e-mailed the NY Times asking for an official correction. Surely, I thought, some editor would see the factual errors their reporter had committed and set the record straight. But of the list of factual flaws I cited in the original article, only one was acknowledged in a tiny correction printed April 28th…

“An article last Wednesday about the uncertain future of the bar cars on the Metro-North Railroad referred erroneously to their interiors. They are decorated with wallpaper designed to look like wood paneling; they do not have actual wood paneling.”

That’s the best I could elicit from the NY Times’ editors, perhaps the smallest of the mistakes I showed them. That the other mistakes were not corrected, or even acknowledged, speaks to the sloppy journalism and arrogance of this once great newspaper.

How sad.

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