A Tale of Two News Outlets, Part One: Dickens drama as NBC runs a NIMBY-friendly TV report about the greenway
NBC and the Tribune demonstrate the wrong and right ways to report on a controversial bike lane project like the Dickens Greenway.
6:14 PM CST on January 17, 2024
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness."
– "A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens
The opening line of Dickens' famous novel about the French Revolution also applies to Chicago's current controversies over creating a citywide network of low-stress bikeways, like his namesake Dickens Greenway. (Read more about the greenway project here.)
On the one side, you have well-informed, hard-working sustainable transportation advocates and planners, trying to improve traffic safety, public health, and the environment. On the other, there are Not In My Back Yard types, dead-set against against any changes to streets that might make driving slightly less convenient. They're sometimes willing to spend large amounts of time and money to block these projects.
And then there are Chicago's mainstream news sources, who may be trying to stay neutral in these conflicts. But in reality they have significant power to influence whether the number of serious and fatal traffic crashes in our city rises or falls. They can help share real data about the benefits of safe streets projects. Or they can cater to the NIMBYs, amplifying their alarmist, factually inaccurate claims that low-stress bikeways threaten the safety of other road users, and are fiscally unfair.
I know reporters from NBC Chicago meant well with their new TV segment "Dickens Greenway Problems", about the new route connecting Clybourn Avenue and the Lincoln Park green space. But they initially ran a TV spot that basically turned up the volume on the opponents' misguided grievances. Fortunately, after some pushback to the clip from Streetsblog, the article they ran in print was much improved.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune by transportation columnist Sarah Freishtat is getting praise from Streetsblog Chicago readers for the paper's "much better" deep dive into the subject than NBC. While the Trib piece acknowledges the concerns of the anti-bikeway crowd, it also tacitly paints those car-centric folks as being afraid of change and unwilling to look at the big picture in the interest of public safety.
Today we'll start with an analysis of the NBC coverage, and we'll talk about the Tribune article tomorrow in Part Two.
The problematic NBC Chicago TV report
In fairness, I believe NBC Investigative reporters Bennett Haeberle and Shelby Bremer truly intended to produce a balanced piece. Bremer interviewed me last year for an excellent piece on Chicago's hit-and-run crisis. She reached out again for info on the new Dickens piece, and wisely took my advice to interview Chicago Family Biking's Rebecca Resman, who has been a key proponent of the greenway.
Resman and her daughter Sloane did a great job of talking up the bikeway in last night's TV spot. "There's a lot of support and excitement about this project going in, and becoming a bigger part of a hopefully bigger network that we'll see across the city... These streets are for everyone, not just for people driving." (It's puzzling why Haeberle didn't intervene when a bystander interrupted Resman's interview for a long rant against the aesthetics of the traffic diverter at Dickens and Lincoln Park West, in front of Resman's young daughter.)
"I wanted to... stand up for what I believe in with my mom, because she's kind of like my hero," said Sloane Resman. She's been advocating for the greenway for nearly five years, close to half of her life.
I can relate, because I've been writing about this initiative since May 2019, when it was first proposed. What's been making this project drag on so long is the relentless opposition from some neighbors in the affluent Lincoln Park neighborhood. They've insisted that more bikes on the street would endanger pedestrians, although a new lower speed limit of 20 mph, plus the installation of speed bumps, sidewalk bump-outs, and raised crosswalks actually made all road users safer.
One of the ringleaders of the blockade is local attorney Edward "Ed" C. Fitzpatrick. As I've documented extensively, for the last three years he's quietly filed many Freedom of Information Act requests with the Chicago Department of Transportation seeking evidence of wrongdoing. He's also sent countless irate emails to CDOT and the local alderpersons. Last week he finally went public with his gripes in an interview for a factually inaccurate piece by the car-centric neighborhood newspaper chain Inside Publications.
I strongly advised Bremer not to take cranks like Fitzpatrick too seriously. Sadly, NBC didn't take my advice on that. Half of the NBC segment consists of Fitzpatrick grousing about the greenway (hilariously doing his interview with NBC in stocking feet), or discussion of the docs the lawyer had FOIAed, which he insisted showed government corruption. The TV spot is basically an angry NIMBY's wildest dream.
The most problematic part of the NBC TV clip was this statement. “[Fitzpatrick] said there’s been a lack of transparency about certain aspects of the project, including the use of more than $900,000 in City funds, after Chicago officials touted for years the project would be mostly federally funded."
That probably sounded like a sneaky move to most NBC viewers. They likely assumed that instead of using federal money as previously discussed, CDOT and Ald. Knudsen were using "Chicago taxpayer funds" due to a "bait and switch," as Inside Publications (erroneously) reported.
In reality, CDOT spokesperson Erica Schroeder told me, "The project’s total cost is approximately $1 million and is being paid with funding from Chicago’s Divvy bike-share system that is designated for transportation purposes, including the installation of bike and pedestrian safety projects."
Both Resman and myself shared that info with Bremer before the TV report came out. (The reporter later told me NBC already knew the greenway was bike-share funded from their own research.) I was under the impression that the Divvy connection would be included in the TV segment.
Bremer later told me that NBC felt there wasn't enough time in the TV spot to include that small amount of crucial info. But that decision radically changed the tone of the segment, making it seem like the story of innocent citizens getting swindled by the government to appease "bikers".
The improved NBC TV print article
To Bremer's credit, after we discussed last night's TV segment on the phone (and I razzed NBC about it on Twitter), she said the following passage in today's print article about the Divvy connection was influenced by my feedback:
Project details published as early as 2019 and again in 2021 said the majority of the project was to be paid for through federal funding. Records show this was noted in materials presented at each of the three public meetings held on the project prior to its installation.
But a May 2023 city contract reviewed by NBC 5 Investigates showed that $910,000 in city-based funds were being used – specifically 2022 Divvy funds from the city’s bike share program.
“The project is being paid for with funding from Chicago’s bikeshare system that is designated for transportation purposes, including the installation of bike and pedestrian safety projects. CDOT manages a wide-ranging and dynamic capital program, where it is not uncommon to adjust funding sources for projects to maximize the use of funds and optimize efficiency and effectiveness in delivering projects for communities,” a CDOT spokeswoman told NBC 5 Investigates.
The spokeswoman would not say why the federal funding was removed from the project. Advocates say the use of Divvy funds is appropriate for the greenway project, paying for improvements to cycling infrastructure with money coming from cyclists themselves.
This passage greatly improved the tone of NBC's print article. Heck, it's very similar to what Streetsblog reported about the funding last week! That section is near the end of our article.
Again, Part Two of this Streetsblog piece, covering the Tribune article, will be posted tomorrow. In the meantime, take a look at these reports yourself:
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In addition to editing Streetsblog Chicago, John writes about transportation and other topics for additional local publications. A Chicagoan since 1989, he enjoys exploring the city on foot, bike, bus, and 'L' train.
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