Praising with faint damn
Another apparent hit piece in WW today -- this time, on the Portland streetcar. It comes on as a hard-hitting exposé of Earl "the Pearl" Blumenauer's streetcar shenanigans, but in the end he and the condo-selling transit toys both come out smelling fine. It's hard to believe that the author and editors at that publication wanted it any other way.
The "lede" of what they published is deeply buried. At one point way down in the story, somebody calls out the board of the goofy private company that gets to spend all the tax money to build and run the trolleys for an obvious conflict of interest:
Gustafson is not paid for his role as PSI’s director. But the nonprofit has awarded his firm, Shiels Obletz, at least $2.3 million in consulting contracts, according to a May 2007 tally by the city.So many details about the streetcar are left out. The facts about the proposed east side extension -- which is the big streetcar issue these days -- aren't discussed in the story. For example, the heavy burden on taxpayers, local and citywide, from construction, and especially operating, costs is not covered. The curtailing of existing bus service to pay for the thing is not mentioned. Instead it's all "Look! Federal pork!"
Principals at the firm—including Gustafson—have given nearly $27,000 to Blumenauer and his PAC since 1996.
Outsiders might find it odd, and possibly sticky, to have a nonprofit award large contracts to its director’s firm. “It’s a potential conflict of interest,” says Andrew Svitek, a Portland nonprofit lawyer. He adds, “It only becomes a problem if you can show that somebody got preferential treatment.” That’s a difficult thing to show.
Others use stronger language. “It stinks to high heaven,” says Laura Otten, director of the Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University in Philadelphia. She says a nonprofit director’s company benefiting from contracts with the organization is “one of the biggest red flags you can wave.”
“The board has the right to say, ‘We have a bid process,’” Otten says, “but there isn’t a person whose eyebrows aren’t going to be raised.”
The Double Dub spends most of its ink:
- reminding everyone that Earl (probably the individual with the greatest job security on the planet, and who could run a winning campaign on a quarter) is the person most responsible for the shiny toys, with the first six paragraphs positively glowing with praise;
- "exposing" the fact that he and his congressional buddies have taken a bunch of campaign contributions from the usual suspects who benefit from the thing; and
- quoting vague attacks on the streetcar structure generally (with Jonathan Charles the only local there to make the case against -- I guess Lucifer wasn't available).
In the end, so little dirt is dug up that the targets of the purported hit are actually the winners, much like the Sam Adams intern story two days ago.
The kids who read Willy Week are going to come away from this piece more enamored of the streetcar than ever. All their heroes get their adorable quotes in there -- Chris Smith, Erik Sten, Mike Powell... even Dan Saltzman, another WW hero whose sister is in on the streetcar scam. (As usual, Dan says he's got questions, but he's voting aye.) Meanwhile, the opponents are fronted by Charles and some faceless policy wonks from back east. Whoopee.
In a smart paper like that, rarely are the effects of its articles unintentional. If this story ends up being a net boost for the streetcar -- "See? The opponents, like us, have found nothing credible to complain about" -- one would have to assume that it was meant to be that way.