Thoughtful criticism is essential for good public policy and the newspaper is absolutely right to publish a variety of arguments looking at any given issue from different perspectives.
By Ryan McGreal
Published May 15, 2017
I have great respect for Paul Berton, the editor-in-chief of the Hamilton Spectator, on both a professional and personal level. He is an introspective, genial and thoughtful writer, and his weekly essays just inside the Saturday edition are always a welcome insight into the state of a media industry in transition in the 21st century.
Running a modern newspaper is a no-win situation. No matter what you do, you will be criticized roundly - usually from both directions - for your treatment of any controversial issue. You can expect lots of unsolicited advice, at least some of it delivered with a generous helping of abuse and snark.
I tried to steer clear of abuse and snark in my piece, but I am nonetheless guilty of my share of armchair quarterbacking. I wrote my piece to get it off my chest and without expecting any response, so I was thrilled that Berton thought it worthy of a reply.
Berton wrote that I am mistaken in concluding that the Spectator no longer fact-checks op-ed submissions to the same extent as columns and editorials:
Granted, like most other newspapers, we have fewer editors today, but we do not print obvious falsehoods. And we correct our errors.
Like all newspapers, we check dates, figures, events, addresses, personalities, titles, allegations, the spelling of names ... [sic]
If something doesn't sound right, we question it. This is done dozens of times a day.
This is very good to know, and I appreciate Berton taking the time to clarify the newspaper's policy.
My piece was spurred by my review of published op-eds in opposition to the city's light rail transit (LRT) plan, many of which have rested on false fact claims.
After raising my concerns on social media, I was contacted by several Spectator journalists. They explained, defended and sometimes criticized the paper's decision to publish these anti-LRT op-eds despite the false and absurd claims, and it was on this basis that I wrote my recent piece.
Berton's article included a helpful review of the distinction between editing and fact-checking as such, the difference between how newspapers and magazines apply fact-checking, the reasonable limits on verifying claims, and the difficulty in untangling a fact from an opinion.
Then Berton wrote: "McGreal's real beef is our decision to print opinion submissions opposing LRT for Hamilton, articles he describes collectively as 'a painful mess of blatantly false claims, argumentative fallacies and downright bad writing.'"
I'm very sorry to have left Berton with the impression that I oppose the paper's publication of anti-LRT op-eds as a whole.
To be clear, I passionately support the role of thoughtful criticism to expose bad ideas and make good ideas better. Indeed, much of what we write on RTH is critical in nature. Heck, my own previous article constitutes an example of critical writing!
In making this point, Berton linked to two recent anti-LRT op-eds. The first was by Carl Turkstra, a civil engineer, who reviewed some of the traffic issues that LRT will cause and concluded, "the gift might well turn out to be a Trojan Horse."
To be sure, I disagree with Turkstra's pessimism. As an engineer he must understand that the purpose of engineering is to apply math and science to solve technical challenges, and Metrolinx already employs traffic engineers who are doing exactly this. However, I did not object to the publication of his essay.
I found no issue with his fact claims or his analysis, and considered the essay to be a fair piece of commentary written by someone who did their homework and checked their claims instead of just spewing a hot mess of angry assumptions. Again, I disagree with Turkstra's argument but not the decision to publish it.
The second op-ed that Berton linked - the now-infamous list of 36 reasons to oppose LRT - is a different matter.
Several of its points are blatantly false fact claims, e.g. that there will be no local bus service along the corridor (the City has consistently and repeatedly confirmed that local service will continue), or that the LRT tracks will be elevated (the tracks will be at the same grade as the street and separated by a curb), or that the McMaster station will drop passengers in the middle of the street (it will be on the north curb with direct access to campus), or that LRT will be louder than buses (modern LRT vehicles are generally quieter than buses).
According to the City's LRT FAQ:
The LRT will replace current HSR B-Line express service. Local bus service in and around the LRT corridor will be maintained to feed the LRT line, however parallel routes may be used in some sections. HSR is still working on these details so updates will be provided when they become available.
Here are the op-ed author's exact statements in question:
"there will be no buses making more frequent stops between the long distance between LRT stops"
"there would only be 14 LRT stops while 34 existing bus stops would be eliminated"
LRT is replacing the B-Line Express, but not the other local bus routes that serve this corridor. At most, "parallel routes may be used in some sections" according to the City.
The 01-King, 05-Delaware and 51-University bus routes will continue along the corridor and will continue to serve local stops between the LRT stations. At worst, some of those stops may move to nearby parallel streets. They certainly will not be "eliminated".
I just don't see how any amount of parsing can bridge the gulf between the City's FAQ and the op-ed author's claim that "34 existing bus stops would be eliminated" and "there will be no buses making more frequent stops" between LRT station.
Many of the op-ed's other objections are just angry assertions of the implementation details, like property acquisitions or the railway underpass, as if they were reasons not to proceed. Some of those implementation details even directly benefit the city - like the Longwood bridge replacement, which is necessary and for which the City does not have a budget.
If this op-ed was just a one-off, I would happily chalk it up to the kind of thing that sometimes slips past the filters. No one and no process is perfect, and putting together a daily newspaper is an extraordinary undertaking with a great many moving parts set against unforgiving timelines.
Yet I notice a disturbing pattern among many - though not all - of the anti-LRT op-eds published in the Spec over the past several years.
But other anti-LRT op-eds have been less defensible. They have engaged in empty fearmongering and baseless strawman attacks that falsely conflate modern LRT with antique trolleys and even 18th century technology, or repeated the false claim of eliminated bus service, or were based entirely on a draft report that had already been rejected, and so on.
It is only fair to point out here that from my reading, it appears the majority of LRT op-eds the Spectator publishes are supportive, and of course the paper's editorial position has been solidly pro-LRT for many years. LRT opponents may see this as evidence of bias, but what it reflects is simply that the case for LRT is vastly more broad, credible and well-supported by the evidence than the case against it.
Again, thoughtful criticism is essential for good public policy and the newspaper is absolutely right to publish a variety of arguments looking at any given issue from different perspectives - including opposition.
And my criticism is ultimately just that - one argument among many. The Spec editorial team certainly does not have to answer to me, and Berton's article was both gracious and thought-provoking. I expect we'll have to agree to disagree on this one, but it is to Berton's credit - and to the Spectator's - that they are willing to have this discussion in the first place.
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