Why Can’t the Media Get It Right?

A pillar of our democracy is the free press, but the quality of journalism in general has declined over the last decade or so. People now get much of their news from the internet, so newspaper circulations are dropping, with advertising revenues following along behind. Newspapers continue to battle, but less news is coming from shrinking staffs. And there’s legitimate concern for abuse by media giants like Clear Channel, which owns more than 1200 radio stations.
And just because an article or an editorial appears in a major newspaper doesn’t mean the writer knows what the hell he or she is talking about. Case in point: an editorial about Amtrak and the Northeast Corridor that appeared a few days ago in the venerable Washington Post. It contains several statements that are misleading or simply wrong, but let’s discuss just two.
The editorial refers to the “operating profit” made by Amtrak trains on the Northeast Corridor (Washington-New York-Boston). It’s almost universally agreed by people in the know that Amtrak cooks the books in order to show that alleged profit. And it’s disingenuous for the writer to say the NEC operates at a profit without at least noting that staggering amounts of money need to be spent on infrastructure—tunnels, bridges, track repair and maintenance—much of which has repeatedly been deferred.
The editorial also blows off Amtrak’s long-distance trains, implying that virtually no one rides them. The fact is, however, many of those trains are sold out, often well in advance. Furthermore, a significant chunk of the NEC’s revenue comes from passengers connecting from one of Amtrak’s long-distance trains. Much of that revenue would be lost if those other trains went away.
And of course the writer questions the necessity of the long-distance trains because the Northeast Corridor trains carry a great many more people. That may be true, but it’s simplistic. The legitimate comparison should not be the number of passengers, but rather the number of passenger miles. Why? Because, obviously, Amtrak fares are based in large part on the distance to be traveled. Consider: one passenger takes a Northeast Corridor train between Baltimore and Philadelphia and pays $45 for his ticket. Meanwhile, another passenger takes a long-distance train, the Capitol Limited, from Washington to Chicago and pays $345 for a roomette. Yes, of course there are fewer passengers taking the long-distance trains, but most of those passengers are of greater value to Amtrak than are passengers on the Northeast Corridor.… often a lot more.
One of these days, an enterprising reporter will find a way to dig out the real numbers and then do the math. And lo! The books shall no longer be cooked and it shall be revealed unto us that the Northeast Corridor loses money—lots of money—and that Amtrak’s long-distance trains run at a profit. And there shall be a weeping and a gnashing of teeth among Republicans in Congress. And the rest of us shall speak unto them and say: “Dammit! We tried to tell you!”