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On paving vs “bike routes”, The Oregonian got it wrong

Posted by on September 21st, 2012 at 12:41 pm

On Monday, I tried to share the truth behind The Oregonian’s extremely misleading “Portland’s Road to Ruin” article. That story, written by Beth Slovic and edited by Michelle Brence, has led many of its readers to believe that the Portland Bureau of Transportation was so focused on building “bike routes” they wouldn’t do any street paving until 2017.

Today I want to clear up some confusion around that article and clarify that not only do I believe it was purposefully edited to misinform the public; but that upon further examination, it contains factual errors that should be corrected.

To The Oregonian’s credit, the article did mention (albeit in the eighth paragraph) that some paving would be done, but that it would be only “minor repaving projects.” When I first published my critique on Monday, Slovic felt my opening paragraph was inaccurate because I stated that she claimed PBOT was, “spending so much on “bike routes” they had nothing left for paving.” Slovic was correct. I should have chosen those words more carefully. I edited that sentence to make it clear I felt her story created an inaccurate narrative but that it did indeed include all the facts.

But that was before I knew all the facts. Now I think it’s important for the community to know that the article was both misleading and inaccurate.

Slovic stated that PBOT had “shelved plans” to repave any, “badly deteriorating road in its 5,000-mile system — until at least 2017,” and that the agency was “stopping major paving.”

That is not true.

Slovic linked the words “badly deteriorating road” to a PDF created by PBOT titled, Arterial and Collector streets rated VERY POOR. That link and those words clearly intended to communicate to readers that no projects on that list would be paved until 2017. However, three streets on that list — NE Sandy, SE Division, and NW Naito — have already either been already repaved, are in progress, or are slated to be repaved before 2017. Also, the Naito and Division projects were line items in PBOT’s 2012-2013 budget (via the Capital Improvement Project list) at the time Slovic did her story. (PBOT’s 2012-13 budget includes $652,837 to do repaving work on SW Naito Parkway between I-405 and Jefferson and $3.6 million for the Division Streetscape Project, which includes repaving Division from SE 10th to Cesar Chavez Blvd (39th).)

These are “major paving projects” on “badly deteriorating roads” — not to mention all the other currently scheduled major paving projects now listed on PBOT’s website.

With this information seeming to clearly contradict Slovic’s reporting; I contacted her to ask if she’d like to respond and/or correct the story.

Slovic feels her story is still accurate. “Sandy, Division and Naito aren’t new projects,” she wrote via email, “They were funded with money from prior budgets. My story… concerned the bureau’s dire 2012-13 budget, which included the proposal to suspend contract paving until 2017…”

First, Slovic’s article never made any distinction about new or old projects and what budget the money was first allocated in. She simply stated that PBOT had “shelved” and “stopped” major paving projects. Her article also never mentions the term “contract paving” (which PBOT defines as “a spending line item that acts as a placeholder for paving work that can’t be done by PBOT Maintenance and has not been allocated to a specific project.”) It’s also a basic fact that PBOT does major paving projects via programs outside the “contract paving” program.

Unfortunately, the nuance of Slovic’s defense does not match the lack of nuance in her article. The article drew a connection for readers that didn’t line up with the facts. She and her editor on the story Michelle Brence (who defends the article and says it wasn’t misleading) have played fast and loose with their reporting in order continue a long-term narrative that is highly critical of Mayor Sam Adams, PBOT Director Tom Miller, and bicycling in general (all three of which I have no problem criticizing as long as the facts match up with the criticism).

As I linked to above, since The Oregonian article was published, PBOT has posted a new page on their website explaining their street paving programs and listing all the current and scheduled projects. Here’s an important excerpt from that page:

“Although Portland suspended contract paving for Fiscal Year 2012-13 through Fiscal Year 2016-17 due to the high costs of paving and the City’s commitments to build the Sellwood Bridge, Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail and much-needed sidewalks on dangerous arterials in East and Southwest Portland, we are still repaving major roads and will continue to repave major roads.”

The reason I’m spending time on this is because this stuff matters. The Oregonian influences the public narrative around bicycling and transportation policy and that narrative has gotten way out of whack lately. And as I pointed out in my article earlier this week, the “Road to Ruin” piece had a major negative impact on how many Portlanders (including those who have large megaphones like radio show hosts and political candidates) perceive bicycling. (I realize Slovic’s story is seven months old. But I wasn’t motivated to look into it until I noticed tons of major paving projects going on throughout the city this summer.)

The damage from that story has already been done. It’s clear both Brence and Slovic feel there’s nothing wrong with it; but despite their defenses, I completely disagree. I can hope for a correction, or at the very least a note of clarification, but I won’t hold my breath.

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Comments
  • peejay September 21, 2012 at 12:49 pm

    I’d like to point out an error in your article, Jonathan. You call the Oregonian a “newspaper”. Please make a correction as soon as possible.

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    • Rol September 21, 2012 at 1:00 pm

      Haaaaa!

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    • q`Tzal September 21, 2012 at 1:01 pm

      They are very much a newspaper. They are simply upholding the standard of Yellow journalism that has been around for a long time.
      By this standard a psychotic’s rantings printed on toilet paper makes it a newspaper.

      Just goes to show that the first rule in the Newspaper Club is that there are no rules in the Newspaper Club.

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      • Thunderbear September 23, 2012 at 8:07 pm

        This is not new from Beth Slovic either. She was this way when she was at WWeek too.

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  • Jeff September 21, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    why does anyone still read that ridiculous paper?

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    • Kristen September 25, 2012 at 11:13 am

      Because of the comics page, and the crossword puzzle. Oh, and the Sunday ads of course.

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  • VTRC September 21, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Thanks for keeping on this!

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  • Granpa September 21, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Borrowing from the model of Fox News, the Oregonian publishes an “entertainment” daily paper and does not need to bother with messy and troublesome facts.

    My entertainment regarding the Oregonian is when they are smacked down. Good work Jonathan

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    • Chucklehead September 21, 2012 at 4:27 pm

      And yet republicans always accuse it of being in the tank for liberals.

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  • David September 21, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    Welp, time to get out the popcorn and watch the @BethSlovic Twitter stream go off again

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  • Todd Hudson September 21, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    A cross section of The Oregonian’s target audience can be seen in the comments section of oregonlive.com.

    Recommended Thumb up 17

  • Nat September 21, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Jonathan,

    I wonder if it might be a good idea to create an editorial section in Bike Portland for topics like this and others such as your position on the mayoral race.

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  • Indy September 21, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    Whatever the facts on funding years or improvements, Naito is in pretty bad shape, whether you drive a car or ride a bike. I end up just taking waterfront path on bike because the entrance to Hawthorne is pretty uneven…

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  • Rol September 21, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    I’ve been ignoring the Oregonian for 20 years now, for essentially this reason. But what gets me about this whole goofy mess is, GOD FORBID the city should prioritize bike projects too highly! That would be too smart, too forward-thinking, too much in keeping with a so-called platinum bike city. It’s something we can’t afford NOT to do. But no, out of every $100, we apparently need to throw ALL of it down the ass-backwards, fossil-fuel rathole. If we spend even $1 of that $100 on something that will easily save us $1.25 in the future, that apparently doesn’t meet the Oregonian’s criteria for rudderless, clueless stupidity.

    The minute they display any leadership whatsoever instead of this spineless pandering I promise I will start reading their paper.

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    • Chris I September 21, 2012 at 2:18 pm

      Cyclists don’t buy newspapers. They won’t cater to us, and they never will. All we can hope is that The Oregonian dies a quick death and something worse doesn’t take its place.

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      • Ray Ogilvie September 21, 2012 at 4:01 pm

        I’m a cyclist. I buy and read newspapers. But, I agree, the state of journalism is very dire these days.

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        • 007 September 23, 2012 at 2:50 pm

          New York Times.

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  • Andrew K September 21, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    Thank you for staying on top of this issue.

    You are absolutely correct when you state that reporting like this matters and it needs to be called out. It influences public perception and there are a lot of people who truely believe at this point that the city spends more on bikes than they do anything else.

    True, some of those people probably had that belief before the article in question, but sloppy reporting certainly doesn’t help.

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  • spare_wheel September 21, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    Thanks for shining a light on Slovic and Brence’s appalling lack of integrity.

    I suspect its very difficult to maintain journalistic standards when employed by a conservative media corporation 100% owned by one of the richest families in the USA.

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  • Wilfred Thompson September 21, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    Beth Slovic has certainly been making a name for herself as someone who likes to incite the stupid masses. It’s not only bicycling she attacks.

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    • q`Tzal September 22, 2012 at 9:17 am

      Perhaps we need to have a “journalist integrity registry” keeping track of which specific journalists have specific instances of inaccuracy or out right lies so that we can get a score representing the “spirit of honesty” that a journalist adheres to.

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  • Jim Lee September 21, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    So the Sellwood Bridge is at fault!

    But I knew that already.

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  • Gregg September 21, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    I’m sure that some of Slovic and Brence’s peers at the Snoregonian also read BikePortland.org. Hopefully they can give honest criticism to the two of them regarding their lack of professional integrity.

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  • 9watts September 21, 2012 at 3:38 pm

    It is I think always important to set the record straight, learn from mistakes, and to be more scrupulous with the facts the next time. I’m not sure anyone at the Oregonian is listening, though. But I still applaud your efforts, Jonathan.

    On the specific issue of the Roads to Ruin article, though there’s still the question in my mind of whether backlog in road maintenance, the kind Charlie Hales likes to talk about, has anything at all to do with the Oregonian’s favorite thing to kick.

    I think the short answer is ‘no,’ but for reasons other than we normally talk about here. Prices for asphalt are going nowhere but up, and budgets for repaving are unable to keep pace. http://tinyurl.com/9gvf2sx

    http://www.theoildrum.com/node/6349

    “we are not running out of bitumen, but we have increasing problems in being able to afford it”

    One of these days we may not be able to afford *any* asphalt for repaving projects. If Beth Slovic is still around I wonder if she’ll still fault bike infrastructure, or if by then she’ll be riding a bike herself?

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  • Tim September 21, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    Why is it bikes vs. paving anyway. Bad pavement in a minor annoyance to a 6,000 lb car with full suspension and 35 psi tires, but it can be a real pain for bikes with no suspension and 100 psi tire.

    Instead of “bikes vs. paving” why not “Bikes for good roads” or does that sound too much like 1905.

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  • sd September 21, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    I am very surprised that Slovic et al. cares that their poor journalism has been exposed. I assumed that they had given up on integrity a long time ago and had embraced the dark side of manipulating public ignorance for their personal gain. Shouldn’t there be a shell of callous impunity that protects her and her editor from feeling?
    It is a bit freaky that she would ask J-Maus to “correct” his story and to post in the comment section of this blog.
    Maybe there is still a small ember of journalistic conscience, glowing somewhere deep down inside her, under all of the compromises that she has made to rise to Oregonian-level greatness.

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    • Kristen September 25, 2012 at 11:16 am

      Sink, not rise. Otherwise, I agree with you completely.

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  • o/o September 21, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    arent we a victim of media bullying? it has to be stopped. Cheap journalism sells.

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    • Chucklehead September 21, 2012 at 4:29 pm

      only conservatives are.

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  • Jolly Dodger September 21, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    The ‘O” has been paying my rent (barely) since 2005…i use a jumbo basket bike customized for ease of access and throwability … personally i’ve seen over 500 drivers come and go. At just .10 a paper and .20 cents on Sunday….well doesn’t take a profit/loss scientist to understand why they quit. So like the Susquahanna hat company of yore…many, many disgruntled and disgusted former employees have led to lots of hard feelings in just this regard over the years. (i.e. really bad word of mouth)…

    Add to this the ‘O’s only selling ability – free copies….enough of these unwanted ‘sales’ promotions end up where people don’t want them, and more anger is born…& of course this is because increased circulation numbers will result in higher ad fees to potential advertisers. Right now 50 of my 250 ‘subscribers’ are ‘samples’… definitely making more off ad sales than customer payments…*no tip potential on non-subs, making this just another exercised in futility and waste for me. As business models go…well let’s just say offering ad rates and penetration numbers that don’t jive is one way to keep profits rolling in.

    I only want to be out there long enough to watch the last print day…last paper…video’d and uploaded to youtube and newspaperdeathwatch.com.

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  • ~n September 21, 2012 at 4:47 pm

    I don’t care if the Oregonian is listening – but I DO hope the people of Portland are. Hey, how many of us here have a bit of extra paper and printer ink? Maybe if we print out this article and plaster it around town, we’ll reach enough people to give the Oregonian a big, solid spanking right in the till.

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    • ~n September 21, 2012 at 5:13 pm

      I suppose it would be proper to ask the author for permission first… Jonathan?

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  • BURR September 21, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    Car dealers are probably the O’s leading sources of advertising revenue, and motorists are probably their primary customer base; is anyone really surprised that they continue to be anti-cyclist????

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  • Peter W September 21, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    > The Oregonian influences the public narrative around bicycling and transportation policy and that narrative has gotten way out o whack lately.

    Agreed!

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  • resopmok September 21, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    While it’s true that any person or entity is allowed to print or say whatever they feel in this country, there can still be consequences for ill-chosen words and topics. There are even laws on the books which allow civil suits for defamatory or slanderous statements, especially where they contain factual errors (i.e., lies). It wouldn’t surprise me if others of their articles about cycling also contained factual errors. Perhaps it would behoove the cycling community to investigate the possibility of building a legal case against the Oregonian?

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  • cannonball September 21, 2012 at 10:22 pm

    Ridiculous comments on FB re this story…some from Oregonian staff members: https://www.facebook.com/PortlandMayorSamAdams/posts/503680522978600

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    • Travis September 21, 2012 at 11:52 pm

      Woah. Lynn’s remark is strange. In my opinion, the unfounded hatred toward cyclist, who have really cost what REAL problems for most motorist, is more a fundamentalist religion than cycling. The merits are pretty clear regarding cycling. Arguing them takes a good bit of faith in cyclist don’t pay for roads and jump out at cars right and left. Eh, falling into her line of thought. But, I’d love that comment taken to task by someone with more proper knowledge and energy than I. I expect better of a journalist supporting the integrity of a news paper. Especially a journalist who works for that paper.

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    • Kristen September 25, 2012 at 11:23 am

      Looks like Lynne deleted her comment, as I don’t see it. I do see the responses to it, which give me an inkling of what she said. Guess the O made their staffers censor themselves on FB.

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      • JRB September 25, 2012 at 11:51 am

        I hope she has done a little research and figured out who actually pays for roads and also learned how heavily subsidized automobile usage is in this country. She might actually be embarrassed at the ignorance of her comment and deleted it. Of course an acknowledgment and apology would demonstrate real character and integrity.

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  • Bjorn September 21, 2012 at 11:44 pm

    It is not just bicycling either. The portland streetcar, which is clearly more of an urban renewal vehicle than a people mover just opened on the eastside. Joe Rose, epic transit muckraker, wrote an article titled: “Portland Streetcar’s eastside loop gets off to hobbled start”. When I hear hobbled I think Kathy Bates and Misery, Joe thinks of a transit service that comes every 17 minutes instead of every 15 minutes. I’d like frequent service to come back but “hobbled” is a ridiculous acronym. I don’t know how anyone takes him seriously as a journalist.

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    • Andrew Seger September 22, 2012 at 3:49 am

      I disagree. With it’s 18 minute headway the streetcar is definitely hobbled.Ditto it’s right lane running design with mixed traffic. Especially when that’s the best frequency it runs at. You shouldn’t have to look at a schedule when you ride the streetcar (or any other frequent service) if you do it’s a different kind of transit. This is the second rail project, after the green line, that has been brought in “on budget” by cutting frequency, the worst thing to do for transit.

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  • dwainedibbly September 22, 2012 at 6:41 am

    Two comments:

    1. They don’t have a news dept. The entire thing is so biased that it is noting but editorial, as far as I can tell.

    2. “To slovic” is a new verb I’m going to use whenever I see hack jobs like this. “The CRC fell into the river in 2034 after a 4.2 earthquake because it was sloviced during construction.” Or, “I was drunk and really sloviced the 1st new tube when I repaired my flat, but luckily I had a 2nd tube with me.” Anyone have other examples?

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    • Alan 1.0 September 23, 2012 at 11:12 am

      Once again, BikePorland slovics another greenlicking.

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  • q`Tzal September 22, 2012 at 9:45 am

    This all makes much more sense when you consider the “vertical integration” business model.
    McDonalds saves money by controlling their supply chain all the way back to the cattle feed lots. They seem to be in the business of selling burgers but they have placed themselves in industries that have higher profit margins. Are they still fundamentally a burger shop or are they cattle distribution network with a built in customer base?
    So too with newspaper outlets. Their business is taking a low cost resource (paper), adding some ephemeral value (words) and and selling your attention to advertisers. It could be reasonably argued that wood and paper mills benefit most of from the sale of newspapers and would be the logical owners of newspaper outlets.
    At no point does accuracy or honesty enter into this economic decision. Profits are made from advertising revenue almost exclusively. The fee the reader pays is mostly psychological: lower fees infer lower standards while higher fees infer higher standards and exclusivity.

    Unfortunately most people are content to pay a biased news source to think for them; thinking must hurt for those people.

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  • Spiffy September 22, 2012 at 9:45 am

    if The Oregonian actually thought you were wrong about their facts I’m sure they’d be quick to publish an article about it… that they aren’t pointing out your errors in print just proves that they can’t deny them…

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  • Adam September 22, 2012 at 10:14 am

    Guess I take solace in the fact nobody under the age of 40 has the Oregonian delivered, or even reads the thing.

    Their extremely aging demographic of readership that is not being replenished by younger readers, combined with the publishing industry’s general free-fall, reassures me that their newspaper probably won’t be around for too long to come anyway!

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  • Patty Freeman September 22, 2012 at 10:32 am

    One comment, Jonathan – while I appreciate your efforts here, and agree this stuff is important, I disagree with your statement that you don’t care who criticizes biking if they have their facts right. I notice you consistently swing pretty hard at any stance, however thoughtful and reasoned, if it doesn’t support the biking community. While I sympathize with your advocacy I think it makes you seem biased.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) September 22, 2012 at 10:41 am

      Thank Patty, but I disagree with you.

      Can you cite an example of when I “swung pretty hard” at someone with thoughtful and reasonable critique of biking?

      I can recall posting stories about drinking and biking, about the need to use lights, about the licensing and legal riding debates, about ridin around buses, and so on.

      Many of the times you might sense I have been hard on people is because their arguments and/or ideas where based in bias and fallacies.

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  • Deanna September 22, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    This is not about paving or bikes, it’s about fact checking, and the O has been making the mistake even with interwebs of fact checking for years. They wonder why print is a dying breed.

    That being said, everyone better be on the same home page for infrastructure whether its bikes or roads or hopefully both because come Nov. 4th if the republicans have there way, we can kiss it all goodbye.

    So Vote!

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    • Spiffy September 25, 2012 at 11:29 am

      Obama is pushing hard for the CRC…

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  • spare_wheel September 22, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    From cannonball’s FB link above.

    Lynne Terry -Oregonian:
    “Some bicyclists in this city have religion to the point of being fundamentalists. Let’s have some openness and tolerance people. Your lifestyle and choices might not work for others. As for the roads, they’re generally in poor condition. No one can dispute that. Motorists pay gas taxes. Bicyclists do not.”

    Stuart Tomlinson -Oregonian:
    “The suspension on my car thinks Slovic got it just right.”

    Its simply amazing that Lynne Terry is repeating the “cyclists do not pay taxes” canard.

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    • cannonball September 22, 2012 at 3:00 pm

      Now note that Michele Brence, editor of the original piece, “liked” Lynne Terry’s comment. These people are like high schoolers.

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      • 9watts September 22, 2012 at 3:10 pm

        which goes to show what their level of understanding is of these issues. A sorry state of affairs.
        So glad we have bikeportland.
        Can you imagine if we didn’t have a meaningful counter to this bull$4*t.

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  • ~n September 22, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    Ah, well, I bet these “journalists” are in their own private… well, hot fiery place where the guy with a pitchfork lives… because there’s indubitably a story here that they are not allowed to report on (or they’d lose advertising). Maybe we should have some pity on them. After all, maybe they’re only saying idiotic & misleading things like, “Bicyclists do not pay gas taxes” out of a need to sublimate their buried journalistic desires into something cheap, fattening and not nearly as satisfying as the truth. (Of course we don’t pay for gas when riding bikes, silly Oregonian reporters, we power that form of transportation using the physical strength of our bodies coupled with an efficiently designed ride. However – cyclists DO pay for the roads through a variety of other taxes–federal, state and local–do we not?

    And sometimes, especially as a result of not enough or unsafe biking infrastructure, we are forced to drive a car, which as everyone knows, is against our religion.

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  • Evan Manvel September 22, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    Remember: the MOST important thing about newspaper stories are the headline and subhead and imagery (photos or charts). Next is the first couple paragraphs. Those are what people skimming the paper digest. The images involved in the story and the frame of the story were inflammatory, and early in the story Slovic write:

    “The Portland Transportation Bureau, the agency in charge of street maintenance, has shelved plans to repave Northwest 23rd north of Lovejoy Street — or to overhaul any other badly deteriorating road in its 5,000-mile system — until at least 2017… Along with stopping major paving, the bureau plans to carve into services such as bridge monitoring, street cleaning and sidewalk inspections — shaving $15 million from the proposed 2012-13 budget but almost certainly costing taxpayers much more down the road.

    “The bureau has other priorities, such as $900,000 to build 13.5 miles of bike routes, $665,000 to add eight permanent employees to oversee streetcars, $200,000 for Rose Festival prep work and $15,000 to help sponsor a “Rail-Volution” conference in Los Angeles. Just last week, the City Council redirected $250,000 from the current transportation budget to buy fancy planters and streetlights for the downtown retail core.

    “How did the bureau end up scrapping a core function such as major paving?”

    For Slovic and the Oregonian to defend this story as accurate is foolhardy.

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    • VTRC September 22, 2012 at 6:51 pm

      Those are all of the “correct” terms to be accurate(major paving, overhaul), but without defining them also completely dishonest.

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  • spare_wheel September 22, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    Cross-posting Jonathan Maus’ FB comment:

    “So, Oregonian staffer Lynne Terry says “bicyclists don’t” pay gas taxes and calls some people who bike “fundamentalists” and the editor of the Road’s to Ruin story, Michelle Brence, Likes the comment. Wow. That pretty sums up everything. Unbelievable.”

    Talk about throwing any pretence of journalistic balance out of the window. Unbelievable is exactly right.

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  • Mike bodd September 22, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    I have the final edition of the oregon journal, ill keep the final edition of the oregonian when that last rolls off soon.

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  • JRB September 24, 2012 at 8:46 am

    If Jonathan has the time, it might be worth offering a guest editorial on the story. I am sure the O would say that it would not be timely because the story ran so long ago, but you could argue that the fact that lots of paving has been going on this summer is new info that makes it current.

    I can understand management using headlines and subheaders to spin a reporter’s story against the reporter’s wishes. That certainly happened to me when I was in the trade. All you can really do in that situation is quit or remain silent in the face of legitimate criticism. To leap to the story’s defense as Slovic, Michelle Brence, Brence’s husband Eric Mortenson, Stuart Tomlinson and Lynne Terry, all Oregonian staff, have done shows they lack integrity. The fact that Terry and Tomlinson did so when they apparently know so little of the facts regarding how roads are funded is particularly shameful.

    The sad fact is that with today’s instantaneous communication through the web, twitter etc., reporters have little time to deeply delve into complicated issues. The shortened attention spans of consumers also means that everything must be reduced to punchy sound bites. It seems that the only place where people develop expertise on a subject and take the time to thoroughly research the stories they report is on blogs like Jonathan’s.

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  • Gumby September 24, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    The Oregonian is at least better than any of the local TV “news”

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