The Oregonian’s unfortunate letters about Hawthorne bike counter – UPDATED

Public opinion not based on facts.

The Oregonian published two letters in today’s paper that allow a falsehood to go unchecked and that further perpetuate the incorrect notion harbored by many readers of that publication that bike-related spending by the City of Portland is both bad policy and out of control (neither of which are true of course).

The letters came in response to a story about the Hawthorne Bike bike counter that ran online on Sunday (3/17) and also ran in Monday’s print edition (page A6).

The online version of the story, Portland bike counter: Nudging 1 million trips over the Hawthorne Bridge, mentioned “the city’s $20,000 bike counter,” in the opening lines. Much lower down, in a “quick facts” section of the story, the reporter noted (correctly) that the counter was “donated to the city by Cycle Oregon.”

The print version of the story also included the $20,000 figure; but it failed to mention it was donated. Then the letters came.

Under The Oregonian’s heading of “Bike Count Price Tag” the two letters read:

“I was so happy to read that we have a bike counter on the Hawthorne Bridge. It only cost $20,000. What a bargain for a city with not cash available.
— Janet Smith, North Portland”

“Portland, the City of Leeches. A bicycle counter on the Hawthorne Bridge cost $20,000? Give me a break.
— Marilyn Peterson, Southeast Portland”

Those were the only two letters published about the bike counter story. And both were published without a response from Letters Editor Nora Simon.

I emailed Simon to ask why she allowed the falsehood to be published without a response. She said, “We don’t typically write editor’s notes with letters, but we do publish subsequent responses if readers take issue with a letter writer’s point of view.”

Simon then pointed out how the letter writers were likely confused because the print version didn’t mention the source of the $20,000. Simon acknowledged that, “In retrospect, the letters do imply that the city purchased the bike counter, which is incorrect.” She also apologized for overlooking this “important piece of information” and encouraged me to pen a letter of my own in response to help set the record straight.

I realize this isn’t a huge deal and there are more important things in the world than two letters in The Oregonian and an unfortunate oversight by an editor. But bicycling has been fighting a negative reputation in this town — fostered in large part by unfair reporting in The Oregonian — for far too long. In this specific case, PBOT likely worked the private donation angle specifically to avoid this type of non-troversy from happening.

I’m all for a debate; but it would help immensely if the facts were as reliable — and visible — as bike traffic on the Hawthorne Bridge.

UPDATE, 3/21: The Oregonian has published a correction on page A2 of today’s paper as well as a note to the letters online. Here’s the note:

Editor’s note: The bicycle counter at the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge was donated by Cycle Oregon. A story in Monday’s print edition of The Oregonian did not include that fact, though it was stated in the online version of the story that appeared Sunday.

And here’s what ran on A2 in the paper today:

The bicycle counter at the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge was donated by Cycle Oregon. A story in Monday’s Metro section inadvertently omitted that fact.

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