Re-Writing History With Ed Williams

In the latest episode, the Observer’s editorial page editor strains to make the case that a slight edge in his paper’s poll for the pro-transit side is in fact a major coup. In his Sunday column Williams spins a fanciful snapshot of the current debate wholly at odds with reality.

Williams asserts that the 52-45 pro-tax edge in the Observer’s poll conducted mid-August is “amazing.” Williams explains that he expected a 50-50 result. Well, factor in the poll’s margin of error — which I can’t find anywhere on the Observer’s site but must be at least +/-4 percent considering a sample size of 549 registered — not likely — voters — puts you right at a 50-50 result. That’s just the way polls work. At most you could conclude the pro-tax side has a very slight edge.

And that, in fact, would even do for Williams purposes. He wants to spin the pro-tax side is underdog fighting back against incredible odds. To wit:

Because almost all the news about mass transit that has caught the public’s eye recently has been bad.

Cost overruns on the South Corridor light rail line. Missed deadlines and shoddy work by a contractor. A well-financed petition drive to force a vote on keeping or killing the tax. Political wrangling over conflicts of interests, political conspiracies and politicking by public employees.

I’d have guessed the polls would show a dead heat.

Let’s unpack Williams’ “recent news.”

The cost overruns, to $463 million, happened last September, not recent in my book. Moreover, that was promptly countered by a massive PR blitz which included Williams handing over almost an entire page to Pam Syfert so she could assure the public that new, stronger, better cost controls were in place. Parsons Transportation Group would be sued — remember that line? — and that is the last we’ve heard about the cost of the South line.

Recall that these developments gave “naysayers ammunition” to de-rail CATS plans and that should not be allowed to happen, Williams told us. And sure enough, within weeks the MTC adopted the $9 billion Destination 2030 plan.

I’d call that a draw — at least — in the PR department.

Next, “missed deadlines and shoddy work.” I have to assume that Williams is referring to the brief, flickering hope this spring that at least part of the South line would get running before the November transit tax vote — which would’ve still been over a year behind the original schedule for the entire line, a fact that was never clearly — if at all — reported by his paper. Again, a PR wash.

The contractor missteps — yes, a sure negative. But that has to be balanced by the fact that the full extent of the Federal Transit Administration’s investigation into the use of foreign steel in the South line and the lawsuits surrounding the issue have never been reported by the paper either. They allege that foreign steel was knowingly used for the project in violation of federal rules and that CATS knew about it since January. The public didn’t know until June. So a minor ding in place of major one.

The petition drive. So the mere existence of an anti-tax petition drive — the legitimacy of which was repeatedly questioned by Williams’ paper despite a glaring lack of evidence — constitutes bad news about mass transit. This is Williams saying that news reports on some people questioning the current transit plan constitutes bad news for mass transit. Fascinating.

Further, if the petition drive was illegitimate, then it did not actually reflect public opinion. But now — with the “amazing” poll results framing the matter– the petition drive and it success suddenly suggests massive opposition to CATS’ current mass transit plan. Not exactly consistent. More likely the petition drive — like the poll — reflect widespread public distrust of CATS’ $9 billion plan.

Then the whole public resources-UNCC study dust-up. A sideshow, but an important one for how it provided a window on just how closed the decision-making process is in Charlotte. No doubt negative to status quo side. But I would argue that was offse to some extent in the public’s mind by the Jay Morrison issue which obsessed the Observer for several weeks and briefly sapped the strength of the pro-repeal forces.

Finally, let’s not forget that the city’s March 26th propaganda set-piece — the one predicting that repeal means the end of the bus system and property tax hikes or the loss of firemen and police protection while pegging the cost of the half-cent at an absurdly low level per household — has been uncritically repeated by Williams’ paper almost daily since then. No wonder most suburban Republican poll respondents supported the half-cent tax.

So any reasonable analysis of coverage of the transit issue does not put the pro-tax side in a deep hole at the time of the poll. It is not “amazing” that the pro-tax side would come up with a slight edge.

But expect more of the same. In Williams’ world the mayor’s office, all of city government, all of CATS, a majority on the city council, a majority on the county commission, the state delegation, the power structure of both local political parties, a couple Fortune 500 companies, the Chamber of Commerce, the local state research university, the local monopoly daily paper, too many credulous TV reporters, and a million dollar professional PR campaign are all under siege from talk radio, alt-media, a dozen volunteers, and a couple blogs.

I like those odds. We need a new plan.

Reader Comments