Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Teflon Death Star"

Metro chief spokesman Dan Stessel still hasn't apologized for his callous remarks about sexual harassment.

To me, this latest Metro PR nightmare sheds light on two issues that perpetuate Metro's dysfunction, and until they both improve, there will likely be no unsucking DC Metro.

First, accountability.

There is none.

This idiotic remark alone shouldn't cost Dan his job, but he should say he's sorry. I think any honorable public figure who'd made equally misguided remarks would apologize, but this is Metro.

So what does Metro's leadership think?

I wrote Metro's GM Richard Sarles expressing my concerns about Dan getting away with his egregious remarks. From the manager who the board praised for providing better communications with riders, I didn't even get a canned response.

Sarles has his head in the sand and/or is surrounded by yes men. Until he demands more of his underlings, he and Metro will continue to fail.

Then, I emailed the entire board, including chair Cathy Hudgins individually, expressing my concerns.

From them: nada. Not a one had anything to say. Not even a "I'll look into it."

Here's the email I sent to the board:
I am writing to ask that you look into why Metro's chief spokesman has not been made to apologize for his insulting trivialization of sexual harassment.

I've written the GM asking the same question, and despite your notion that he's improved communication, he has been silent on the matter. Does a GM who doesn't demand accountability from his employees, especially the face of the organization, really deserve a bonus?

Lack of accountability is the NUMBER ONE PROBLEM at Metro, and letting a high-profile employee get away with insults like this sets a poor example.

I'm hoping that you will see to it that Metro apologizes publicly for this callous stance on a serious issue.
Please feel free to copy that text or write your own and send to: boardofdirectors@wmata.com, rsarles@wmata.com and Catherine.Hudgins@fairfaxcounty.gov. Maybe you'll have more luck with a response.

What I think Sarles and his clueless board don't seem to get is that letting Dan get away with this not only leaves a good chunk of Metro riders with a very bad taste in their mouths, but it is enabling to all the other "bad apples" Metro has on its payroll. (See yesterday's post or this unbelievable report of sexual harassment not being taken seriously by Metro as just two of way too many examples.)

I've talked to several of my sources and they all said that there's a culture of ""who gives a sh*t" permeating Metro at all levels.

One said in an email:
I look at the downtown boys and see they aren't made to answer to anyone. Look at all the preventable screw ups and no one has paid a price. I don't see another train system in the country with so many breakdowns, disasters and near disasters. And the waste! Everyone here knows they can get away with nearly anything, and a lot of them try. Do you see now why there are so many belligerent Metro employees? Their bosses answer to no one, and they know they'll never have to answer to anyone.
Another said that above-the-law attitude "works its way down the ranks."

So this is a bigger issue than just being insensitive to sexual harassment. Dan, as the face of the organization, is allowed to insult riders with impunity. It's the same as a surly station manager only on a massive, hugely public scale. He's the SPOKESMAN!

But in the end, Dan's statement appears to be perfectly fine to Metro's top brass and board.

This foot-in-mouth incident also brings to light another major reason Metro continues to suck: mainstream media enabling.

I haven't seen one single media outlet take Dan to task for his comments.


Dan's pretty much their only source, and if there's another source, Dan's usually the broker. Piss Dan off, and risk getting cut off.

It's access journalism at its worst.

What was the Washington Post's most interesting article about Metro recently? A rewrite of a presser about a rescued bald eagle. That'd be a fun little feature story if it appeared against a backdrop of solid, insightful and hard hitting journalism about how Metro operates, but I'll let reader Tom elaborate in a letter he said he sent to the Washington Post's ombudsman. He said he got no response.
There is a widespread feeling that the reporting by the Post's transportation team, particularly the Dr. Gridlock column, has been "captured" by WMATA. Many readers have noticed that the Post tends to report statements by WMATA general manager Richard Sarles and chief WMATA PR spokesman Dan Stessel uncritically, including assertions that, far from being factual, are statements of opinion, forecasts for the future, or just plain spin.

Moreover, the official statements by WMATA leaders and PR personnel are often the only sources for Post articles about WMATA and the Metro system aside from semi-informed or uninformed comments from the "rider in the street" (or Twitter messages culled from a search of the messaging service).

WMATA's vast troubles -- which include serious safety issues, mechanical unreliability, and criminal activity, to say nothing of what appears to be gross mismanagement -- are a huge issue that affect a high proportion of Post readers every day, many of whom have no choice but to ride Metro. Yet increasingly those who wish to be informed about what's really going on with WMATA are forced to turn to alternative media sources, including the Unsuck DC Metro blog and TBD On Foot.

These outlets seem to be willing to be critical of WMATA and publish information that casts WMATA in a negative light in a way that Dr. Gridlock and the Post team, some of whom openly admit that they are sympathetic to WMATA's excuses and want to see WMATA prosper and succeed (as do those of us who think that
sunlight is required) do not.

Notably, the Unsuck DC Metro blog has cultivated numerous sources inside Metro and inside similar transit agencies elsewhere in the country who provide a healthy counter-perspective to Metro's PR spin.

To be sure, use of such sources is not in keeping with the Post's default policy on anonymity -- but this is a default that Post editors regularly allow to be reversed in other news areas, such as national security, where whistle blowers may face obstacles to speaking up.

Certainly the state of Metrobus and Metrorail are of similar importance to the Post's local readership.

This brings me to the topical trigger for writing today: the offensive and indefensible recent comments of Mr. Stessel dismissing sexual harassment of passengers by Metro employees and the cavalier attitude with which passenger-on-passenger harassment is treated by Metro as a minor issue.

Specifically, Mr. Stessel said that "One person's harassment is another person's flirting," even in the context of appalling stories of wolf whistles, lewd comments, and physical groping. And despite numerous anecdotes in which Metro personnel refused to even take a report of harassment, he trivialized the problem by saying "It really isn't a big issue," because there have been only a few reports.(And of course this leaves aside the well-known and chronic underreporting of sexual harassment in general in all contexts). This story has been widely reported by alternative local media following his comments to a local TV outlet, and set the stage for testimony before the DC Council on the issue by women's rights activists.

Although Dana Hedgpeth published a story relating to the upcoming testimony, so far the Post has not reported on Stessel's appalling comments -- or on the generally dismissive attitude WMATA takes towards this issue -- at all.

Considering the prominence that the Post has given to other out-of-line and offensive comments in recent years by politicians, actors, and other local government officials, the Post's silence reinforces the impression that the Post is "in the tank" for WMATA on this and other issues.
Until the Post and pretty much the rest of the media kicks their dependence on Dan, develops some other sources and critically questions the things Metro says, I don't expect more accountability from Metro. And without accountability, I' don't think Metro can be unsucked, no matter how much money we throw at it.

As one Metro source told me, "Metro's a Death Star made of Teflon, and no matter what you throw at it, it all slides off, and business as usual limps along."

Other items:
Nifty little song and video inspired by Metro (The42Bus)
Rescued eagle's prospects not good (WTOP)
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