Auto Worship Still a Sign of the Times

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When the Supreme Court held this week that the Environmental Protection Agency does, in fact, possess the latitude to protect the environment, the New York Times called it "a victory for a world whose environment seems increasingly threatened by climate change."

"It is a vindication for states like California that chose not to wait for the federal government and acted to limit emissions that contribute to global warming," read a Tuesday Times editorial. "And it should feed the growing momentum on Capitol Hill for mandatory limits on carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas."

The Times’ editorial position on the landmark high court ruling is consistent with the paper’s voluminous coverage of global climate change — which, its reporters tell us, isn’t going to happen, but is happening. Barely a day passes when the Times doesn’t publish a story detailing a new angle of the crisis.

All of which makes its indulgent coverage of the New York International Auto Show more than a little perplexing. As usual, the Times has deployed an army of contributors to unleash a barrage of articles and special features hyping the New York event — as it did the Detroit show in January, debuting a special car blog to mark the occasion.

In a story containing barely a passing reference to nuisance issues like heavy traffic and congestion pricing, the celebration kicked off with this paean:

New York motorists must be the nation’s most ardent car lovers, considering the hardships they accept — the scarce and exorbitant parking, the gridlock, the inevitable tickets and some of the nation’s highest insurance rates — for the pleasure of driving a car and the freedom to escape the city on a whim.

Such myopia might be excused in another time, back when serious discussion of global warming was still the province of junk scientists and Chicken Little fringe-dwellers. But now?

Granted, the Times hasn’t always been consistent in its reportage (left hand, meet right hand), but the same editorial board that seemed to applaud this week’s Supreme Court decision also recently came out in favor of a new DOT Commissioner "who promotes use of public transit, walking and cycling as not just a way to a destination, but as a way of life."

If only our paper of record would set the tone, rather than alternately condemning and glorifying the one consumer product most responsible for the environmental damage accounted in its pages on a daily basis.

Stay tuned for Streetsblog’s own first-hand auto show coverage from Sarah Goodyear.

  • Damian

    Perpelxing? Really? Don’t be naive. Ads are not being bought by advocates for pedestrians, transit, and livable cities. They’re being bought by Ford, Toyota, etc. Until that changes you can count on extensive coverage of their industry. In a perfect world, you’re right — The Times would decline to promote a product that adversely affects health, livability and our economy. But in the real world the newspaper business is at least partly about selling ads.

    That said, auto advertising should bear Surgeon General’s warnings like cigarette ads.

  • Nona

    Advocates should consider buying the occasional ad to beat up on Bloomberg and the like for doing nothing (or nothing right) on transportation rather than issuing the incessant stream of wonk studies.

  • I would contribute to that.

  • Charlie D.

    We are bombarded with automobile ads and articles about automobiles in print, on TV, and on the Internet. Why isn’t there a weekly section in the newspaper about the latest bicycles, or the latest transit technology? Why don’t we see commercials showing how riding a bicycle can even more enjoyable than driving a car?

    On a side note, ever notice how the auto ads always show people driving through congestion-free cities? It’s ironic that they glorify driving in the places where driving makes the least amount of sense. Are suburban multi-lane arterials not as exciting?!

  • not a driver

    I am perfectly happy to see the times take money from all kinds of corporate monstrosities and then use the money for editorial space to promote street safety and other good liberal causes. I don’t eat out much, but I don’t begrudge the dining section. Different readers have different interests, and some people are fascinated by auto shows. Not me, but whatever. No one beyond the fervid believers will take your site seriously if you continue to be so over the top.

  • Aw, come on. This post is not that extreme. The paper’s flimsy reasoning that NYC drivers must be some kind of automobile devotees to go up against all those obstacles needed to be ridiculed. You can’t drive a car over salt half the year, and leave it on the street to be bumped into, enthusiastically. If auto ads (and the paper’s auto section they pay for) say one thing to America, “look at smart New Yorkers driving SUVs to exclusive clubs for a night on the town!” then we need to call bullshit on that.

    As New York becomes visibly less dependent on and concerned with automobiles, word will get out whether auto company marketing departments like it or not.

  • Brad Aaron

    Damian: No, I’m not really perplexed. I’ve worked for several newspapers, and founded one of my own, so I’m well aware of the realities of ad dependence. Still, I have never filed a story about how great cigarettes are, etc., and every decent editor or publisher I’ve ever known chafed at the notion of mixing sales and editorial – much less engaging in something as over the top as the Times auto show package. There’s a line there somewhere, and I guess it’s up to every media outlet as to whether they feel they have crossed it.

  • nimby pimby

    Brad: Why is it perplexing that the Times auto section is different from the editorial section? As you’ve worked at several newspapers, you should know that a rule most follow to maintain at least a sheen of objectivity is keeping the news and opinion editors and writers completely separated. You seem to want Arthur Sulzberger to exercise Rupert Murdoch/New York Post-like control of the paper. I’d take the NYT and its auto section over the Post any day.

    Also, I don’t think it’s fair to abhor the entire auto section and coverage of the auto show. Even as someone who doesn’t own or want a car and would like to see fewer people drive, cars are a newsworthy topic. Not only do a lot of people still drive, but the auto industry is still a very important part of most industrialized economies, and cars are interesting from aesthetic, engineering, technological and scientific points of view as well.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Nimby, the news/opinion split is generally a good idea, but any news outlet also needs a split between news and advertising to have any semblance of objectivity. The Times generally seems to do this in their “hard” news, but I’m not sure that the features sections fare as well. The restaurant and arts reviewers have been known to pan a given restaurant or performance, but have they ever said something like, “Honestly, the current [folk dance scene/summer pants line/college basketball tournament] is morally bankrupt and threatens our society, so you should just stay away”?

    It’s one thing to say that car trends and maybe even the Auto Shows are worth reporting on, but they definitely aren’t newsworthy enought to merit a special section and full-time bloggers. That’s clearly the influence of advertisers.

    Another point that’s been made in the past is that the Times has a large readership of wealthy suburbanites who may take Metro-North to work, but will drive their Lexuses to the Danbury Mall on the weekends. I think the auto coverage caters to these people more than to the Upper East Side alternate-side calendar-checkers.

  • Franklin

    Not a Driver,

    What you’ll find as soon as you leave the cocoon of Manhattan’s political/media/corporate elite is that, in fact, New York City is no longer being taken seriously by leading policy makers in other world cities when it comes to issues of climate change, transportation policy, urban environmentalism and smart growth.

    Mayor Bloomberg (and, yes, the NY Times) have been extraordinarily slow to wake up to these issues. It will likely be seen as the major failing of his otherwise stellar mayoralty and the enormous missed opportunity of the early-2000’s development boom. NYC has fallen way behind its global competitors and, as the countdown clock in the Mayor’s bullpen shows, we are now racing to catch up.

    Question for you: With the exception of the horrible evils of foie gras, do you really see promoting NYC restaurants is the same as promoting SUV’s on NYC streets?

    The Times doesn’t advertise cigarettes anymore and here’s some news for you: Cars are the new cigarettes. “Serious” media outlets will come around to this position soon enough. Til then, I hope Streetsblog and other less “serious” outlets will continue to be “over the top.”

  • Gizler

    I don’t have a car, but as far as cars offering “the freedom to escape the city on a whim” – I will concede that this is true and unfortunately at this point there are few alternatives. You can take the train somewhere, but what do you do when you arrive? Unless you go to Philly or Boston, you’re stranded.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Not quite true, Gizler. There are some getaways that are almost undoable without a car, and that’s what car rentals and Zipcar are for.

    However, there are a lot of places you can get to and enjoy by public transportation. My family and I have had many fun weekends away without a car in places like Ocean Grove NJ, Saratoga Springs NY, and Norwalk, CT. I’ve found these two books to be very helpful:

    Heavenly Weekends: Travel Without A Car
    Day Hiker (the seventh book on the page)

    Amazon is also showing that Frommer’s has released a competitor to Heavenly Weekends called Great Escapes From NYC Without Wheels. Has anyone seen it?

  • Angus Grieve-Smith
  • And as far as “escaping” goes (and the inevitable returning), the writer acts like he’s never sat on the FDR for two hours of a wasted Friday afternoon. You’re far better off taking a commuter train in the direction you want to go and renting a car from some remote stop.

    Finding rentals that are within a mile of a train station is a pretty advanced logistical exercise, especially when they’re mostly closed on Sundays (don’t rental franchises see the potential?), but it’s been worth it to me to save time, money, and stress on that “escape.”

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