Sunday, April 11, 2010

Marketplace's swing and miss

As many of you know, I have one foot in the aviation community and one food in the "media" community, two communities that don't like each other, have little respect for each other, and seem intent on putting one another out of business.

Generally speaking, I think both sides are so wedded to their individual positions, that they ignore data that says their preconceived notions are -- if not wrong -- somewhat inaccurate.

There are exceptions, of course, at which time I have to decide which one foot to hop around on while pretending the other doesn't exist. Unfortunately, this time it requires me to criticize the journalistic effort of an organization that operates under the same corporate umbrella I do.

American Public Media's Marketplace committed a cardinal journalistic sin on Friday when it presented ProPublica's Michael Grabell on its evening program without any challenge at all. That Marketplace wouldn't challenge the assertions of one of its guests isn't that surprising to those of us who recognize the modus operandi, but occasionally they should fake it. This was one of those times.

ProPublica bills itself as "journalism in the public interest," and most of the time this is true. But you know what else is in the public interest? Context. And skepticism.

The organization took a look at flight tracking systems and, in particular, the program that allows some airplane owners to "block" flights of their aircraft. Air Force One, for example, cannot be tracked on Neither can some corporations. Colleges often hide their flights because they don't want the competition to see who they're recuiting.

ProPublica reported -- accurately -- that some organizations appear to hide their flights so that those members of the public can't see what abuse some organizations are committing with their funds. An executive jet does not, by definition, constitute an abuse. However, I think there is a case to be made that a megachurch pastor, like Kenneth Copeland and his ilk flying their corporate jet to Hawaii and other exotic destinations, probably has less to do with spreading the word of God, and has more to do with living a lavish lifestyle off the backs of people who gave them their hard-earned cash out of some Biblical motivation.

A governor who blocks his state airplane's flights -- as Gov. Mike Rounds of South Dakota -- makes it hard for taxpayers to figure out how he's spending their cash. To its credit, Minnesota doesn't block the flights of its corporate airplanes, that's how I know that Gov. Tim Pawlenty spent $4,000 just for crew and plane travel to Thief River Falls so that he could go hunting for a day (the Governor's Opener).

But ProPublica's Grabell fell for the commercial airlines' line hook, line, and sinker when he suggested that (a) general aviation and business aviation are the same thing and (b) general aviation doesn't pay its way the way the commercial airlines do.

According to an FAA study released in 2007, general aviation uses 16 percent of the air traffic system , yet pays only 3 percent of the taxes that support it. The rest is covered largely by commercial travel. The system, including salaries for traffic controllers, costs about $9 billion a year.

I just wrote that previous paragraph while sitting in the terminal at Fleming Field in South St. Paul (KSGS), an airport that has no tower, which lies under the airspace that is controlled by the FAA for one reason and one reason only -- to help the big commercial jets get into the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, 11 miles away. Were my RV-7A completed, I could take off, stay under the Class B airspace, and -- if I wanted to -- fly anywhere in the country. Number of air traffic controller needed: Zero.

But what ProPublica doesn't say -- and what Marketplace obviously didn't know -- when citing the 2007 FAA "study," is that it was a document produced by the Bush administration's FAA to support the Bush administration's budget plan for user fees for pilots -- a proposal that all but the airlines discounted as misguided. There was more than enough disagreement as to merit a citation on the subject.

FAA’s own documents show that GA currently contributes 8.6 percent of the taxes that flow into the Airport and Airway Trust Fund.

The FAA has been using the same economist-accepted cost allocation methodology since 1973 – that is, until now. In the last properly-done cost allocation study in 1997, the FAA reported that General Aviation was responsible for 6.7% of the cost of air traffic control.

So, why would a reputable news organization accept a disputed figure as the basis for a story, without making clear that the figure is widely disputed?

But that's not the biggest mistake Marketplace made. It made its biggest mistake here:

Moon: >And why is that a problem? These are, after all, private flights.

Grabell: They are private flights, but they depend on a public aviation system and public air space that taxpayers pay for. The runways, the air traffic controllers, the radars, the lighting systems, taxi ways, towers -- all these things are paid for by all of us taxpayers. So, you know, it's interesting.

Say what? Private pilots should expose their private lives to you because they use a system that's paid for by taxpayers? Let me be as delicate as possible when I say this: What..... utter.... nonsense.

When you drive your car, you're driving in a system paid for by taxpayers-- the roads, the maintenance, the cops, the first responders when you crash, are all paid by taxpayers. Do you take public transportation? Under the ProPublica rationale, you have forfeited your right to privacy by doing so. Your cellphone uses the public airwaves. Your landline uses public right of way. Let's have the number. Oh, and a list of everyone you've called and everyone who's called you. Ridiculous? Absolutely.

The assertion that somehow your private prerogatives are neutered by its intersection with a publicly funded system to keep it safe is utter nonsense.

A better answer from the ProPublica reporter could've been, "because the governor is paid for by the taxpayers" or "because the corporate exec got a billion dollar bailout."

But that wasn't the answer. And any pro journalist should've noticed that.

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