Friday, July 26, 2013

YELLOW JOURNALISM AT THE NEW YORK TIMES on Wednesday train crash in Spain. Yeah, I know it's a bit of a tautology nowadays, but still.
The train driver did little to hide his taste for speed. He posted a photograph of a locomotive speedometer needle stuck at 200 kilometers, or about 125 miles, per hour on Facebook last year, boasting that the reading “has not been tampered with” and openly relishing the idea of racing past the authorities.
“Imagine what a rush it would be traveling alongside the Civil Guard, and passing them so that their speed traps go off,” he wrote, in all capitals. “Hehe, that would be quite a fine for Renfe, hehe,” referring to his employer, the Spanish rail company.
To be sure, this was the angle by several media organizations in Spain too, but I thought the Gray Lady would be different. They seem to be forgetting some small details:

- A high-speed train going fast is not a reckless anomaly, it's exactly what they're supposed to do! The route of the specific line where the crash took place has some segments where it has to go at 220kph, look at the chart here. That's more than the speed the guy was "openly relishing".

- They omit that in those comments — which are actually mere postings on Facebook —, the driver also said that he couldn't speed past 200kph because he was not allowed.

- Maybe that's news for the Times, but the Civil Guard speed traps are meant to control the speed of cars, not trains, so they go off at 120kph (75mph) at most. So what the driver said was clearly a joke for his friends: he said that if a police car would drive alongside the train, the speed trap would go off. Big deal. Good thing he wasn't an airline pilot saying "if the traffic police catches me at 600mph, the speed trap would BLOW UP!"

In all, we're witnessing a crude attempt of demonizing someone before we know what happened. Yes, the train was overspeeding when it fatally entered the curve. Yes, there are some security mechanisms that are supposed to avoid these situations. Yes, those mechanisms apparently can be overridden manually. Yes, the driver may, or may have not, been reckless. We will only know if he's guilty after a long and thorough investigation, not by looking at the guy's jokes on Facebook, which were clearly jokes. And even if we find he's guilty after all it won't have anything to do with those FB posts because they were nothing serious to begin with. They don't indicate any professional flaw — other than in the journalists who misreport them.

UPDATE. Compare this with the measured report by Brian Williams and the special correspondent on NBC

UPDATE II. Some people are objecting to this on Twitter because, they say, the guy shouldn't be updating his Facebook page while driving a high speed train to begin with. But, does that really show recklessness on his part? Well, only if you think a high-speed train is driven like a bus, where you need both hands on the wheel all the time. But it's more like flying a plane. Plus there was not just one, but two drivers, so it's conceivable that one of them takes a pic or two.

Again, it's important to note that the Facebook comments weren't on the moment, not even on the day, of the accident. They were from months back, when the line was opened to traffic. The guy was bragging about the speed — just as the Zapatero government, in power back then, was. Does that mean we should blame the former prime minister, for building something that travels so fast? Wouldn't that be ridiculous? Same goes for the driver.