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What's wrong with quoting AAA?

I spent a lot of time thinking about what exactly bothered me so much about Ashley Halsey's Saturday article on New York Avenue speed cameras, AAA's response, and Cornell Professor Isaac Kramnick.

Photo by MΛЯK on Flickr.

After all, on the merits, I agree with AAA. Speed cameras are an important tool to ensure road safety by making drivers slow down when there are pedestrians and cyclists, or when drivers would injure themselves. When placed in an area that's more a freeway, it seems that revenue has trumped safety. Do that too much, and people start pushing for laws against speed cameras. Then they can't make the roads safer.

So what's so frustrating? In an email, Ashley Hasley sugested I clarify why we object so much to AAA getting quoted in the Post. Aren't they exactly what they seem, a driving advocacy organization? Aren't all their positions totally consistent with that?

AAA isn't quite as honest as all that. Most of their members haven't intentionally joined an organization that advocates against mass transit and bicycle facilities. Instead, they signed up for an emergency towing service. When Cigna started lobbying on health reform, everyone realized that they were a corporation acting in their own interest, maybe but maybe not the interest of their customers. Yet AAA isn't treated the same way.

They also say the most outlandish things, or at least AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesperson Lon Anderson does, like that "community connectivity and walkability and minimizing ecological harm" are "gibberish" on the Greater Washington 2025 report, or comparing the Inauguration to the Civil War: "The last time the bridges were closed like this, Lincoln was president and was worried about an invasion by General Lee."

Then there's Isaac Kramnick, who distorts political philosophy into a drivers-only credo: "What's happening at this [camera] site is violating the concept of freedom ... The automobile is the symbolic icon of freedom." And "Kramnick points to renowned English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who said in 1651 that freedom is the absence of hindrance to motion."

But EdTheRed points out that "What Hobbes meant by freedom of movement was that peasants shouldn't be tied to the land, not that some d-bag could drive his automobile as fast as he damn well pleases."

Articles that talk about drivers' pain often include colorful descriptions by the reporters themselves, like Halsey's lede: "Drivers call it the "free at last" traffic light. After doing the stop-and-go head bobble all the way from downtown, when they reach the light at Bladensburg Road they feel they've earned their freedom from the purgatory of New York Avenue."

Meanwhile, look at Bob McCartney's intro to a terrific column about the value of Smart Growth at Tysons and elsewhere: "If you're upset about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and want to do something to fight America's petroleum addiction, support a local cause that would make a difference: transforming Tysons Corner from a snarl of suburban sprawl into a grid of transit-friendly, urban high-rises. If done right—a big if—it would curb reliance on automobiles while allowing continued growth of population and jobs."

On the one hand, we have stirring words about freedom. On the other, an intellectual argument about the importance of reducing our reliance on oil. Does the urbanist crowd need some really vivid prose to stir the soul instead of making rational arguments about the need for better policy?

There are people who write that kind of stuff, like James Howard Kunstler. I personally find his palpable hatred of suburbs somewhat cloying, and have a hard time reading most of his books. But I also find Anderson's language nauseating as well. Somehow, though, Anderson ends up in every Post article about traffic, and Kunstler doesn't. Kunstler gets labeled as extreme and Anderson doesn't.

My problem isn't with AAA's positions or their fairly effective press operation. My problem is that they get quoted all the time in traffic stories, but no nutjobs on the other side saying something equally insane about how all drivers are evil or something. The only case that comes to mind is Jim Graham calling Maryland drivers the "devil incarnate," but that was reported only because it came from an elected official's mouth, and Graham came under criticism for it.

What do we need? Should we create some crazy alter ego "Ann Londerson" who says all the things about drivers that some people say about cyclists? Who talks about drivers who habitually break some laws the way Glenn Beck talks about undocumented immigrants? Would that get quoted? Would that improve the quality of the discourse? Somehow I doubt it on both counts.

So why can't we just declare Lon Anderson an extremist and start ignoring him? Maybe reporters lack an alternative quote source. Maybe The Hill is Home writer Nichole Remmert, who likes to drive but isn't a complete lunatic, should set up an organization called American Association of Reasonable, Not Hateful, And Generally Lawful Drivers (AARNHGLD) that can get quoted in the press instead, sensibly arguing that this particular speed camera isn't so well placed but not trying to stir up old North-South Civil War tensions because the Secret Service wants people to walk to the Inauguration.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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You've also pretty much distilled why the democratic party has an incredibly hard time keeping its numbers up. Lots of charismatic, crazy, and quotable pundits on the right, and lots of boring, moderate analysts on the left.

Also, if you want a towing service that doesn't employ crazy media correspondents, consider joining the Better World Club! They even offer roadside bicycle assistance (although I'm not quite sure that such a service would be particularly useful in DC)

by andrew on Jun 29, 2010 1:57 pm • linkreport

Well said. The media's focus on certain extremists (Londerson, Palin, various born-again Christian evangelists, etc.) is a problem in this country. It runs completely against the grain of fair discourse and the media's responsibility to this end. Rather than realize accept or acknowledge this flaw, many so-called reputable journalists go after what they think will most likely get read, not what they think will most likely help the local community, country or world. We've started idolizing extremists because they touch on our illogical, heat-of-the-moment ramblings (I would compare this to our own overreactions, which we usually personally look back on as being ridiculous). The problem is, when you're being bombarded by this nonsense everyday in newspapers, on the Internet, and on Fox News, you can't sit down, think, and actually form a fair opinion on pretty much anything.

by Eric on Jun 29, 2010 2:01 pm • linkreport

Gosh, it would be great to have a blog that talked about density and transit and the little land use changes that can get people to drive a bit less -- and also admitted that a lot of people can't ride metro/walk to work, realized drivers have a lot of legitimate complaints, and the entire system of rhetoric based on "tax those VA/MD commuters because we're not a state" is a major fail.

Real shame we have to get into semantic discussion of whether it is the cars or drivers killing bicyclers. As you said, two extremists don't get us anywhere.

Driving a car can make you feel free for a little bit. So can riding a bike. Depends a lot on the road.

by charlie on Jun 29, 2010 2:03 pm • linkreport

Excellent, balanced post.

When I canceled my AAA membership, the customer service agent asked for my reasons. I told her that (a) I no longer own a car and (b) I don't agree with the positions of AAA's lobbying arm. The agent said, "What lobbying arm?" She was sure I was mistaken.

When AIPAC gets quoted, journalists quote the organization as a lobbying PAC, not as some "public affairs committee" despite AIPAC's claims about itself. But AAA's claims about itself, that it represents millions of drivers who are its members, aren't subjected to the same reality-check by journalists - they don't represent millions of motorists, they represent AAA's interest in growing the number of motorists.

by Ken Archer on Jun 29, 2010 2:05 pm • linkreport

Nice article, Ann!

by William on Jun 29, 2010 3:18 pm • linkreport

What bugs me about the Post's coverage is that it is often fact free and resorts to fluff pieces that merely advance one interest. Or, it gives all the benefit of the doubt to one side. This is advocacy or advertising, not reporting.

by SJE on Jun 29, 2010 3:54 pm • linkreport

For the NY speed camera's, what's the problem with quoting AAA? What was the issue with the article, it was the speed cameras were a speed trap with dubious intentions to some. The article quoted AAA, "representing" motorists in this case. But the article also quoted DC Metro Police. As the article pointed out, pedestrians and cyclists really are not affected at this stretch of road.

I'm not going to argue for the Post in general on its quality or fairness in reporting, but in this case, both sides of the issue were given ample time to state their case.

by Anon. on Jun 29, 2010 3:59 pm • linkreport

Well done. You are questioning where others have not the motives and positions that organizations the Post has taken at face value. And I would quote Nichole for any organization she chose to form.

by Elizabeth Festa on Jun 29, 2010 4:24 pm • linkreport

It needs to be stated again that this problem is AAA Mid-Atlantic and not ALL of AAA. In fact, it might not even be all of AAA-Mid Atlantic, just the two PR people.

Recently, we got an AAA-California magazine in the mail, full of suggestions for things to do on the 4th of July weekend. While most of the suggestions were car based, they did have an entire page devoted to taking Amtrak to Sacramento and enjoying the city for 1-2 days without a car.

by J on Jun 29, 2010 5:18 pm • linkreport

I'd be happy to write a column or two as Ann Londerson.

by Lindemann on Jun 29, 2010 6:08 pm • linkreport

AAA is not a drivers' advocacy organization or a towing service. It's an insurance company! Insurance companies buy newspaper advertising, which is why WAPO is sucking up to Lon, and giving him a soapbox.

by Follow Damoney on Jun 29, 2010 8:45 pm • linkreport

Kunstler is an 'extremist', a 'nutjob', and his language is 'nauseating'? interesting.

i dunno - i've watched Kunstler's TED talk, read at least one of his books, and listened to all of his podcasts. i've never heard him say anything unreasonable. he can use hyperbole like any other normal human being with intelligence, wit, and a sense of humor, but i didn't think that was something to get all huffy about. i think more people should be encouraged to tell the plain truth about our situation instead of acting 'reasonable' all the time. avoiding telling the truth to avoid hurting folks' feelings is how we got into this situation in the first place, and in case you didn't notice it -- the country, and world, are effed. if someone feels offended, then maybe they need to be offended.

by Peter Smith on Jun 29, 2010 9:51 pm • linkreport

I agree with everything you say but the speed camera at the eastern extent of the southeast-southwest freeway is BS of the highest order. It's basically an on-ramp. When you emerge out of the tunnel under Barney Circle, the freeway opens up, you go from 2 lanes to 4 and there is nothing but pavement in front of you. The road is yours. There are no merging cars since you're at the start of the highway. The speed limit is deceivingly low and that's where they zap you. It's wrong and gives red light cameras a bad name.

by wreckfish on Jun 29, 2010 10:35 pm • linkreport

Interesting thoughts -- and I've been a long-time fan of Greater Greater Washington and personally do not support using an automobile for the daily grind (I'm a walk and Metro guy), but I have a couple of questions:

1.) Aren't you, like the AAA, lobbying? You may be doing it grassroots vs. their more traditional approach, but is this a case of pot-calling-the-kettle black?

2.) Where are civil liberties in all of this? You seem to think it's okay to have a camera because they lead to safety, but I do question the abuse of them?

3.) If I had a nickel for every time I saw a bicyclist run through a red light or cut across the WRONG lanes, I'd be rich. I'd caution your attitude because several cyclists (though certainly not all) violate laws just as much as those who speed in cars -- challenge is, they're rarely ticketed and often blame the car drivers (again, I'm a pedestrian + Metro guy saying this) instead of their own selves for bicycling through a red light or some other violation.

4.) On the same rant about bicyclists, something needs to be done about bicyclists recognizing that SIDEWALKS are first and foremost for pedestrians. You rant about the AAA and cars, but as a walker, I'll rant about bicyclists being just as bad if not worse.

by A Walker on Jun 30, 2010 12:28 am • linkreport

So...basically one special interest group is complaining that its antagonist, another special interest group, is getting quoted in media stories?

Given some of the "extremist" posts on this blog, couldn't some Higher Power also declare it nothing more than a bunch of anti-car fanatics and try to stifle debate?

Marketplace of ideas is the answer. Not demonizing opponents or trying to censor their views by trying to get the media to not talk to them.

After all, if it's ok to label AAA as "extremist" b/c of their pro-driver view, can't we also just label as "extremist" the Fiscal Policy Institute b/c of their perpetual tax and spend view?

by Fritz on Jun 30, 2010 9:09 am • linkreport

@A Walker @Fritz, do you pay GGW an annual fee for a service?

by Bianchi on Jun 30, 2010 9:52 am • linkreport

I think some people are missing the point. Note that the cited references include emotionally stirring quotes designed to tap into your feelings of indignation and fear and have nothing to do with any real discussion or debate. None of them say WHY their way would be better, they only say why you should have grave fear for the alternative. All moral relativism aside, with rare exception that is not the kind of discussion I see on this site.

It's OK to have a specific viewpoint on the issue as this blog does. That is not a contradiction here. They are asking faceticiously whether they need to have a more wild-eyed persona to attract any attention and legitimacy.

by matt on Jun 30, 2010 10:25 am • linkreport

@matt - well put.

by Bianchi on Jun 30, 2010 10:33 am • linkreport

A Walker:
1. The Post pretends to be a neutral arbiter but acts instead as a mouthpiece for AAA, complete with stirring quotes about liberty and freedom. (At least the Russian promotional pieces have their own insert). GGW makes no such claim, but does try to be fair.
2. GGW, unlike the post, publishes a whole host of wonky facts, and lets others comment and criticize those facts and their interpretation. It also takes seriously such criticism. Thus, when a representative for the Metro Union wrote articles on the problems at Metro, he was criticized for not revealing his affiliation early on. Do you see any such thing in the Post? (The ombudsmen is a joke.)
3. Most people think of AAA as towing service, and do not realize its serious advocacy work. Thus, quoting AAA as if they were a neutral arbiter is misleading to readers.

by SJE on Jun 30, 2010 11:10 am • linkreport

PS: I am not saying GGW is perfect and reasonable at all times, or that its criticism is always correct. However, by offering criticism it is doing a valuable service that the Post itself fails to do.

by SJE on Jun 30, 2010 11:13 am • linkreport

@Bianchi: Do I pay any annual fees to any special interest groups?

by Fritz on Jun 30, 2010 11:14 am • linkreport

@Fritz - see SJE's #3 and matt's comment above.

by Bianchi on Jun 30, 2010 11:37 am • linkreport

@A Walker:

If I had a nickel for every time I saw a pedestrian jaywalk through a red light or walking on the left rather than the right, I'd be rich. I'd caution your attitude because several pedestrians (though certainly not all) violate laws just as much as those who ride bicycles -- challenge is, they're rarely ticketed and often blame the cyclists (again, I'm a cyclist + Metro guy saying this) instead of their own selves for walking through a red light or some other violation.

Also, one time a guy on a Segway nearly ran over my toe.

by oboe on Jun 30, 2010 12:00 pm • linkreport

@Fritz - in fact, many people do. Many professional associations have huge lobbying arms, and people pay dues to be a member of that organization - ostensibly reaping the benefits of said lobbying.

AAA bills itself as an automobile club. The benefits of joining include towing and other auto services (battery jumps, gas when you run out, general roadside assistance etc.), free maps, help with trip planning, member discounts etc. Drivers, in general, benefit from their advocacy and lobbying efforts.

I agree that they would do better to be more up front with their members on what they advocate for and the positions they take, because I agree that they aren't as forthright with regard to that part of their operation as they should be. In fact, I suspect that many, many drivers would actually appreciate their efforts and they may even recruit more members by better publicizing that information.

by Nichole on Jun 30, 2010 3:00 pm • linkreport

I agree that AAA should be more forthcoming about their advocacy activities and positions. My parents have been members for years (and my dad is a long-time cyclist) but were horrified when I told them how AAA promotes oil interests and opposes clean air legislation, cycling and walking.

by Matthias on Jun 30, 2010 3:16 pm • linkreport

AAA is an example of what is wrong with this country..

by Fred on Jul 1, 2010 11:36 am • linkreport

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