Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Bay Citizen & Bedbug Journalism

"The correct perception of a matter and a misunderstanding of the  same matter do not preclude each other."          Franz Kafka

Some time ago I quoted Kafka's bit of wisdom to Zusha Elinson, the writer of the Bay Citizen's Cab complaints climb in San Francisco. It was my way of having a heart to heart with a young reporter. I was trying to subtly let him know that he lacked a firm grasp of both subject matter and context in his pieces on taxicabs. He laughed but missed my message.

Not that Elinson's posts are unique. In my twenty-eight years of cab driving I've never read a good article on taxicab drivers or the cab business in a San Francisco publication. I've come across excellent work in New York papers and magazines but not in San Francisco. Here the writer comes up with a salable idea ("bad cabbies" usually get traction), calls around to get a few quotes verifying his or her theme, throws in a counter quote for balance, and pops out the piece without so much as a thought to furrow the brow.

The amount of misinformation that the public has been fed about taxicabs by local news outlets continually boggles my mind. Until now my favorite was a radio piece on the legislation to enable the sale of taxi medallions in 2010 by KCBS personality Barbara Taylor. Ms. Taylor inaccurately stated that the legislation would allow the medallions to be bought by cab companies. This was and is not true. The medallions can only be sold (or transferred) to working cab drivers.

I called up Ms. Taylor and told her that she had it wrong.

"That's your opinion," she said. "I'm busy."

"It's not my opinion,"I retorted. "It's in the legislation. I'll send it you."

"I don't have time to read," she said. "What I do is take opinions."

"But, if you'd just take five minutes to read it, you'd see that you were wrong."

"That's your opinion," she snapped and hung up the phone.

I didn't think it would be possible to top Ms. Taylor in willful negligence but Mr. Elinson's hatchet job gives her a run for her money. For instance:

1. San Francisco cab drivers take over 30 millions rides a year

In light of this, 1,733 complaints (or .0000577 of the trips) does not have much significance at all.  (See Kafka quote.) Certainly not enough to make make sweeping statements like the opening two paragraphs of Mr. Elinson's purple prose.

Given the small number of complaints you could just as well ague the opposite. Namely that this minuscule fraction is sign of how good the taxi service is.

Of course it could be argued that many people have complaints about cab service but don't bother to do anything about it.

To which I would counter by saying that I routinely have customers tell me how enjoyable or how wonderful it's been to ride in my taxi. I get a least a hundred of such comments a year. Furthermore, I'm not the only professional driver in the city. Conventioneers and other visitors frequently tell me that San Francisco has the friendliest and most knowledgeable cab drivers in the country and it's a reason why they like to come here.

These people don't call 311.

2. Moe's Cab is an illegal taxi

A reader could not have discovered the above fact from Elinson's article where he wrote,

"One patron reported that a cab driver allegedly stole his credit card number and used it to make purchases in Brazil."  

Then he repeated the accusation in more detail later on.

"One passenger said a driver took a credit card impression “the old-fashioned way.” The next day, the customer said he got a fraud alert about the card being used to make purchases in Brazil. His taxi receipt said it was for Moe’s Cab."

Indeed, from the context said reader would naturally assume that Moe was a San Francisco cab driver.

Now a sharp investigative reporter like Mr. Elinson could have easily discovered the truth on the Moe's Cab webpage. Hint - the fact that Moe has neither an address for his cab company nor a listing of operating hours is an indication that the service is illegal.

But, if this was too challenging for our intrepid reporter, he could simply have pulled down the Taxi page from the SFMTA website. The first listing under Information for Taxi Customers is a link to Licensed San Francisco Taxi Companies. Had Elinson bothered to read this he would've noticed that Moe's Cab is not a San Francisco taxicab and could have spared us his misleading and slanderous statements.

But it gets better. Mr. Elinson interviewed me, you see, before he ran his article. I told him that I'd never heard of Moe's Cab and suggested that it might be an illegal taxi. Despite this, Elinson did not bother to check his facts.

Did Moe's theft fit so nicely into his naughty "cabbie" thesis that Elinson didn't want to know the truth?

3. A Bedbug

Elinson opens his second paragraph by stating,

"Taxis infested with bed bugs ... were among the complaints."

Later in the piece he quoted "an anonymous National Cab driver" who called 311 "to report that some of the cabs had bed bugs."

"Me and other drivers are getting tons of bites," Mr. Anonymous said. "The management has been informed but they are doing nothing about the problem."

As it turned out the city's Department of Public Health found "ONE DEAD BED BUG" in One TAXICAB and "no active infestation."

Nonetheless, Elinson still chose to use "TAXIS INFESTED WITH BED BUGS" to start his second paragraph despite the fact that his own limited research proved his lead a lie.

Mr. Elinson devoted over 10% of his article to this subject. On the principle that "the exception proves the rule," a more responsible writer would not have included the beg bug in his piece at all.

4. Missing and Dubious Sources

Elinson apparently did not talk to Director of Taxi Services Chris Hayashi. Nor does he mention talking to MTA Investigator Eric Richholt despite the fact that I gave him Richholt's phone number.

Elinson did get a negative quote from Jordanna Thigpen who was the deputy director of the former Taxi Commission and who replaced by Hayashi. Elinson has previously told me that Thigpen intensely dislikes Hayashi. Thigpen also clearly thinks that taxi service would be better if she was still in charge.

In addition, I thought that the Bay Citizen didn't use anonymous sources? Judging by the one Elinson chose to quote, it sounds like a good policy. Had Elinson run his bed bug tale by me, I could have told him who Anonymous was. So could any number of other people familiar with the San Francisco taxi business.

Anonymous is a former National Cab Driver who was in an accident that a better driver probably could have avoided and keeps trying to sue National on variety of pretexts including the claim that National did not have insurance despite the fact that he collected Workers' Compensation for his accident.

A while back Anonymous, who has none of the mannerisms sometimes associated with homosexuals, told me that he'd been assaulted in the National Cab lot because he was gay. This seems unlikely. National Cab was managed by a cross-dresser for many years and several openly gay people work in either the office or as drivers.

Anonymous, who has zero credibility with people in the taxi business, has send me e-mails telling me how much he hates cab drivers. He sometime gives talks on the same theme at MTA Board meetings.

Given that in all my years of cab driving I've never come across, or even heard, of a cab with a bed bug in it, I think it's entirely possible that Anonymous planted the damn thing himself.

At any rate, Elinson fans will be comforted to know that Anonymous now drives for Sidecar.

5. So what is Elinson's article? A hit piece? A hatchet Job? Or, just good old fashioned yellow journalism?

Certainly it's one of most biased pieces I've read. There are some serious problems with with the industry and with some San Francisco taxi drivers (I'll deal with credit cards etc in the next post.) but the vast majority of us do a very difficult, low paying and dangerous job at a very high level. Instead of acknowledging this, Elinson uses a laundry list of mostly trivial incidents to trash every driver in the city.

Yes, of course, there should not be anybody slammed with a racial slur. But there are 7,000 cab drivers in this city and you can't expect them all to be saints. One example doesn't mean San Francisco cab drivers are racist. In fact, most San Francisco cab drivers themselves belong to racial or ethnic minorities. I've often thought the kind of hack attack that Elinson indulged himself in is based on its own racist assumptions.

Other than the racial insult, in over 30 million rides, the worst actions that Elinson could come up with is one driver who asked two friends to kiss each other and another driver who called up a customer for a date. There can be no doubt about it. As a criminal class that "routinely flout the law" we suck.

The truth is that if you ride in a San Francisco taxicab (with 99% certainty) it will be in fairly good shape and will not have bed bugs.  You will not be charged for bringing a baby along. If the driver hits on you, all you have to do is say "no." You will not be overcharged. You will be taken to your location by the best possible route. The driver will not you ask you to kiss your friend but I'd personally like to request that you try to keep you cloths on next Friday night. The cameras do not link to HBO. And please stop doing joints in my cab. Three people in San Francisco don't like the smell. If you're lucky enough to ride with me you might be able to listen en route to Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto, Tito Puente, old school rock or Kind of Blue. The choice is up  to you. And, yes, I take credit cards and love trips to the Sunset.


  1. I've read a lot of your posts, Ed, and off the top of my head I can't remember reading one which I liked more. Well done, sir. Thank you.

  2. There is something very provincial and petty about some articles in these free rack newspapers in San Francisco. Mean spirited and inaccurate are goals, I guess of The Citizen. Besides, the bedbug was probably in the back seat and brought in by a passenger. Ugh ! I hope your excellent article gets published elsewhere.

  3. Great response Ed ! What phone number do we call to complain about abusive passengers ?

  4. Anonymous is a first class moron that is for sure. Sadly he got the MTA Chairman kind of alarmed about cab safety with his oft repeated tale of woe. "Safe cabs" is a subject that makes me crazy.
    I did a poll of taxi managers and mechanics a few years ago that covered 200 years of collective experience and nobody ever heard of an accident caused by a mechanical failure.
    Anonymous complained that there was no airbag in his cab. Most likely it just failed to go off which does happen occasionally.
    What a great way you have with words Ed.

  5. Well done!! Its to bad all the news channels picked up this article as truth and never looked at the big picture!!

  6. OMG, that bed bug sucks blood more than its own weight. Calling for taxis to take action against these blood suckers.

  7. Keep it up; keep posting more n more n more.

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  9. I only come into the city a few times of the year but every taxi I took was clean and the driver was nice. I have a great respect for the job they do because they have to be a psychologist as well as look out for the passenger so they never do get into an accident. This is why when I drive with someone in my car I am twice as careful because their well being depends on how well I drive.
    I have extreme obstructive sleep apnea and yet now a single doctor as talked to me about when I drive to be very careful. I have taken it upon myself to be responsible because I will not drive if I do not feel I have slept enough.
    My parents brought me up to take responsibility for my actions and that a car is a very dangerous weapon that must be used with caution because you can kill someone very easily if you are not alert at all times. I cannot understand anyone who talks on the phone or looks at other than the road in front of them when they drive because they could die in seconds along with killing many others when on the freeway at 65 m.p.h. The problem today is that taking responsibility for your actions isn't a priority with many younger people in America because since Nixon pardoned Ford even the President can get away with lying to Congress which should be an impeachable offense. I was a Republican then and disliked what he did and as a Democrat I thought Clinton should have been impeached for lying to Congress. People need to be held accountable for the bad things and laws they break and I agree with all whistleblowers because look what our not my government has done to Bradley Manning because he had a true moral responsibility to show the world the bad things that were happening in Iraq. Study your history to understand why we are the way we are today.