I can gratefully report spending much less time on Twitter these days, but Wednesday morning I decided to take a peek, regrettably. Within moments my feed bristled with outrage.
What did Metro do now? Another derailment? More falsified track inspection reports? Another round of service cuts? All those negative stories, and many more, have made headlines in recent years, but this latest bit of malfeasance was new. WMATA opened a store!!!
The new M Shop sells apparel and accessories, including "Bus Like a Boss" t-shirts, "Foggy Bottom" yoga pants, umbrellas, and more inside Metro Center station in downtown DC.
Why was this such big news, with multiple TV crews covering the opening, rankings of the best and worst swag on nearly every site, and more? It is merely a store, selling transit-nerdy merchandise already available online. This kind of thing is common in other cities with subways.
But in our region, if Metro is involved then it comes with obligatory negativity and a good dose of amusing snark in the #WMATA Twitter-verse.
So do they have trains that work during weekends for sale? Asking for a friend.— Randall M (@ranpuba) March 7, 2018
Having covered the years-long Metrorail crisis following the death of Yellow Line commuter Carol Glover at L’Enfant Plaza in January 2015, I believe we should never stop posing hard questions to WMATA's leadership, who are asking the region’s taxpayers to provide billions in new funding.
Yet at the same time, we have to be able to separate relatively inconsequential moves like the opening of a retail shop from truly important issues. For offering this view on Twitter, I was quickly condemned as a phony by @UnsuckDCMetro. And others, seemingly incredulous that I failed to see the problem, chimed in.
Wrong, Martin. It’s tone deaf. Riders die, tracks burn, Union employees can’t be bothered to do their job, and @wmata is pushing BS chachkies that tout how great they are.— metroh8tr (@dcmetroh8tr) March 7, 2018
Did I miss the point? James Pizzurro, the co-creator of MetroHero, believes I overlooked something important about the state of public opinion. Riders are not necessarily angry about the swag store, Pizzurro said. They are frustrated about service disruptions and other issues, and a retail shop peddling trinkets and yoga pants seems like the wrong priority. It is tone-deaf. Rider David Joseph agreed.
True. But from a rider/emotional perspective, it feels disingenuous for them to do this while I wait 8+ minutes for a green line train during rush hour and no yellow line past Mt. Vernon.— David Joseph (@DJoseph31) March 7, 2018
Okay, but one has nothing to do with the other. Metro’s ability to properly schedule its weekend track work teams will not be affected by a swag shop. Whatever money Metro will spend to get the store going is a drop in the bucket of its $1.8 billion operating budget, which covers day-to-day expenses, and $1.2 billion capital budget, which pays for major reconstruction projects, new railcars, bus garages, etc.
And if the store is a success (as, ironically, all the attention might help it to be), then it could turn a profit. A small one, perhaps, but a little bit can help.
While I did laugh at some of the clever jibes on Twitter, this story is, in my view, an opportunity to remember what really matters, and it is not the M Store. There is a coterie of Metro critics on Twitter who appear to believe everything the transit agency does is wrong, deceitful, or corrupt. One must be outraged by everything related to WMATA or, as @UnsuckDCMetro said about me, you are a see-no-evil activist.
This attitude, which was impossible to ignore during my six years covering transportation at WAMU, is counterproductive for obvious reasons. If everything is an outrage, then nothing is. And it also raises one of the key problems with that vortex of irrationality, Twitter.
I recall talking with my fellow WMATA beat reporters at the region’s newspapers, radio stations, and TV outlets about the necessity of resisting knee-jerk reactions to what we saw in our Twitter feeds. The constant outrage was distracting and distorting. It created a narrative of negativity that in subtle ways influenced the way we approached our stories. But having spoken to hundreds of riders in interviews over the years, on trains, buses, and platforms, the reality was far more measured.
Coincidentally, New York Times technology writer Farhad Manjoo published a column about his decision to quit digital news notifications and read only printed newspapers. Manjoo wrote, "You realize how much of what you get online isn’t quite news, and more like a never-ending stream of commentary, one that does more to distort your understanding of the world than illuminate it.”
At a time when Metro faces so many legitimate problems of its own making, due to years of neglect, mismanagement, and poor leadership, we need to focus our WMATA-related criticism on what really matters. Foggy Bottom yoga pants are not on my list.