When There Is No Room Left For Facts

Rarely do I mention when I’ve been interviewed, or quoted in a newspaper or appear on TV.  Not only do I find such shameless self-promotion distasteful, but it’s just not that big a deal.  So forgive me for bringing this up, but as the following will hopefully explain, the purpose is to show how views are influenced by the presentation of partial truths when time runs out.

A couple of weeks ago, a call came in from a producer for PBS NewsHour.  He had read my post about Mayor Bill de Blasio’s implementation of Vision Zero in New York City, a plan to eliminate all pedestrian deaths caused by traffic accidents.

The producer had read my post on it, and had questions about the “rule of two,” a poorly-named concept that requires something beyond a mere traffic infraction to elevate negligence to criminality.  In an earlier post about the Court of Appeals decision in the Brett Cabrera case, the “rule” is more thoroughly discussed.

During our conversation, the producer asked me if I would be willing to do an interview about the law surrounding the Rule of Two, about why de Blasio’s “Cooper’s Law,” named after a child run down by a city cab, was doctrinally troubling, and why enhanced penalties for anyone who causes the death of a pedestrian in Manhattan wasn’t nearly as cool an idea as it may at first appear.

I explained that I had no interest in participating in a story where a ten second blurb would be used.  Having done that too many times before, I’d had enough of editors reducing my words to meaningless drivel, informing no one and, in all likelihood, making people stupider for having heard them.  My days of caring about being on TV were long past, and my concern now was trying to be informative rather than, well, just there.

There are always lawyers happy to play the game on any subject, no matter how little they know about it, just to get their face on the tube. If that’s what he needed, go find one of them.

He assured me that this wasn’t a sound bite moment.  He explained that they were doing a longer, more in-depth piece. He called it a documentary, which suggested to me that this would be a stand-alone show.  He explained to me the assertions made in support of Vision Zero, and that they needed a thoughtful explanation to provide both context and explanation.

I agreed to the interview, with my usual “pay-to-play” requirement that they give me a coffee mug for the show.  I try to get a mug from every show I do, because I drink a lot of coffee.  It was supposed to take about 15 minutes, but the interview lasted quite a bit longer, almost an hour.

It was a fairly comprehensive interview, covering the things we had discussed on the phone as well as some additional ideas, such as how Mayor de Blasio’s reduction of the speed limit in Manhattan from 30 to 25 miles per hour could be the new “stop and frisk” for cars, since no one has ever been able to maintain a 25 mile per hour speed in America.

Late afternoon yesterday, I got an email from the producer, advising me that the program would be on that evening.  However, my portion of the program, the part where a question was raised as to the unintended consequences, the problems with criminalizing negligent conduct based on outcome rather than intent, didn’t make the cut.

Aside from pondering the likelihood of de Blasio adopting the Swedish model by building a rotary at Madison and 57th Street, and the rather lame complaint raised by a cab driver who won’t be able to make enough money if she has to drive the speed limit, the part to which my involvement applied happens at about 5:30, and more particularly to a statement by Cooper’s mother, Dana Lerner.

Where’s the guy that killed him? What happened to this guy? And then I found out that you can kill someone in New York City and you don’t get charged with anything.

Well, that can be true.  But it’s also misleading.  I don’t blame Dana Lerner for saying so or for pondering a very significant question.  Had it been my son, I can confidently state that I wouldn’t have been nearly as calm or rational as she was. But that’s why parents of dead children are a great source of emotional pain, but a poor source of rational discussion.  And why laws named after dead children are almost invariably bad laws.

There was, of course, a critical discussion to follow Dana Lerner’s statement, about how crimes aren’t dictated by tragic outcomes, but by wrongful conduct.  There was a deeper level of discussion, about the degree of culpability that distinguishes negligent conduct from criminal conduct.

Without this discussion, anyone hearing the words that “you can kill someone in New York City and you don’t get charged with anything” may come to believe something that is dangerously wrong.  Indeed, not only is it wrong with regard to Vision Zero, to the tragic death of pedestrians in New York City, but to all cries to criminalize things based solely on tragic outcomes without regard to the conduct giving rise to the outcome.

But as the producer told me, they just didn’t have time to fit it into the segment.

In a sense, I appreciate that they didn’t do what I asked them not to do, to reduce what I had to say to a ten second sound bite.  Maybe they could have slipped a sound bite into the segment, but they didn’t.  But then, they left Dana Lerner’s statement hanging.


8 thoughts on “When There Is No Room Left For Facts

  1. John Barleycorn

    Damn, another fine opportunity for the world to see that tan suit of yours before the moths eat it this winter.

    My guess is the content of message via unintended consequences was too bitter a pill for the News Hour to present to their dinner table audience.

    Could be them studio lights mess with your concise and cogent though.

    Charlie Rose should be calling early next week.

    P.S. How many roundabouts can 40 million create? I like roundabouts.

  2. Alex Bunin

    Her statement needed to be questioned, but I can see why the producer chose not to. An extended discussion on the criminal law (even by one so entertaining as you), would have seemed tangential to a story that was mostly about how to make physical and legal changes to increase pedestrian and cyclist safety. The good part is that you got a PBS mug.

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s how I see it as well. Too bad that the statement was in there and went unquestioned, but it would have opened a huge secondary discussion to provide a thoughtful response.

      1. Alex Bunin

        I am also with Barleycorn on roundabouts (traffic circles or rotaries). They are disconcerting the first couple of times that one encounters them, but after some experience they are preferable to stop signs or lights. Even on a bike, I would rather enter a circle than deal with the dreaded right-hook of cars turning at intersections without first checking their mirrors.

        1. SHG Post author

          That was one of the ironies of the segment. NY wants to adopt the Swedish approach, except the Swedish approach primarily requires engineering solutions rather than legal. NY, of course, wants to cherry pick what it can do. There will be no rotary at Mad and 57th. And to put a point on it, New Yorkers aren’t Swedes.

  3. LTMG

    Television news I find intellectually numbing, almost as bad as poorly written and plotted sitcoms. Reading news tends to be more fulfilling for me, especially if I can find in depth analyses from different perspectives.

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