SFPD and BART Officers at Civic Center Station Entrance during August 15 protest (photo by Mina Kim/KQED)
SFPD and BART Officers at Civic Center Station Entrance during August 15 protest (photo by Mina Kim/KQED)

BART is facing down a new public relations mess…this time it’s a report that it tried to manipulate the media’s coverage of an August protest.

I spoke to the The Bay Citizen‘s transportation reporter Zusha Elinson who broke the story. We talked about the latest revelations as well as the future of the transit agency under it’s brand new general manager:

Tell me about your story that’s getting a lot of traffic over at The Bay Citizen.
So the basic story is that BART, on August 11th, was facing prospect of second protest about the shooting of a homeless man back in July. BART chief spokesman Linton Johnson had a funny idea he thought he would bring loyal riders who had contacted BART before to speak out against the protestors, to do this he hired some private cars so they wouldn’t get delayed in protest they were speaking out about.

On top of this he wrote a little script that the BART riders were supposed to read from when they were going up to microphone to speak to the media. The script is pretty funny. It says my name is blank. I take BART from blank to downtown San Francisco, and I depend on BART etc. etc. and there’s a little part where you insert your particular hardship that was caused by the protest.

…We did a number of public records requests and we got the emails from those public records request.

So what are the repercussions of these actions?
To be honest when you look at it, it’s the situation you can’t be too surprised when follow media relations. But I think when it’s put out there so plainly, that BART was giving these people scripts and even driving them to the press conference, people feel a little betrayed. They expect when they see someone is upset about something on TV those people are indeed upset about those things.

While it was Johnson’s idea, who was ultimately responsible for greenlighting it?
I confirmed [Johnson] the authority to purchase these vehicles… But his boss Jennifer Barton, who’s the head of BART external affairs saw the emails for this plan and approved them. She could have put a stop to them but she didn’t.

She reports to the general manager. I don’t know if the general manager knew about these plans. It was a very busy day that was the same day BART had the idea to shut down the subway service on the underground.

But I spoke to Bob Franklin, chairman of the board of directors, he said today he spoke with BART management and told them this should never happen again.

I understand they have a new general manager…
So they have a new general manager, Grace Crunican. She is known as a woman who is a straight shooter not one who likes to beat around the bush or spin things very much. From inside BART that’s what I’ve been hearing they wanted. There are some people inside BART who don’t really like how things get portrayed in the public by BART and they think that Grace can bring a breathe of fresh air about that.

What are the key transit issues she’ll be having to address?
Some of the big challenges she’ll have going forward is getting funding for a whole new set of trains. They want to get new trains by 2017 or 2018 the new trains would have cleaner seats would be redesigned, but the problem is BART doesn’t have the money for those right now.

The word inside BART is that they actually hired Grace because she used to work for the Feds and they want to use her connections there to help them get funding for their new trains which will cost several billion dollars.

Elinson’s latest piece is just the latest in a series of unexpected twists and turns the original story has taken. It began in late July when BART police shot a homeless man who was wielding a knife. A subsequent protest of police brutality led to BART’s shutdown of cellphone service. That drew worldwide anger from civil rights groups. Then an international hacking collective got involved. Then personal data of riders, BART police and the BART spokesman was stolen off of computers. Followed by charges of so-called “gay baiting” from the LGBT community. And now the revelation of apparent propaganda attempts by the transit agency.

And it’s not over.

Q&A: How BART Tried to Stage Media Coverage 15 September,2011Rachel Dornhelm


Rachel Dornhelm

Rachel Dornhelm has worked as a reporter, editor and producer in public radio for the last twelve years. She got her start in New York City at WNYC and went on to work with the national business program Marketplace, WBUR’s “On Point” and KQED News in San Francisco. Her work has been honored by the LA Press Club and the SF-Peninsula Press Club.

Rachel has a BA with honors in anthropology from Rice University and did graduate work at NYU.

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