News Brief: DC Media’s ‘Fare Evasion’ Meltdown

Adam Tuss reports on “staggering” levels of fare evasion for NBC 4, Washington DC.

[Music]

Nima Shirazi: Hi, everyone. This is Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: And I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Once again, before we get to this News Brief that you are trying to listen to, apologies in advance, we’re excited to announce that tomorrow night, if you are listening to this when this comes out on Wednesday October 19th, tomorrow night, Thursday October 20th, at 8:30pm Eastern Time, Citations Needed is going to hold a live Beg-athon, and by Beg-athon, we mean, a podcast fundraiser with amazing guests talking about pop culture.

Adam: Yeah, we’re talking Star Trek, Nima’s going to talk wrestling.

Nima: And we will also talk to each other during that.

Adam: We will, but those are our two kinds of niche things that we love on our own, so we’re kind of doing a fun little thing for that. It’s going to be a fundraiser for the podcast as you mentioned, the first one we’ve ever had. So definitely check that out, tomorrow night, at 8:30pm Eastern, 7:30pm Central for those of you, like myself, who live in flyover country. So we’re very excited about that, it’s going to be a lot of fun. Please check it out if you can. It’s going to be on YouTube. And if it works we may do more YouTube stuff. We may pivot to YouTube celebrities and just completely debase ourselves.

Nima: Well that’s right. We’ve been doing this show for five years. This is our sixth season. We would love it if more people supported the show. So that is partly why we’re doing this but also so that we can talk Star Trek with Dr. Robert Greene II, History Professor at Claflin University, and pro wrestling, which I am so excited about, with Brandi Collins-Dexter, Associate Director of Research at the Technology and Social Change Project and author of the brand-new book, Black Skinhead: Reflections on Blackness and Our Political Future. As Adam said, you can find that Thursday night, October 20th, 8:30pm Eastern on YouTube. You can either search Citations Needed on YouTube, find the channel with our logo on it, or go to or go to Bit.ly/CitationsNeededYouTube and you will find us there, again, that is Bit.ly/CitationsNeededYouTube, Thursday, October 20 at 8:30pm Eastern. I now sound like a Crazy Eddie commercial. We are excited about this live show and hope to see you there. And now on to our regular News Brief.

[Music]

Nima: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled episodes. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast if you are so inclined.

But today’s News Brief, Adam, is about one of our very favorite local news stories: The investigative report on fare evasion.

Adam: Yeah, so these reports were designed in a lab by some dark right-wing force to make us pissed off and it’s very much in our wheelhouse, though, surprisingly, we’ve never talked about the fare evasion trope on our show. So I actually wrote about it for the Substack about two weeks ago. I also have a piece on the subject in the Real News that came out yesterday, which is this idea that anytime local officials, police or pro police local officials, want to clamp down on so-called fare evasion, which is to say typically, it’s about kind of making sure homeless people don’t go into the subway system, to some extent, there are budget shortfalls that city officials may be considering because of artificial austerity, but a lot of it correlates with basically trying to get homeless people out of underground subway systems.

Nima: Even though honestly the only videos you will ever see, the anecdotal videos, are going to be like teenagers with backpacks hopping turnstiles, and that is somehow supposed to enrage the average subway rider or bus rider or whatever into this story where there is now you know, broken windows panic, and what is the solution Adam? Chances are always more cops.

Adam: Right, and so typically, you’ll see these stories kind of pop up around wintertime, that’s obviously when unhoused people are more likely to seek shelter in the subway system, and so it’s October, so cue the local DC area news who, they do one of our favorite tropes, we’ve talked about in episode 156, which is kind of the faux investigative journalism posture when you’re doing power serving sort of demagoguery, but you need to look like it’s journalism. So Washington NBC 4, in two different stories, they used the word “staggering” and then another one they used the word “eye-popping.”

Nima: That’s the amount of fare evasion that’s going on.

Adam: Right. “Eye-popping” fare evasion, “staggering” amount of fare evasion because they need to kind of editorially puff it up because the reality is that most people don’t give a shit. They just simply don’t care because it’s a total abstraction to them, and they see, especially in DC, which is a federal budget item. They’re like, ‘Well, okay, like the federal budget is trillions of dollars I can’t even put my mind around it. Why do I give a shit about $40 million in fare evasion?’ So we’re going to listen to that clip right now. You can sort of see the Breathless kind of moralistic tone that the journalist takes.

[Begin Clip]

Adam Tuss: Take a ride on a metro bus these days and you’ll likely see it. Riders walking right past the bus operator and the fare box, simply not paying. The News4 I-Team going undercover recently capturing fare evasion again and again and again. But far and away the Metro bus line that has the most reported fare evasion is the X2 line right here. It runs from Lafayette Square Downtown to the Minnesota Avenue Metro Station. Through a public access to records request, the I-Team is able to uncover the Metro Bus lines with the most fare evasion, and the numbers are eye-popping. In calendar year 2021, the X2 line that we mentioned, had over 914,000 reported fare evaders, the 70 bus line between Silver Spring and Archives over 724,000, the B2 line between Anacostia and Mount Rainier had over 667,000 reported fare evasions.

Man: But we want people to respect that this is a community system and everyone, I think, you know, we’ve heard loud and clear, if I’m paying why are you not paying?

Adam Tuss: Metro GM Randy Clark tells News4 some new fare evasion tactics are on the way.

Randy Clark: We have more information coming out on fare enforcement probably next week and citations are certainly part of that process.

Adam Tuss: However, in the district, the council has voted to decriminalize fare evasion. It’s still a civil penalty though and Councilmember Charles Allen says Metro should be taking action.

Charles Allen: You are not allowed to fare evade. MATA can enforce it if they would and they have the absolute ability right now to stop someone from fare evading, remove them from the system, issue them a citation and they haven’t done that.

Adam Tuss: Metro’s bus operators and station managers are instructed not to get involved in fare evasion disputes. Transit Police are supposed to enforce that rule in the district. Adam Tuss, News4.

[End Clip]

Adam: And then add to this Victoria Sanchez, anchor and reporter, which is really just an anchor, at 7ABC News DC tweeted out an underground video of someone’s sort of watching these people go through the fare turnstiles and you kind of leap past them or jump over them.

Nima: Yeah. It’s almost like a timelapse of just constant fare evasion.

Adam: Right. And so she posted this video on Twitter and she says, “We’ve been watching Metro fare evaders all morning. Our camera isn’t hidden and people are blatantly hopping turnstiles live on air. Metro estimates $40 million in lost revenue 7News DC ABC.” And so this, they’re not blurring out faces, they’re showing people’s faces, and this is of course, one of these great kind of faux populist stories that are easy to demagogue because, you know, for people haven’t thought about it much, they say, ‘Oh, yeah, well fare evasion. I pay fares. Everyone else should pay the fare.’

Nima: I pay, right. I have a card that I swiped through like, yeah.

Adam: Right. It’s only fair that people pay their fair share, you know, blah, blah, blah. And then of course, if you drill down on really what they’re advocating, they’re advocating for increased fines and arrests, because keep in mind while fare evasion is technically decriminalized, although that’s not quite accurate in DC, it is heavily criminalized in other areas of the Metro in Virginia and Maryland. And so they’re pushing DC city council people and those who run the Metro and state officials who regulate the Metro and the federal government to increase policing in and around the Metro system of the Greater Washington DC area. In 2018, it was decriminalized largely because studies showed 86 to 92 percent of people who were ticketed were Black or brown. That’s pretty typical. It is absolutely a way of punishing people for being poor. It is absolutely a way of keeping homeless people out of the subway system. The sort of false austerity of over $40 million in quote-unquote “lost revenue” from fare is, of course, totally artificial, and a time of catastrophic climate change and people driving gas guzzling cars, absolutely, public transit should be free to everybody. That would be the most rational thing to do.

Nima: That should be subsidized, and people should be almost forced to ride buses and subways at this point.

Adam: Right. The government should be paying people to ride the subway, not the other way around, but of course, the dollars and cents aren’t really the issue because, as we talked about this offline, Nima, during COVID, in a lot of places public transit became free — and guess what? — the sky didn’t fall.

Nima: That’s right. We were able to support that in a lot of cities and elsewhere around the country. DC specifically, between March 24, 2020 and January 3, 2021, Metro buses were free in DC. They resumed having fares on January 3, 2021. And so basically, as you can see, when there is deemed a, you know, an emergency, certain normal social services, right, public services can actually happen and things can get better, people’s lives can improve. We saw that in certain ways. You have moratoriums on evictions, you have deferred debt payments, like these things can happen. Granted, they are always put into place with the assumption that they will resume and the finger wagging will continue, but as we have seen through this pandemic crisis ongoing, things can happen and our society does not fall apart, right? You can take away public transportation fare and nothing horrible, horrible, horrible happens except for these news reports saying that there is now such a huge budget deficit that, you know, other services have to be cut, except as we have seen, especially say in a place like New York City, there’s always more money for more cops to be patrolling subways and platforms.

Adam: Right. So there was one 2019 report in Streetsblog that noted then Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed to stop $200 million in fare evasion, right? So his proposal was stopped, the so-called $200 million fare evasion every year. His proposal calls for an increased number of cops and an increased budget of the NYPD, that was $250 million. So they wanted to spend an extra $250 million to allegedly stop $200 million in fare evasion, which of course is absurd on its face, but of course, it’s not about dollars and cents. That’s a pre-tax, but it’s a sieve, and we know that money’s from public goods that are not planned, they can mysteriously find that money when they want to. So for example, the fiscal year of 2022, which just ended this past June, the NYPD casually exceeded its overtime budget —

Nima: As they do all the time.

Adam: Which they do every year, by the way.

Nima: Year after year.

Adam: Now, this is not the money they spent on overtime mind you, that was $762 million. They exceeded the money that was set aside for overtime by $155 million. So City Council voted on the budget, said that they were allotted $607 million in overtime, okay, $.6 billion in overtime, and then they said, fuck it, we’re going to do $762 million, and they do this every single year, and it all my days and all my reading and all my research and all my Google and all my readings of New York Post, Daily News, New York Times, I’ve never once seen any breathless coverage about NYPD overtime.

Nima: We got to cut back on police overtime.

Adam: Over overtime, right? So the initial overtime is already budgeted in, this is now over overtime. I have never once seen anyone frame that as somehow stealing or robbing from the taxpayers, even though it’s in effect from a budget standpoint, the exact same thing, right, except in one case, you’re giving a public good to someone who’s almost by definition poor, despite the fact that the New York Post wants you to think it’s a bunch of Wall Street guys in suits to make you feel good about it. It’s kind of like this sort of Law & Order politics where you give people the impression all the police do all day is arrest doctors on the Upper West Side. It’s not really the case. It’s mostly poor people, which is why they want to do it. That austerity is completely arbitrary. The things we decide to sort of hand wring and care about and invite outrage are completely inconsistent and so, to use another comparative example, that piece I wrote for The Real News, I analyzed a $61.7 million settlement that Amazon had with the Federal Trade Commission last November, where they stole roughly $62 million in tips and had to pay them back. Now, when you’re Amazon and you break the law, god forbid, of course, you don’t ever get a criminal sanction, you never go to jail, you’re never arrested, Jeff Bezos or some executive is not dragged in front of a court, they don’t go to, you know, pretrial. That is of course laughable. That is sort of unthinkable to think about. But not only do you not get fined, you get no punitive damages for the fine, you just have to basically pay back what you owe. So if I stole from Walgreens and stole $400 worth of goods and ran out, and the cops said, ‘Oh, hold on you just stole that? Okay. So your punishment is you need to give this stuff back, and then you’re free to go.’ So you can sort of try it out. Right? The FTC was merely fining Amazon the exact amount they stole with no, purely compensatory, no punitive damages whatsoever at all, and they had to pay almost a $62 million fine, which is equivalent to the average person paying $2 because they’re a $1.15 trillion company market cap. Totally meaningless, right? Now, to be clear, this was money they stole from people’s tips, this was actually taken from their pool of money they have at the end of the day, they stole it from them. This was theft, right? And the average Amazon flex worker makes between $45,000 and $55,000 a year, which is basically nothing, some make as low as $32,000 a year, Amazon stole from 140,000 Amazon flex drivers. So this is 140,000 instances of individual theft times however many times they stole from these people. The average person they stole $422 from them, about 20,000 of the drivers 20,000 of 140,000 drivers, they stole $600 or more. One driver, Amazon stole $28,000. Now for the people who are at the lowest of the wage spectrum, which Amazon flex drivers are, this could be the difference between paying rent and being evicted. This could have been the difference between being able to afford baby formula or not. This is the difference between diapers or not. This is the difference between being able to have good blood sugar or having to ration your insulin for diabetics and so this story got a couple of write ups in like, you know, Verge, Washington Post, Slate, no one ever talked about it, no moral outrage, no hand wringing, no sense of perception of destruction. Sort of no sense that this was part of some broader erosion of society and the Washington Post editorial on why we need to crack down on fare evasion, they said fare evasion, quote, “Adds to perceptions of disorder and disarray in the system.”

Nima: Oh, that’s broken windows shit right there.

Adam: $40 million allegedly stolen from some vague or, because whenever they talk about welfare fraud stories — because this is fundamentally a welfare fraud story, which is sort of, again, a feature of kind of faux investigative journalism — they need to have a victim and because there’s no victim here, they always go to the almighty, heavily racialized taxpayer, right? This taxpayer is put upon.

Nima: That’s right. They’re stealing from you.

Adam: Right. They’re stealing from you. And of course, it’s just an iteration on Ronald Reagan’s 1976 speech in Mississippi about the strapping young buck getting T bone steaks while yeah, yeah, yeah, welfare fraud. It’s all welfare fraud bullshit, right?

Ronald Reagan at the 1976 Republican Convention. (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Nima: Well, now beyond that Adam, though, is the idea of why these stories are so attractive to local reporters because then there’s this whole, as we’ve been discussing, NBC4 investigation, right, or like Eyewitness News ABC7, you know, this investigation. Where do you think the data that’s being investigated by the local news reporter comes from? How did they possibly, Adam, get a hold of the official data for fare evasion, I wonder?

Adam: Well, I mean, to be fair, some of them will say like, you know, Metro releases data, here’s our story. But Adam Tuss, of NBC News, Washington, said the NBC News Washington NBC$ investigative team got a hold of the top five bus lines for fare evasion last year. So to be clear, Adam Tuss did not meet some whistleblower within Metro at a parking garage in Foggy Bottom like fucking Deep Throat, right? The police called them and were like, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about cracking down on this and we want to pressure lawmakers, do you want to publish the story?’ And the guy was like, ‘Yeah, of course.’

Nima: Yeah. Check out where our, you know, budget shortfall comes from, all these fare evasions, look at these numbers. And they’re like, ‘All right.’

Adam: Wither the police department or some pro police forces within city council pretty much wanted to further criminalize and increase police presence in subways and so they sent it to Adam Tuss, again, these are, as I wrote my piece, morally incurious JC Penney models, their job is not really to question the context of why the story’s been given to them. It’s just seen as per se this moral outrage that ‘Oh my god, all these people are stealing fares.’ Of course, you cannot steal fares. It’s like stealing, you know, water or oxygen. It’s an abstraction. It doesn’t mean anything because no one, there’s no sort of, there’s no victim. You have two weeks to go find me a victim of fare theft. I can find you victims of Amazon flex, you know, wage theft, I can find you 140,000. Their names are listed on the class action lawsuit as the plaintiff. I can find you those victims. But find me a victim of fare evasion. What? Anyone who lives in the greater DC area? It’s meaningless, right?

Nima: You know, it’s Joe taxpayer.

Adam: Joe taxpayer. Put upon taxpayers always just has the Atlas Shrugged, just completely on his back at all times because of all these freeloading fare evaders. Meanwhile, the cop sits around, you know, in a car with his dick in his hands and runs up the overtime tab and nobody really gives a shit, right?

Nima: Yeah, that’s not getting, you know, breaking investigative news reports.

Adam: Not getting breaking investigative news reports, and this is a trope we’ve seen a thousand different times. They love running out these fare evasion stories, again, especially when things start to get chilly and we need to get rid of those dirty, smelly homeless people in the subway who we don’t like, but we can’t really say that so we got to kind of do a workaround and talk about how it, ‘No, no, no, it’s about law and order.’ It’s about perceptions of law and order, I guess? There’s sort of this meta-take.

Nima: And then it’s about the budget. So then it’s blaming the good things you want that you can’t have, because there have to be municipal cutbacks, because there are public transit and thereby municipal shortfalls, and as a result, you can’t have the good things you want because of the teenagers hopping turnstiles. That’s why. So you should hate them. You should want them in jail.

Adam: All austerity stories are fake. I mean, they’re not real. Nobody really cares about austerity. No one really cares about dollars and cents. Again, we know that because police budgets just mindlessly balloon $155 million over their allotted overtime, and literally nobody cares. Nobody even reports on it. The only people who report on it are like technical blogs like, by the way, you know, whatever, no big deal. Nobody editorializes. The fare evasion got a Wall Street Journal editorial, got a Washington Post editorial, it got nonstop coverage in the Washington Examiner, in the local affiliates. I mean, it’s a full-blown meltdown in the local media.

Nima: If you read the New York Post on any day, you’re going to have six fare evasion stories.

Adam: Yeah, again, it’s just this evergreen thing, you know, it’s holding in football, it happens in every play, but whether or not you call it, it is the ultimate fake story. There’s fare evasion all the time, because people are poor, and we have a deeply unequal society, and a lot of people can’t afford to pay for public transportation. Yeah, is there occasionally someone who’s got like $500,000 in a briefcase who just walked past it because he, you know, he wants to risk, you know, a fine or jail time because he likes the lulls? Yeah, okay, maybe that’s 1%. But mostly because people are fucking poor. And this is getting mad that we’re not effectively taxing the poor for the privilege of being able to move around the city, especially to go to their low-wage, low-paying jobs at fucking Burger King or as domestic workers and that’s just unacceptable, and so now we’re in this sort of post-COVID austerity regime where we have to go back to disciplining the poor, we have to go back to make sure we flood these places with cops, and we have to go back to business as usual, even if it costs $50 million more, as it did in the case of the Andrew Cuomo plan.

Nima: That’s right. Because it’s not about the money. It’s about the discipline.

Adam: It’s about the discipline. It’s about making sure homeless people stay out of public places. It’s just another form of warrant roundup, which is what, again, they say, ‘Oh, it’s decriminalized in DC.’ Yeah, but it’s a warrant roundup, because every time they, you know, they’re not going to necessarily put you in jail for that per se, but it’s pretextual just like stop-and-frisk, right? It’s pretextual to run your warrant, to do a gun check, do a check for contraband, do a check for drugs, all of which are still very much illegal in DC, and so that’s sort of the goal.

Nima: That’s right, and then if you say, ‘Hey, leave me the fuck alone.’ They’ll arrest you for disorderly conduct.

Adam: Yeah, and it escalates and someone gets shot, right? It’s a whole thing. Again, this is why these encounters need to be minimized, not maximized, with this totally petty, I mean $40 million is a fucking rounding error. I mean, intuitively everyone can look at that and be like $40 million? Literally in the last 10 minutes since we started recording this Elon Musk’s net worth has gone up more than $40 million. I mean, that has no meaning, right? That’s a total abstraction. So to get people to care, they have to do the whole Ronald Reagan Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Nima: Yeah. It’s all just broken windows shit.

Adam: It’s broken windows shit.

Nima: Well, that will do it for this fare evasion News Brief of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening to the show. Of course, you can follow us on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work if you are so inclined, we hope you are so inclined, at Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. Of course, tomorrow night, as we said, October 20th at 8:30pm Eastern, please do join our YouTube live stream beg-a-thon, we’re going to do book giveaways, merch giveaways, and we have amazing guests. Please do join. Just go to YouTube, search for Citations Needed, look for our logo or do the whole Bitly thing and do Citations Needed YouTube to find us there. But until then, and until our next regularly scheduled episode, thank you all so much again for listening.

Citations Needed’s senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.

[Music]

This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, October 19, 2022.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.

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A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.