The newsroom at WTTG has identified the latest huge problem with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority: Metro’s general manager, Paul Wiedefeld, hasn’t been on the Fox affiliate’s morning show in a while.
Anchors Holly Morris and Steve Chenevey went so far Thursday morning as to scold Wiedefeld on the air in a segment titled “Fox 5 demands accountability for Metro problems” that featured an empty chair–presumably Wiedefeld’s spot.
“If you’re the leader of a transit system that on a daily basis has multiple safety issues, you make time to come on one of the most watched morning shows in the District to discuss the problems, and what it’s going to take to fix the problems,” Chenevey said, as the chair for Wiedefeld remained as lifeless as the seat left open for Elijah at the Passover table. “That’s what public leaders do in big cities like Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago.”
Morris was even more unsparing. “Fox 5 viewers are frustrated, and furious, over the state of our Metro system. Hey, I am, too,” she said. Morris had also said on Wednesday’s broadcast that she and her family have stopped riding Metro in the wake of recent malfunctions along the Red Line. (WTTG’s studio is located between the Tenleytown and Friendship Heights stations, a stretch of the Red Line that has experienced significant, but casualty-free, interruptions due to track fires and mechanical breakdowns in the past week.)
So what stopped the man with one of the least appealing jobs in Washington from chucking out his schedule so he could face the wrath of morning television? His job, for one thing. Wiedefeld spent Thursday morning at a WMATA board meeting, where he announced that the Red Line would undergo an immediate “maintenance surge” to fix arcing insulators and other problematic spots that contributed to the recent mishaps. The surge, which will last through this weekend, will result in Red Line trains running on a single track between the Van Ness and Medical Center stations during the midday and evening periods today and Friday, and all day on Saturday and Sunday. Extended delays are inevitable, but Widefeld’s quick, unilateral moves to patch up the rail network have yielded results before. Last month’s one-day systemwide shutdown resulted in 26 emergency repairs to electrical cables that were at risk of catching fire. Coming up with a response to the Red Line’s latest messes seems far more pressing than spending time in a television studio.
Yet this is why WTTG’s clamoring and posturing seems like a bit of engineered drama more worthy of Metro’s insatiable Twitter critics. Metro did tell the station Wiedefeld would be available after the board meeting—the transit agency offered Friday at 11 AM—and it seems impractical for Wiedefeld to rearrange his entire day just so he can hear more of the kvetching with which he’s already very familiar. That’s not good enough for WTTG.
“He’d be able to answer questions from us and from viewers,” says WTTG news director Paul McGonagle. “Metro is a lead story four out of five days a week lately. Let’s talk to viewers and ridership before they get on. Give someone more than a sound bite, answer tweets. We’re here to work for the viewer.”
Wiedefeld is not some shadowy figure, though. Since taking over Metro in late November, he has been remarkably accessible to the public for short- and long-form interviews. In his first month on the job, he allowed himself to be grilled by the (now apparently defunct) WMATA Riders’ Union. He gave lengthy interviews to all sorts of media organizations, from the Washington Post to WAMU to Greater Greater Washington, which let its readers hit him with questions. Wiedefeld also made several television appearances, including one on the couch at WTTG’s morning show.
Clearly, the guy is accessible in a way his predecessor, Richard Sarles, was not known for, and McGonagle knows it.
“As we stated in our piece, we like him,” he says. “We, like his style. This guy’s so transparent compared to his predecessor.”
Then why the sudden complaints that Wiedefeld is not being transparent? “Most people can’t go to a board meeting,” McGonagle says.
While Metro board meetings are open to the public, that’s a fair criticism. Most people can’t skip out of work to sit through hours of transportation management. Still, Wiedefeld hasn’t exactly been a stranger to WTTG. Here he is March 17, the day following the shutdown, chatting with WTTG reporter Tom Fitzgerald.
In fact, Wiedefeld will be appearing at WTTG’s studios soon, according to emails between the station and Metro and obtained by Washingtonian.
“Can we interview Paul Wiedefeld or [Metro Chairman] Jack Evans live in studio during our 10 PM show tonight?” Brendan O’Connell, an assignment editor at the station asked Metro spokesman Dan Stessel on Wednesday.
Stessel had to decline the short-term request: “Your morning show folks are in with similar requests. Short answer as relates to Paul is no; however, he will do a media avail tomorrow (any topic, as long as it takes) following the Board meeting so if you’d like to send a crew, you can get any/all questions you have answered at that time. We are working to get him in studio, but it will likely be the week after next. Just an unbelievable number of competing demands for his time.”
About ten minutes later, Stessel replied to O’Connell again, writing that Wiedefeld would appear on WTTG relatively soon.
“I will effort to nail down a date/time certain for you guys hopefully by the end of this week—Monday the latest,” Stessel wrote.
Perhaps McGonagle and his colleagues at WTTG are just having a bit of cross-medium jealousy. Wiedfeld joined WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi Show for a full hour on April 18, being quizzed by transportation reporter Martin Di Caro and hearing listeners’ gripes.
“We have our own viewership,” McGonagle says. “It’s one of the most-watched television shows in DC.”
A defense like that, along with the correspondence between O’Connell and Stessel, just makes the Eastwoodian exercise seem more stunt-y. Then again, May sweeps are coming up and stunts can work in television: WTTG claims its empty-chair treatment of DC Mayor Muriel Bowser in January 2015—following the fatal smoke incident on a Yellow Line train—convinced her to come to the studio.
But the more realistic explanation is that antsy anchors with colleagues who interview Wiedefeld regularly aren’t going to dictate his schedule.
“We look forward to returning to Fox 5, and the other morning shows, in the coming weeks,” Stessel tells Washingtonian.