News & Politics

Fox 5’s Big Interview With Metro GM Paul Wiedefeld Was Really All About Fox 5

Screenshot via WTTG.

The morning crew at WTTG finally got their big sit-down with Metro general manager Paul Wiedefeld Monday morning after weeks of on-air demands, including a stunt that involved an empty chair. Wiedefeld, who had already appeared on DC’s Fox station many times, appeared in the studio for a half-hour segment that grilled him on everything from the ambitious, year-long maintenance plan he introduced last Friday; Monday’s rush-hour disruptions on the Blue, Orange, and Silver lines; the status of the Metro Transit Police Department; and his purported relationships with other media.

Wiedefeld was game to answer every question and made a bit of news by saying that on Tuesday, he will meet with all 650 of the transit agency’s managers to remind them that they are at-will employees who can be removed for safety lapses. But the whole segment still felt like a bit choreographed on Fox 5’s part. At several points during the interview, the station pulled a few moves—some that worked, others not so much—that just seemed to draw more attention to its misplaced desperation to get an interview with Wiedefeld.

To start, let’s take a look at the lower-third graphic that accompanied Wiedefeld’s appearance: “One-on-One With Metro’s GM.” This might seem like unnecessarily nitpicking, but this screenshot clearly shows Wiedefeld surrounded by WTTG’s Holly Morris, Steve Chenevy, and Tom Fitzgerald, who has done multiple one-on-one interviews with Wiedefeld in the past few months. Local-news producers don’t need to be math wizards, but this Chyron is just bogus.

And Morris, Chenevy, and Fitzgerald weren’t even the only reporters on Wiedefeld’s case this morning. About halfway through the interview, the studio threw to Melanie Alnwick, who was stationed outside the Benning Road station with a stalled train in the background of the shot. Such drama, and all for Alnwick to read a question a Fox 5 viewer submitted, via Twitter, about why passengers will still be paying the normal Metro fares while the year-long reconstruction agenda is carried out.

Wiedefeld’s response, for what it’s worth, was fairly logical in explaining that these much-needed repairs need to be paid for, and that fares are a primary source of operational funding. “I have heard that and I understand it for sure, but you have to understand all the work that’s being done is paid primarily from the local jurisdictions or from the fare box,” he said. “It’s just the financial challenge we face.”

Morris also spent the entire interview standing off to the side with her phone trained on Wiedefeld and her colleagues so she could broadcast the interview—already being filmed by high-definition studio cameras—on Facebook, even though WTTG makes its live news programming available online.

A few minutes later, Fitzgerald brought up last Thursday’s trouble at the Federal Center SW station, which affected riders directly with an arcing-insulator incident during the afternoon commute but caused even more alarm when video emerged from that morning’s rush hour showing an explosion at the same spot sending a torrent of sparks toward the platform seconds after a train departed.

Fitzgerald got chippy–not because this was yet another example of a potentially harmful Metro meltdown, but because one of Fox 5’s rival stations, WRC, got the video first.

We’ve got a situation in this city where Metro’s communication seems to be breaking down in important ways with its most important megaphone, which is the media,” Fitgerald said, adding that WRC, NBC’s Washington station, also scooped everyone else on footage of last week’s derailment of a CSX freight train in Northeast DC. “None of the other television stations get that video. There is favoritism.”

Perhaps someone within Metro’s public-relations or security offices is giving scoops to NBC 4, but if that’s the case, it’s because NBC 4 works the transportation beat better than its competitors. Fitzgerald has been covering Metro a ton lately, but he’s a general-assignment reporter. Among local media, only WRC, WAMU, and the Washington Post have reporters with Metro as a full-time beat, so maybe it’s not a conspiracy they break a huge share of Metro-related news, as WRC’s Adam Tuss explained in this victory lap of a tweet:

After his Fox 5 interrogation, Wiedefeld retreated back to the shadows, where he’s always lurking out of sight. Oh, wait. He didn’t. He followed the television appearance with another spot on the Kojo Nnamdi Show, where he spent nearly another half-hour going over the long-range maintenance plan.

Meanwhile, Fox 5 did a kind of post-game on its four-on-one interview with Wiedefeld by bringing on the anonymous Twitter user known as @unsuckdcmetro. “Unsuck,” appearing only via phone, actually sounded willing to give Wiedefeld a listen, a surprising departure from his 140-character habit of retweeting Metro riders expressing their frustration or issuing his own broadsides about the transit agency’s management.

Chenevy asked @unsuckdcmetro what he would have asked Wiedefeld if he had the opportunity. “When he unveiled the SafeTrack plan he said everyone needs to sacrifice,” @unsuckdcmetro said. “I’m wondering what he is sacrificing and what the Metro executive team is sacrificing. Are they willing to take a pay cut? That doesn’t seem very fair to me.”

That’s a decent question when the transit agency’s leadership talks about shared sacrifices. @unsuckdcmetro also even gave Wiedefeld a bit of praise for his performance in the 30-minute interview.

He gave the best answers I think he could,” @unsuckdcmetro said. “I think, somewhat surprisingly, people are willing to give the new GM the benefit of the doubt, and I am to to a certain degree. I think that the new GM is more candid than others have been. Time will tell.”

But @unsuckdcmetro’s answer was a bit of a reversal from his live-tweeting of Wiedefeld’s Fox 5 appearance. Wiedefeld coughed a few times during his big interview. Sometimes a cough is just a cough, but to @unsuckdcmetro, at least on his main platform, a cough from the Metro boss might as well a burp from Robert Durst, giving more evidence to the argument that Twitter-based Metro criticism is largely performance art.

@unsuckdcmetro didn’t mention the cough during the TV segment, but he brought it up again when Wiedefeld was on the Kojo Nnamdi Show a few hours later:

Scandal! Or maybe Paul Wiedefeld has a cold. An investigation of his cough would fit in nicely with the rest of WTTG’s Metro coverage.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.