Tri-Met touts benefits of flesh-eating bacteria on buses

by Dave Lister 

You have to question the motives of the city of Portland, Multnomah County, Metro and TriMet when they seem to spend as much effort fueling their public relations machinery to promote their agendas and convince us they are doing a great job as they do in doing their jobs in the first place.

It’s a constant barrage of direct mail, emails and PR-flack radio interviews exhorting us to drive less and save more, or walk and bike the neighborhood, or jump on transit. Even during the wettest spring and early summer in recent memory, with the Columbia River dams’ spillways opened to maximum capacity, the radio jingles urging us to conserve water are already in full swing. And every dime spent to persuade us to behave one way or another is a dime not being spent on the services we require.

It’s very troubling that in recent months several prominent area journalists — the latest being KGW’s City Hall reporter, Randy Neves — have left their media posts to join the growing ranks of government spokesmen. The very people we used to look to to watchdog the claims of government are now being paid to make those claims, and the spin cycle is on high. With professional journalists crafting government press releases, the sound-bite media often reports them as news, unquestioned and unchallenged.

Of course, even this highly polished public relations machinery is not without its gaffes and lighter moments. Case in point is the July 6 email from Mayor Sam Adams’ office with a subject line reading, “Our Education Initiatives Dont Go On Summer Vacation” — with the apostrophe in the contraction conspicuously absent. Evidently, the proofreader was on summer vacation. A “drive less, save more” mailer featured a cartoon character flying with the aid of a jet pack — too cutesy by half and, frankly, insulting to most people’s intelligence.

Nevertheless, the folks staffing these public relations juggernauts have learned what every good propagandist from Joseph Goebbels to Nikita Khrushchev understood: An oft-repeated lie becomes the truth. And the bigger the lie, the more people believe it. Now that a local plastic bag ban is back on the table, Adams is once again decrying the “massive plastic islands of trash” in the Pacific Ocean and the “oil needed to manufacture” the bags. The plastic island notion, which was described in a city-sponsored “push poll” when the ban idea was first floated as being twice the size of Texas, has been debunked by OSU assistant professor Angelicque White, and the so-called “single-use” bags, which are rarely used just once, are a byproduct of natural gas production, not a petroleum product. But facts don’t stop the spin machine.

Of all the paid mouthpieces getting a public sector paycheck, the award for excellence has to go to TriMet’s communications director, Mary Fetsch. After Joseph Rose’s July 14 report in The Oregonian that PSU microbiologist Pamela Yeh had taken samples from TriMet bus seats and discovered alarming levels of bacteria, including the flesh-eating and antibiotic-resistant MRSA, Fetsch hit the talk-radio circuit with gusto. With conviction, Fetsch took the position that if it didn’t kill you, it would make you stronger, proclaiming that those high bacteria levels were actually good for a person’s immune system. During an interview with KPAM’s Victoria Taft, Fetsch said that people “actually are feeling better and have less colds when they ride transit more often because they get exposed to more bacteria and different things.”

I think I’ll stick with vitamin C.

Dave Lister is a small-business owner who served on Portland’s Small Business Advisory Council.