"Do not ask me to enter the mind of the totalitarians running this government of the city," Dorothy Rabinowitz told her Wall Street Journal colleague over the weekend, in an interview concerning CitiBike, New York's week-old bike-sharing program. Rabinowitz went on: "It is shocking to see how much of this they have sneaked under the radar in the interest of the environment." The resulting 5-minute video of Rabinowitz's fulminations appeared during a fraught moment: on June 2, the day it appeared, CitiBike had just availed more than 6,000 bright blue bicycles to everyone in New York. Ever since, she's become the most blogged-about nemesis of the already controversial bike-share, with media critics, liberal opinionators, and regular old bike-riders jumping on her comments about transportation "totalitarians." What gives?
First off, that video:
The interview (soberly titled "Death by Bicycle") soon gained attention for a different reason altogether. "This video of the WSJ editorial board completely losing it over Citibike is incredible," Hunter Walker wrote at Talking Points Memo. ThinkProgress ridiculed Rabinowitz's (admittedly bizarre) assertion that "the bike lobby is an all powerful enterprise." Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple mocked Rabinowitz's claim that, in her capacity as a member of the notoriously conservative and not exactly anti-upper class editorial board Wall Street Journal, she "represent[s] the majority of citizens" of New York. Most people — especially liberal opinionators like Paul Krugman and "many of us" — thought she had come fully unhinged.
The conversation then shifted to Rabinowitz's underlying motives. Media critic Jim Romenesko asked the Journal when Rabinowitz had last pedaled a bicycle. Rabinowitz, a PolicyMic contributor declared, is "speaking for a small minority of the city who probably never use public transportation and would only dream of sitting on a bike for the occasional joyride." On Tuesday, Krugman argued that Rabinowitz, and by extension the Journal, "reflect[s] people who are members of the modern carriage trade, and who get annoyed at the proletarian peddlers getting in the way of their chauffeurs." In other words: Rabinowitz is rich, perhaps undeservedly so, and in either case unqualified to opine on issues affecting the rest of us — much less declare herself a populist hero. Why else would she hate bikes?
This kind of consensus has a way of extinguishing dissent. (BuzzFeed's Ben Smith, for one, has defended Rabinowitz's Pulitzer-studded career.) In this case the consensus was also pretty wrong. The Journal certainly digs in for tax cuts affecting the wealthy, and assiduously reports on "wealth strategists" and luxury rooms for children. But Rabinowitz, an editorial board member, is no paragon of inherited wealth or fake populism. According to a 2004 profile in The New York Observer, Rabinowitz grew up in destitution in her family's outer-borough duplex, and as an adult became a freelance writer: not exactly a get-rich-quick scheme. "You're getting somewhere, you have no money, and being attractive doesn't do you any good," she told the Observer, which noted that Rabinowitz never married, either.
In this sense, maybe Rainowitz is somehow representative of New York, having grown up poor and, purely on the basis of her journalism — which exonerated individuals falsely accused of child abuse — made a decent life for herself. And while her views on bikes may be misguided — bicyclists are not, in fact, an organized lobby hellbent on upending Manhattan — they may also come from a place of sincere conviction.
So why does Rabinowitz dislike CitiBikes so much? This is perhaps the only question that Rabinowitz does not truly answer, instead intimating that all bicyclists — instead of cab drivers — intentionally threaten the wellbeing of Manhattanites, if not their actual lives, by swerving in and out of traffic and terrorizing the city's sidewalks. (Her other complaints concern CitiBike's color scheme, kiosk placement, and the debunked myth that its bike racks impede the work of emergency personnel.) Which is to say that, like basically all the other backlash directed at CitiBike, the issue here concerns bikes and their place in a city's transportation ecosystem, not the manner in which they are rented or shared.
Now that CitiBike is open to all, maybe Rabinowitz should take one for a spin. She wouldn't be the first editor in New York to change her mind.