Gov. Gaslight? Newsom’s slippery words on high-speed rail raise questions

Good news for supporters of California High-Speed Rail: When Gov. Gavin Newsom said “there isn’t a path” to complete the system’s planned connections to San Francisco and Los Angeles, he actually meant to say he’s fully committed to getting it done.

In his first State of the State speech, Newsom clearly tried to communicate a shift away from the train project’s statewide ambitions.

“Let’s level about high speed rail,” he said. “I have nothing but respect for Governor Brown’s and Governor Schwarzenegger’s ambitious vision. I share it … but let’s be real. The project, as currently planned, would cost too much and take too long. There’s been too little oversight and not enough transparency. Right now, there simply isn’t a path to get from Sacramento to San Diego, let alone from San Francisco to L.A. I wish there were.”

This declaration, coupled with news that he would also whittle Gov. Jerry Brown’s two Delta water tunnels down to one, made a clear impression: Newsom would scale back the visions of his predecessors.

Headlines reflected the message loud and clear. “Newsom puts brakes on bullet train,” said The Sacramento Bee. “Newsom proposes scaling back of California bullet train,” said Capital Public Radio. “Newsom pledges to scale back high-speed rail,” said the Los Angeles Times.

The Times’ George Skelton and CALmatters’ Dan Walters – the deans of the Capitol press corps with over 100 years of journalism experience between them – both wrote columns echoing the theme.

Then Newsom changed his story. He backtracked on his sidetracking of the full rail project, blaming the media for what the Times called “mass confusion” created by his words. His staff reiterated his commitment to the whole project.

Newsom blamed “aggressive” headlines for the confusion, telling the Times: “I just think people in the media should pause before they run headlines and actually consider the facts and maybe even ask the person that’s stating things before they run with things. That’s the deep lesson I learned in this.”

Really? We think the deep lesson here is that the governor should understand the consequences of his words before he utters them. Perhaps it wasn’t a great idea to publicly announce a major shift in an infrastructure project before understanding the legal and financial ramifications.

For instance: Can Proposition 1A money be used for a project that’s not envisioned as a San Francisco to Los Angeles service that makes the trip in two hours and 40 minutes? Do any studies indicate that a Merced to Bakersfield line can operate without a subsidy? Does dramatic downscaling of the project negatively affect the various ongoing court cases threatening to derail the train? How will legislators react?

A State of the State speech is a highly political document. Staffers pore over every paragraph and negotiate each turn of phrase. Interest groups lobby to win a mere mention of their pet issues. The governor’s press aides typically know which parts will make the headlines – and often work behind the scenes to ensure nobody misses the point.

Newsom and his staff sent exactly the message they intended. Then, for whatever reason, it seems they got cold feet and decided to blame the media for reporting the governor’s words.

We asked Newsom’s office whether they had asked any news outlets to correct or retract their stories. They failed to respond.

“Gaslighting,” according to an article in “Psychology Today,” is “a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality.” Signs of gaslighting include:

Lying and denying what’s been said, even in the face of clear evidence

Saying one thing while actually doing another

Using confusion as a tool to manipulate perception

Accusing everyone else of lying

The term has become popular in the Trump era, for obvious reasons. President Trump made 7,645 false or misleading claims during his first two years in office, according to the Washington Post. He’s also made a habit out of attacking the press in an effort to undermine its credibility.

As mayor of San Francisco, Newsom was also infamously combative with reporters – insulting them, ducking them and, once, even sinking his teeth into a KTVU reporter’s microphone.

“Fake News,” tweeted Newsom, after Trump pounced on news reports of high-speed rail’s downgrade.

Perhaps the two have more in common than we think.

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