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Copaganda Comes for E-Bikes

A photo of an orange traffic cone with a white flower pushed in the top.

Dear Readers —

High summer, all the doors and windows thrown open, a bouquet of dahlias and snapdragons and yarrow on the table, blackberry pancakes mixed and ready for the griddle, two houseflies and one fruitfly sharing space on a brown-spotted banana, and the baby fussing in his crib, wishing to rise half an hour before his nap is “officially” supposed to end. He falls into babbling for a minute, then returns to plaintive moaning. If he doesn’t quiet down soon, I will get him up. Then sometime later perhaps I will be able to return to this installment of Lightplay and hit “send.”

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“You have to understand, Jasper, now that you have this baby, you’re probably not going to be doing your greatest creative work in your thirties,” said my friend Jen last night. We had slipped off from the birthday party for Leos so that we could watch the sun set and catch up. “Or if you do, it will be at the expense of some other part of your life.”

I felt the wisdom of those words, which were also an absolution, and a promise that more time and freedom lays ahead, as the kid grows older and more self-sufficient. Yet at the same time, I told her, the opposite is also kind of true. Since having a baby, I have hit the most creatively productive stride of my life. The unbelievable scarcity of time quickens my blood, makes every minute precious and unwasted.

It’s a contradiction worthy of a Zen koan: 

Only those without an hour to spare know how much you can do in an hour.

If only there were more spare hours laying around! But, hey, I’m not giving up on doing great creative work in the next decade. So I guess we’ll just have to see.

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I’m the writer Jasper Nighthawk, and this is Lightplay, a newsletter about food, books, and the creative life. (And, I guess, baby.) I bring this up because, being a writer, I went to a writer’s conference last weekend, the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference. They were a great three days: my workshop leader was the brilliant Carvell Wallace, I got to see old writing friends and make some new ones, and, as the cherry on top, Ariel Gore gave the keynote address at the closing banquet. But running through many of the seminars and conversations I took part in was this writing-world concept that what we all really need to do is “Write one line a day” / “Put that butt in that seat” / “Develop a daily writing routine.” And even though there’s clear wisdom there, this concept just chafes me. 

I wrote about this on my blog:

A screenshot of a blog post that reads "The concept that aspiring writers must "write every day" has always ground my
gears, but I could never put my finger on why. Today I realized: it makes it sound like
a chore outside of life, a new routine, fulfilled through will power. When for me the
durable change is to weave writing through life."

Even two months later, this still seems like a galaxy-brain insight to me. Yet everyone I explain it to seems not to get it. So let me try again. The sustainable practice for me has been to make writing the thing that I do. Then when I have a free minute—or when I carve out three free hours—I of course fill it by sitting down and writing. But/and the doing of writing extends beyond pure free time. I’ll be taking a walk around the neighborhood with the baby, and I find myself dictating lines into the phone. Or I’m in the middle of a work meeting when I realize something, and I text myself the idea. Whenever I can, I write.

It works way better than confining my writing self to one monastic hour a day.

I’m not sure if I know how one would go about becoming someone who just wants to write all the time. All I’m saying is that I have managed to make myself into such a person, and this transformation has proven to be much more sustainable and productive and fun than producing writing through willpower alone. For me. 

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Which brings me to today’s main topic—an essay about the way The New York Times uses its “neutral” journalistic tone to advance a really pessimistic view of e-bikes.

This is relevant to the above, because this essay really came straight out of life. I was visiting my mom and step-dad, and my mom told me about how shed’d read an article about teenagers and e-bikes that made them seem really dangerous—like, maybe-they-should-be-banned-for-teenagers levels of dangerous. Which was a surprise to me, because previously the only time any of us had expressed an opinion about e-bikes was in the days after we all rented them and spent an afternoon exploring Salt Spring Island. On that occasion we had all agreed: holy shit are e-bikes fun. 

But now, skepticism and concern.

So I went and read the article myself, and then I immediately went to write my response to it on my blog. At first it was going to be a tweet-length little post. When I found that I couldn’t fit what I wanted to say into 300 characters, I started expanding it into a longer blog post. I worked on it for a few days, and slowly it became a more full essay. So finally decided I’d like to share it here in Lightplay, with you. 

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Brief, mostly-shameless self-promotion before we get to today’s topic:

I’m currently taking on admissions writing clients! This has been my main side-hustle for the last six years: coaching rising seniors as they write their college application essays. I actually really love this work, and I’ve come to believe the feedback that I’m really good at it. My students regularly get into the extremely fancy schools, and even better, they often write later to say our work leveled-up their confidence and abilities as writers. I’ve long found clients through a fancy agency, but this year I’m trying to work freelance more. It’s much cheaper for the client, and at the same time my cut is much higher. So if you know someone who could use these services, please have them get in touch or give me their contact info! For more details, visit nighthawk.studio/tutoring.

Now, onward, to the central essay.

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Copaganda Comes for E-Bikes

I had to chuckle at a headline in the local newspaper two weeks back: “How to Tell if a Prosecution is Political.” It’s a hilarious premise: that there could be such a thing as a legal system devoid of politics, a zone of apolitical arbitration, with the prosecutor as apparatchik, rotely following an algorithm, having neither opinions nor values. 

The article, which was first printed in the New York Times, turned out to concern itself principally with the prosecutions of a certain former president and that of the current president’s son. A better headline would have been “How to Tell if a Prosecution is Corrupt.” 

But it’s crazy how common the idea is that a prosecutor—or a judge, or a journalist—can operate entirely without politics. I’m just calling balls and strikes, they claim. It’s one of the most common brainworms of the last forty years of political life in this country. The truth, however, is that pretending to be apolitical almost always means that the pretender’s politics are simply that of the status quo.

A different article that ran in the New York Times three days later serves as a remarkably good job illustration of exactly this. “‘A Dangerous Combination’: Teenagers’ Accidents Expose E-Bike Risks” pretends to document a rising risk, but by failing to report out the full context of its anecdotes, and by entirely lacking data, it ends up serving the function of protecting the interests of the most valuable (and murderous) status quo in American transportation: the car companies.

Let me walk you through the beginning of the story, so you can see how two anecdotes, presented as sensationalized and at the same time context-free snippets, create a feeling of fear and concern.

The opening anecdote concerns a teenage bicyclist struck and killed while making a left-hand turn—that he used correct hand-signals for—on a public road. The way the article puts it, he was “clipped by a Nissan van and thrown violently.” We learn of this collision from the point of view of the teenager’s mother, and the seventh sentence of the story—and the first quote—is her description in absolutely gory detail (so awful I won’t reprint it here) the experience of holding her son’s mangled body at the hospital after the accident.

Without finishing this story or offering a clear evaluation of why Brodee died, the article pivots to a two-sentence description another collision that, in a bizarre coincidence, occurred three days later in the very same city. In this one, a teenage boy was hospitalized after “the e-bike he was riding collided with a car, leaving him sprawled beneath a BMW, hurt but alive.” (Note again the passive language.)

The article then declares its thesis: “The e-bike industry is booming, but the summer of 2023 has brought sharp questions about how safe e-bikes are, especially for teenagers.” Fair enough! We’ve just read about two horrible collisions involving teens on e-bikes.

Now that the hook and the lede are done, we get a quote from the story’s second source, a cop. He claims that e-bikes are unusually dangerous and says, “The speed they are going is too fast for sidewalks, but it’s too slow to be in traffic.” 

This was the first place my bullshit alarms really got to blaring. Excuse me, but I am quite confident that in the great State of California, bicyclists, even those riding old-fashioned bicycles without a motor assist, have the right to use the road without being crushed! I went and found the passage in the California Driver’s Handbook on sharing the road with bicyclists:

When you cannot change lanes to pass a bicyclist, allow at least three feet between your vehicle and the bicyclist. If you cannot give three feet of space, do not pass the cyclist until three feet of clearance can be given. This will help you avoid putting the bicyclist in danger.

There’s nothing in there about how you can crush a bicyclist if they are “too slow to be in traffic.” Of course!

But the article, which focuses exlusively on anecdotes, is not framed to discuss automobiles as dangerous—or really as anything other than immovable facts of life on our streets. One victim is “clipped by a Nissan van,” another is left “sprawled beneath a BMW, hurt but alive,” and a third “was struck by a van.” In each case, the vehicle is described in this passive way, and the author never considers whether they might bear some responsibility for the collision. 

Nor does the author mention the clear cause of rising fatalities for those being hit by cars: an American car fleet that is rapidly getting heavier and deadlier. Pedestrian deaths from collisions are at a 40-year high. Truck designers are explicitly sayingthat they spend “a lot of time making sure that when you stand in front of this thing it looks like it’s going to come get you… It’s got that pissed-off feel.” The sight-lines in many modern trucks are worse than those offered by an Abrams Tank. To leave that info out of the article and somehow paint e-bikes as the villain rather than the cars, trucks, and SUVs that are crushing them and their riders isn’t journalism, it’s carrying water for the American car industry.

With regards to these kids who died while riding e-bikes, the article nowhere suggests potential solutions that would impact car and truck drivers in any way. Zero mention of proposals to lower speed limits, to regulate cars and trucks to have pedestrian airbags and otherwise be safer to people they impact, to create protected bike lanes (a vanishing rarity in the US), or to increase driver training requirements to ensure drivers are following best practices around sharing the road with bicyclists. The status quo of car culture is treated as sacrosanct, while intensive interventions of dubious effectiveness, like requiring teens to pass an onerous licensing process before riding an e-bike, are presented as reasonable.

The writer does bring up one concern that feels genuine: the existence of e-bikes made by the company Sur-Ron that have a 12mph speed governor that seems designed to be over-ridden, through the clipping of a single exposed wire. Once “jail-broken,” these Sur-Ron e-bikes can reach speeds of 70mph. That seems bad for the riders and also for pedestrians. It seems clear to me—but also to the bike store owners and e-bike advocates quoted—that these e-bikes shouldn’t be available for sale, and generally that e-bikes should be regulated so that such dangerous producents never even go on sale. Yes, literally everyone is saying, this one rogue actor in the e-bike industry is bad. Let’s do something about it.

But the article isn’t interested in nuance and distinctions, favoring instead a wide brush and broad strokes. In the web version, every eight or ten paragraphs the story is interrupted with heartbreaking images of the memorials created by the families of these dead kids. The message comes through clear, from beginning to end: e-bikes are extremely dangerous, and teenagers should not be allowed to ride them.

The story concludes by circling back to the initial mother’s grief and her blaming of e-bikes. The last line—the story’s kicker, the idea it wants to leave readers with—is a quote from her: “They’re treated like bicycles when they’re not. They’re not equal.”

I would never criticize this parent’s grief over her child’s death. But the reporter’s deployment of it feels manipulative, given that just two paragraphs earlier, buried right near the end, we finally learn that her son was in fact following all relevant driving laws when he was killed:

Ms. Champlain said witnesses had told her that her son “did everything right,” including signaling to make a left turn.

It should go without saying that none of the drivers in this story have been arrested, nor cited, nor charged with any crime. 

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If you’re inclined, like I am, to see preserving the status quo as a political choice, it’s hard not to read this as basically a piece of propaganda for the car companies, which are seriously threatened by the rise of e-bikes. Carpaganda, if you will. 

My neologism here is a (very awkward) reference to the term “copaganda,” which describes the collusion of media with police department to disseminate propaganda depicting police in an excessively positive light while obscuring negative qualities and pushing police priorities. I’ve become increasingly aware of the prevalence of copaganda and its insidious functioning by following the work of the lawyer and writer Alec Karakatsinis on his excellent and free email newsletter, “Alec’s Copaganda Newsletter.” Krakatsinis writes that one of the classic functions of copaganda is to encourage us

to focus on crimes committed by the poorest, most vulnerable people in our society and not on bigger threats to our safety caused by people with power.

That’s exactly what I see happening in this article. The incredible rising peril of pedestrian deaths (4,301 in 2010; 7,388 in 2021) and bicycle deaths (623 in 2010; 891 in 2020) is unacknowledged and at best treated as a fact of life we can do nothing about. In fact, nowhere does the author share any statistics; the article is entirely scaffolded around anecdote. At the same time, the article doesn’t even mention the many benefits of e-bikes, from their relatively low cost of ownership to the way they ease urban traffic to their carbon emissions being orders of magnitude lower than both gas-burning cars and electric cars. The author’s strong conclusion, despite this being presented as a straight news article, is that e-bikes are a novel hazard that should be feared, kept away from teens, and heavily regulated. 

Whose interest, we might ask, does that serve? 

I don’t exactly have to wrack my brain to know the answer. I know exactly which mega-corps want to keep our society locked forever in our cars, increasingly afraid to even let our kids walk to school for fear they will be crushed.

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This New York Times piece on e-bikes isn’t copaganda, precisely. Preserving the dominance of cars and trucks on American streets is tied to the status quo, but it isn’t directly tied to the goals of the police state. Yet I do think that the individualistic dream of a car-based society—think of the heroic cop cruiser speeding at 90mph to the scene of a crime—is a key part of the culture of American law enforcement. (I wrote about this culture in my essay “Night/Light”.) The two things are allied. 

At a minimum, this car-promoting propaganda draws from the same playbook as copaganda. And it’s worth noting that this article is part of an ongoing series emphasizing concerns and fears about e-bikes:

A screenshot of a sidebar reading:

More on E-Bikes

• E-Bikes, Explained: As the e-bike industry booms, the number of
accidents involving these vehicles is rising. Here's what to know.
• Dangers for Teens: The growing popularity of e-bikes has prompted
questions about their safety for teenagers, especially since such vehicles
can exceed speed limits and can carry risks for inexperienced drivers.
• Fire Starters: The rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that power e-bikes
have come under scrutiny for their potential to start fires. In New York City,
city leaders are trying to regulate the industry to contain the dangers.
• A Maker Goes Bust: VanMoof's sleek electric bikes attracted fans. But the
Dutch company's demise has left owners unable to get repairs and worried
that app-enabled functions may stop working.

Month after month, New York Times readers are being taught and/or reminded, again and again, that e-bikes are dangerous.

The propaganda value here is strong, but as journalism it doesn’t hold up. The piece is an exposé built on anecdote. A public health story that doggedly refuses to see the larger context of its subject. A crime story that frames the wrong guy. It’s like a story about violence in America that singles out kitchen knives as the big threat.

I will never understand why the leaders of our country’s richest newspaper, with so many brilliant writers and editors on staff, have decided to carry water for the car companies, for the police unions, and generally for the opponents of reform. And what I find most insidious and infuriating is that they pretend to neutrality. 

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That’s a grim note to leave things on, so I’ll add one more link: to Craig Mod’s almost-giddy ode to the e-bike, “Electric Bike, Stupid Love of My Life”. A worthwhile read—and a valuable corrective.

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That’s all for today! Till next time, stay safe out there, and I hope you get where you’re going—whatever mode of conveyance you might choose.

Jasper