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TV Journo Ambushes Race-Biased Cabbies

Washington has found its very own John Quinones.

Tonight, WUSA9 is airing Investigative Reporter Russ Ptacek‘s ambush-style story on cab drivers who decline to drive black customers to the Southeast area.

In a preview of the report, two WUSA9 male staffers, one black, one white, attempt to hail cabs that will drive them to Alabama Ave. in Southeast. The black subject is turned down. The driver’s reason: The last time he took someone Southeast, he was stiffed. Less than a block up the street, the white subject asks the same driver to be taken to roughly the same area. The driver agrees.

That’s when a calm and cool Ptacek enters the frame wearing a black suit, shoving a handheld mic through the passenger window to ask the driver why he didn’t pick up the black man. After some awkward back-and-forth, the driver, in a thick accent, tells Ptacek that he didn’t even notice the white guy was actually white. “You didn’t see that he was white?” Ptacek asks incredulously. (Sounds like another investigative piece: How many blind cab drivers are really working the streets?)

We asked Ptacek about ambushing cabbies…

FBDC: What was the strangest response you got from a cab driver when you confronted them?
RP: The most troubling for me, and many who viewed the video of the cabbie who refused a black guy, but picked up a white guy for the same destination? The driver was black.

FBDC: Did you ever worry a cab driver might run you over or threaten you in some way after you confronted them?
RP: I’ve had a gun pulled on me, been repeatedly rammed by a guy in an electric wheelchair, and threatened a lot. These cabbies, actually, were some of the least menacing investigative targets I’ve run into.

FBDC: It looks like you were inspired to do the story by people on Twitter.
RP:
A [WaPo] column originally drew me to the issue. Then a City Council member said she would coordinate a test with us, but cancelled. We decided to do it on our own.

FBDC: On Twitter, were they followers of yours who had been alerting you?
RP: You can take a look at my Tweet thread and Facebook pages. It is amazing to me how many people described these real life problems right in the heart of democracy. The irony stunned me. We decided to test to see whether it was urban myth or urban reality.

FBDC: Had you heard about this problem of racial profiling among cab drivers before or is it fairly new to you?
RP: I knew about WUSA9’s landmark investigation on the subject in the ’90s and had seen copycat stories on network and local shows over the years. We wanted to see if the problem still existed. It does.

FBDC: How many cabs did you test in all? And how many declined to take the black man to Southeast?
RP: We tested 40 cabs in all. We’ll be releasing our results tonight at 11 p.m. I’ll tell you now, the vast majority of cabs did agree to take our black passenger to his requested Southeast location. That’s the good news compared to WUSA9’s Bruce Johnson test of the ’90s. The problem is that all our tests were in broad daylight. My Twitter followers are telling me the problem is at its worst at night, especially when service industry people are getting off work and need to get home.

See more previews of Ptacek’s piece here and here.

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