Earlier this week, the Vanguard evaluated claims by a couple of columnists with the local paper on this issue of Newspapers as the Solution to Fake News. My point in that column was skeptical, believing that newspapers and the mainstream news got a lot wrong in the last election.
There is a letter tomorrow in the local paper that makes a somewhat different point: “Sure, you aren’t going to find the latest political intrigue out of Washington within these pages, but for the most part, we lead our lives on the local level. The Enterprise has the news that affects our lives and builds our community.”
My problem here is that, while there are certain things that the local paper does very well, there are also things that the paper does not do well. My concern is that the public does not really know what they don’t know.
One of my biggest problems has been the lack of coverage of the city’s fiscal crisis. I would like to make a couple of points here. First, the most-read columnist, who is highly influential on a number of issues, has never covered the city’s fiscal problems. I get it – it’s not his bailiwick. But the fact that you have never seen “unfunded liability” in a Bob Dunning column means that a host people in the community are largely unaware of it.
If you recall, back in 2014 when the city was contemplating revenue measures, they polled the public and, at a time when the city was about $5 million in the hole and needing a sales tax, the majority of people polled felt the city’s fiscal position was good or fair.
The public was wrong here, but why were they wrong? Earlier this week, we pondered a lack of leadership by the council, but we can also point to a lack of coverage by the local paper.
Even when the Enterprise has covered the fiscal crisis, it gets bogged down in false equivalency. On November 30, the article noted that the city’s unfunded liabilities are on the rise. This was good – they reported, for the first time, that there is “a $13 million increase in the city’s unfunded liabilities for pensions, jumping from $85.3 million to $98.3 million from 2013 to 2015.”
The article quoted Robb Davis saying “this is a really urgent time we live in and we have the numbers that show that.”
This was good and, for some, undoubtedly the first time they were exposed to the issue. Of course, the unfunded liabilities are just the tip of the iceberg and the infrastructure hit figures to be far larger.
But even within this good reporting comes the specter of “balance” and what we are starting to hear as “false equivalency.”
So, to balance out the article, the paper reports, “City staffers, however, remain optimistic in the face of these challenging numbers.”
“Yes, it’s urgent, but we have a plan that’s going to fund what we can … we’re comfortable,” said assistant city manager Kelly Stachowicz.
The paper reports, “As it currently stands, the city is not only keeping up with its annual required payments into the pension and health benefit funds, but was actually able pay an extra $2 million towards retiree healthcare costs in the 2016-2017 budget.”
“That lump sum helps mitigate some of what we might see,” said city budget manager Kelly Fletcher, comparing it to paying a larger-than-usual mortgage payment.
But is that accurate?
This reporting prompted the Vanguard to do a follow up. What we found was that, while the city may be currently managing the situation, the cost increases will increase burden on the city.
Robb Davis told the Vanguard that “while it is true that we are ‘keeping up’ as things stand currently, the cost of ‘keeping up’ continues to grow and that crowds out funding for other projects our community needs to maintain the level of service citizens expect.
“Something must give,” he says. “Thus, I am less sanguine than our City staff. In fact, it is not clear to me at this point how we are going to cover everything over the next five years, given that we are not even covering critical infrastructure backlogs now.”
He concludes, “I believe we must discuss cost containment—broadly writ—and put a revenue measure before the population in the next two years.”
But this insight is missing from the Enterprise report. In fact, they conclude on a higher note, reporting that “the city is continuing to pursue its financial goals of containing costs, and looking for new sources of revenue.”
The city is looking at hotels and has gotten a fortunate break with the potential redevelopment of Interland, but the article makes no mention of the lost potential with the defeat of Nishi and the loss of potential peripheral innovation centers.
In a subtle way, this is a perfect illustration of the false equivalency phenomena that finally got raised in 2016 with regards to the election.
As Wikipedia points out: “False equivalence is a logical fallacy in which two opposing arguments appear to be logically equivalent when in fact they are not.”
This election cycle, media critics would argue that the media, in the need to “cover both sides” or blame “both sides,” have created a false equivalence between two views or two conducts that are by no means equal.
There is nothing new here. Back in May of 2007, the Vanguard had an article: “When “Fair and Balanced” is Less Accurate.” At the time I wrote, “What I had given considerably more thought to is the ability to write stories as I view the facts rather than at times artificially attempting to create balance out of the express need to adhere to the principle of ‘fair and balanced.’ Unfortunately, I would suggest that such approaches at times lead one to actually bias the coverage.”
That is the problem we see in the recent example – attempting to balance the story, present both sides, actually skews the reporting because there are actually some objective facts that get distorted.
This is particularly concerning in the current local landscape, because the public does not really understand just how bad our fiscal situation is, and until they do, the solutions put forward – whether they be cutting programs, closing pools and parks, raising taxes, or building innovation centers – are not going to gain support unless the public understands the depths of our problems.
The problem is the public doesn’t know what it doesn’t know, and the people with the ability to change that need to start stepping up.
—David M. Greenwald reporting