We've all seen the O regularly uses its news stories to support and advance the agenda of its editorial positions. But usually the news stories make at least a small genuflection in the direction of journalistic fairness. Today's front-page, two-color-picture, 60+ column-inch article on Measure 48 took the art form of "editorializing disguised as news" to a new level. The story completely dispensed with any pretense of journalism, leaving it front and center as an unabashed advocacy piece.
The point of the article was to tell us how bad off Oregon would be if we passed Measure 48, by recounting the experience of Colorado's "Tabor."
You would expect any such article, if the author was a serious journalist, would do a few things:
1) provide an honest balance of pro and con views as to what happened in Colorado, both good and bad; and 2) explain any substantive differences between Measure 48 and Tabor that might mitigate the supposed negative effects that happened in Colorado.
The article fell laughably short on both fronts. Its sole gesture to "balance" was a three column-inch quote by Governor Owen of Colorado defending Tabor. It went on to spend about 30 inches slamming Tabor for a litany of supposed ill effects.
Nowhere to be found was there any mention of the fact that Colorado, unlike virtually every other state in the nation, did not have a budget crisis during the 2001 recession. There was no mention of the fact that Colorado's rate of economic growth over the time since Tabor was passed far exceeded Oregon's, and that its unemployment rate was and still is quite a bit lower than Oregon's.
None of this is to say that Tabor is the correct way to limit state government growth - but certainly any honest journalistic attempt to use Colorado as a "lesson" for Oregon just might want to mention that there were some positive results to go along with the negative. And it might want to spend a little time quoting folks who could talk about the positive.
An honest piece of journalism trying to draw parallels between Tabor and Measure 48 might also want to explore the differences between the two measures. It might want to ask and answer the question: are these two things really similar enough so that we could reasonably expect what happened in Colorado would also happen in Oregon if voters pass Measure 48?
Far from asking and answering these questions, the Oregonian article seemed to intentionally obfuscate them.
It explained Tabor's "ratchet" effect, which it described (I think correctly) as a design flaw. The "ratchet" in Tabor means that if tax receipts in a recession results in, say, a 5% reduction in the budget, the next budget is based on the prior budget. That was what really sunk Tabor. After the recession of 2001, where the state tightened its belt to survive like every other state, it was prevented from making up the spending when the economy recovered because the next budget was limited to the recession budget level, plus popuflation.
Was this pointed out in the Oregonian article? Not at all. Nowhere was it even mentioned that Measure 48 does not have the same "ratchet." Not even in the sidebar Q & A where one questions was : "What are important differences?"
The truth is, Measure 48 is so different from Tabor in this respect that it actually looks something like a guarantee of state budget growth rather than a spending limit.
Under Measure 48, as the Oregonian did point out, it is spending that is limited, not tax receipts. In Colorado, any receipts over the popuflation limit are sent back to taxpayers. Under Measure 48, the state's spending is limited to popuflation, and if receipts are higher that that, then the money would accumulate in state coffers. (The legislature would decide what to do with the money. It couldn't spend it. Choices are: 1) send it back; and 2) keep it. Any guesses?)
So, Measure 48 would almost certainly immediately result in a large savings fund. The Oregonian says that this savings would be $2 billion right away, after the 2007-09 budget was limited by the measure.
And this is the difference in the "ratchet:" under Measure 48, if we have a recession where receipts are down 5%, the savings account fills in the balance so that the state government grows at the poluflation rate! No ratchet!
Does the Oregonian so much as mention this feature? Nope.
So here we have it: a huge front page article plus an entire interior page devoted to comparing Colorado's Tabor to Measure 48 to see what lessons we can learn, and the most important difference between the measures, a difference that would completely prevent the ill effects the article goes to such lengths to illustrate - is not so much as mentioned in the article!
The author, Betsy Hammond, is new to the political beat. For years she was on the Oregonian's education team, where she wrote many an article that in my opinion had similar glaring biases. I occasionally pointed them out to her and we would get in some fairly heated exchanges.
When I read this kind of article, which is becoming more and more common in the pages of the Oregonian, it doesn't just anger me, but it also saddens me. Every time the Oregonian allows its place in the firmament of Oregon media to be used to so overtly support its editorial agenda, its credibility as an honest broker of information takes another hit.
That is not good for anybody. We need a statewide newspaper that takes seriously its franchise. The Oregonian is not going to lose its virtual monopoly as Oregon's only statewide daily newspaper anytime soon, and even though I find myself on the other side of the Oregonian on many ideological questions, it is important for everybody that it remains a credible source of unbaised information.
It is not in our interest - even though we conservatives disagree with the Oregonian's editorial stances more often than not - that its credibility as an honest broker of news and information completely erodes.
Articles such as this one by Betsy Hammond erode that credibility a great deal. I hope someone at the Oregonian will, for all of our sakes, take an honest look in the mirror.