Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Taking bias to a new level

The Oregonian outdid itself today.

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.


Tom P. said...

Rob- I scanned that article today and didn't really put a lot of thought into it other than having an overall sense that it really wasn't at all fair or complete.

Thanks for putting your finger on exactly how it was biased. Most of us are used to just barely reading this stuff, knowing how biased it is. But I am glad someone is trying to hold them accountable.

Keep it up. For the O to not even mention the "ratchet" difference is indeed a glaring admission of their agenda.


John Eyler said...

You're absolutley right about the importance of the Oregonian maintaining credibility. Also thanks for clearing up some of the unknowns I had on this measure.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for such a clear explanation of precisely how the article was biased. I hope Betsy Hammond reads it. It would be nice if someone from the O would chime in, either to defend this article or to agree it was biased.

Don Smith said...

Rob (et al.):

Send me an email at don.smith@americanhm.com and I'll send you the email exchange I had with Betsy this morning and a spreadsheet I made to illustrate the effects of TABOR vs. M48 vs. our current system.

Anonymous said...

This is the kind of thing that pisses me off about the Oregonian so much. They are LIARS!

RINO WATCH said...

One of the reasons why the subscription was cancelled long ago and the business advertising is nil.

You'd think these knuckleheads would wise up...

Don Smith said...

Boy, was Betsy flamed up over this post. I hope the Board runs something honest about Measure 48. I won't hold my breath.

Anonymous said...

What I noticed was the hammer regarding how badly the roads in Colorado suffered under TABOR. No mention that funds for our roads are NOT tied to the state budget. I too noticed there was NO attempt to try to see how the two measures were different (and they are VERY different) - nope, just doom and gloom if the measure passes here.

I did get a kick out of the residents in Colorado complaining about the roads, the congestion. I though of our roads and how we have congestion ... then I remembered, congestion is what Metro and Sam Adams want - mission accomplished; and without TABOR too, damn we're talented up here in the PNW.

PanchoPdx said...

You hit the nail on the head Rob.

I read that column...er, story, and concluded that Betsy was either devoid of intellectual curiosity or just hellbent on slanting everything.

How could she ignore the fact that Colorado was the last state to go into recession and the first state out of it, while Oregon was entirely the reverse? (first in and last out)

Her editor must have been pissed when she discovered that the Governor of Colorado remains an enthusiastic supporter of Tabor.

Anonymous said...


Let me get this straight. You are supportive of the Oregonian when it endorses your gubenatorial candidate but you are unhappy when a reporter from the Oregonian gives facts. I just don't get that. Oh, and I'm glad you had a chance to play golf for a week during the middle of the school year. Most folks who classify themselves as being in the "education" industry don't often have that luxury.

Anonymous said...

anon 616: you've obviously never heard of the 2-week paid "holiday break" that folks in the "education industry" receive in the middle of the school year. or the one-week paid "spring break." trust me, our education folks are generally fine golfers and usually quite well traveled.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Anon 6:16, the Oregonian supports your candidate for governor, so your scathing comments seem ill-timed, Kremer.

There's something innately grotesque about the term "education industry," at least to my conscience, er ears. At least it honestly reflects your view of your role in education: that you make money off of it. Given that you're not actually part of the public education system, my hunch is that you have much more than two weeks each year "off."

Anonymous said...

as a consumer of public education services - both past and present - i consider myself part of the "industry" or "business" or whatever you want to call it. and of course, every taxpayer in the state pays for the product the education industry turns out, whether they think it's a good product or not, or want the product or not. worse yet, even if we consumers took our business elsewhere, we'd still have to keep paying for the product. that is one hell of a business model - puts wal-mart, microsoft and starbucks to shame, wouldn't you say?

Rob Kremer said...

anon 9:52:

I'm sorry the notion that education is an industry offends your sensibilities. But I don't know what else you would call it. There are unions, facilities, suppliers, vendors - just like any other industry.

And yes, I make money in this industry. I haven't met a lot of people in the industry who do it for free.

And a minor correction - I AM part of the public education system. I am the co-founder of four public schools, and have assisted in the start-up of dozens more.

Finally, I don't see why it is off base to criticise the Oregonians coverage on one issue while agreeing with their editorial position on another. Am I missing something?

Anonymous said...

I would like to challenge your claim to have assisted "dozens" of schools with starting up. You are given to hyperbole, at best. If I am mistaken, then please, list the "dozens" of schools you have helped start.

Anonymous said...

Most of us in this business don't do it for the money. When was the last time you were in the classroom, meeting with parents, helping a student who has concerns about his/her homelife, sat in a staff meeting, helped a student understand a tough math concept, prepare for a parent teacher conference, or write a grant so you could get some material for the classroom since the funds are not always available for necessities?

Being in the classroom is just a bit different than chartering a school.

Rob Kremer said...

Anon 11:14

I have indeed been involved with donzens of new public school startup efforts.

I am co founder of a four school network of Arthur Academies.

I (which includes my field staff) have provided advice, consultation and technical assistance during the approval, start-up, and implementation phaese to many, many others. I'm not going to list them all but I'll list a few from memory here:

City View Charter school
Four Rivers Charter School
Lighthouse School
Lourdes School
MITCH Tigard
MITCH Sherwood
Multisensory Learning Academy
Oregon Connections Academy
Ridgeline Montessori
Sand Ridge Charter School - Lebanon
Sand Ridge Charter School - Albany
SAnd Ridge Charter School - Sweet Home
SEI Academy
Sheridan Japanese School
Three Rivers Charter School
Village School
McCoy Academy

There are others I'm not recalling offhand. Good enough?

Rob Kremer said...

Anon 7:06

I'm not sure what your point is. You don't "do it for the money." OK, but you do get paid, right?

By the same token, I don't "do it for the money," although I do get paid.

Frankly, if it was just about money for me I could make much, much more that I do by being an education activist/entrepreneur. I have a BA in Economics and an MBA, both from the University of Chicago, and I spent 8 years in the investment banking industry in Chicago before moving back to Oregon.

This is not about money for me, either.

Now, the other question you ask is completely irrelevant: "when was the last time I ....."

I'm not a classroom teacher. I could ask you a litany of similar questions (when was the last time you fought like hell with a district bureaucrat who was trying to jack your charter school around?) but what is the point?

You don't pretend to be a charter school activist and I don't pretend to be a classroom teacher.

Your final comment: "Being in the classroom is just a bit different than chartering a school," is also pointless.

Not sure what you are implying by it, although it appears you are trying to stake out some kind of moral high ground.

Ever tried to start a school from scratch? Not to minimize teaching in the slightest, but there are 35,000 licensed teacher in the state, and only a select few of them have the cajones to start their own school. I have been proud to help them.

Anonymous said...

Rob, I didn't count "dozens" on your list. The tiny effort you likely exerted for most of those you listed hardly warrant your "taking credit" for starting them. Why not just be honest and take credit where you truly should, instead of trying to convince people you're responsible for starting most of the charter schools in Oregon?

Rob Kremer said...

Anon 6:21 -
You should read more carefully. I didn't "take credit" for starting the schools I listed. I said, to quote:

"I am the co-founder of four public schools, and have assisted in the start-up of dozens more."

This is 100% true. You, of course, have no idea whether my effort in each of them was "tiny" or "huge." In many of them it was substantial, in some it was a small role. In each of them, I "assisted" just like I wrote.

It is beside the point, anyway. The point being only a few of the 35,000 licensed teachers in Oregon have the guts to start a charter school, and I have been very proud to help the ones that do. They are truly special.

Anonymous said...

Oh Rob,

I don't need to have "guts" or "cajones" to start a charter school. Frankly, taking money away from schools that work (and many of ours do) is not something I would want to do.

How many charter school organizers have the cajones to find ways to help the thousands of students in public school through adequate funding of their classrooms?

Frankly, the folks who complain the most about public schools have yet to teach in them and realize the great things that do happen every day.

You pretty much backed up my arguments in saying that being in the classroom is not the same as chartering a school being pointless. No, Mr. Kremer, your diatribe about Oregon public education is pointless.