Alaska journalism is enjoying a good, old-fashioned, coming-out party as the mainstream media loses all pretense of objectivity under the crushing weight of the internet.
Kevin Baird, a former legislative reporter at the Juneau Empire and before that the opinion page editor at the conservative Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, is the latest to free himself from the shackles of journalism’s staid, old rules and confess to his experiences as a frustrated, closeted liberal watching Gov. Mike Dunleavy try to yank the 49th state into line with fiscal reality.
“Mr. Dunleavy, you ran on a campaign slogan of ‘Standing Tall for Alaskans,’ but what you’re proposing to do is take a shit on them,” Baird writes in an AlaskaLandmine commentary from his new home in Portland.
It is the same commentary in which he later observes:
“Journalists get a lot of bullshit criticism based off reader assumptions or readers being blinded by their own bias (Yes, you can read your own bias into a completely neutral story. Think about that!). As frustration with the Dunleavy administration and this legislative session grows, I’ve seen important discussions on Alaska Twitter about journalism, its quality, its purpose, people’s frustrations with the media – journalism in Alaska is being critiqued. Good. Journalism must improve.”
The logical disconnect is positively Bunyanesque.
After offering his journalistic opinion that the governor of the state of Alaska wants to “shit on” Alaskans, Baird offers his journalistic opinion that any opinions readers might have in the past formed as to the author’s biases are “bullshit criticism” based on “reader assumptions” or “readers being blinded by their own bias.”
Readers are wrong
Of course it’s the reader’s fault if he or she concludes Baird’s view of Dunleavy as scum might in some way influence Baird’s reporting on Dunleavy and the Dunleavy administration.
Or maybe Baird just doesn’t understand the words he’s typing into the tubes. He isn’t identifying himself as some journalist who thinks Dunleavy’s solution to fixing the state’s fiscal problem by reducing expenses as opposed to raising revenues (ie. taxes) is misguided.
Oh no. We’re talking about someone who thinks the governor wants “to shit” on Alaskans, an observation that is on its face absurd.
The one thing politicians want is to be popular enough to get re-elected, and nobody ever got re-elected by shitting on his or her constituency. Dunleavy’s plan to balance the state budget by reducing state spending might be the wrong approach, but the governor clearly thinks it is a view supported by most Alaskans voters.
Dunleavy has actually gone beyond proposed budget cuts in this regard to propose Constitutional amendments that would allow Alaska voters to lock in place spending constraints.
To underline just how bizarre the reporting on this has all become, former Alaska Dispatch News and former Fairbanks News-Miner reporter Dermot Cole, who gets a shout out in Baird’s commentary as a fellow traveler, has labeled Dunleavy’s call for a vote of the people part of a conspiracy of “backroom deals.”
Proposing a vote of the people on anything so sensitive as state spending is clearly criminal. No real American politician (or apparently journalist) would want the idiot peasantry involved in trying to help determine how the state is run.
The idiot peasants, in Baird’s view, don’t even understand it’s their responsibility to support the media.
“There’s this sense of entitlement among news consumers who feel that news must be free,” Baird writes. “That is infuriating. During a fairly recent conversation at the Triangle Club Bar in Juneau, a man told me news should be free. He scoffed at the idea of paying for a newspaper subscription. I asked this man what line of work he is in. He said he was a helicopter pilot. I asked him how successful his business would be if patrons demanded free helicopter rides simply because they were entitled to free rides.”
Again we enter the land of logical disconnects.
People pay for things because they think the service, as in the case of a helicopter ride, or the product, in the case of a newspaper, has value. People are reluctant to pay for newspapers these days for a variety of reasons: they don’t think the product has much value; they can get an equal or near equal product from television and/or radio websites for free; and/or they do indeed recognize that to a certain extent news has always been free.
You can get it from the guy on the next stool over at the Triangle on any given day if you want. And in the Age of the Internet, you can get a virtual stream of it free from government.
Click here and you can sign up for the Anchorage Police Department’s Nixle feed and read for free in non-rewritten versions a third to a half of the stories that will be featured in the Anchorage news later today or tomorrow.
If Baird had a better sense of how markets work, maybe he’d be pondering why government is paying former journalists more money than Baird ever made as an Alaskan journalist to act as government journalists providing the kind of information private sector journalists once provided.
But today’s journalist are so attached to protecting the jobs of their friends in government that this sort of idea wouldn’t even enter the thought process. Today’s journalists identify with government employees as fellow travelers on the path to a better society.
The reality is foggier. Alaska is lucky in that most state employees are intelligent, hard-working, dedicated public servants, but there are some misfits in the bunch, too.
Some folks in state government are about as useful as the guy two stools over at the Triangle who shows up there ever day at 2 p.m. to share the “news.” It might not be very accurate, and it’s almost certain to come with bias, but it is news.
Plus, it is free, and we are nearing a point where its accuracy might be approaching that of a lot of other news.
Snopes, the “fact checking” website, just published a glowing fact check, if one can call it that, of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., written by a journalist whose claim to fame is that he started the website Social News Daily.
The valuable journalism appearing on Social News Daily today? “Lady Is ‘Exhausted’ After Engaging In 7 One Night Stands In A Week.” “6 Marriages Destroyed by Trump Presidency.” “Scientists Discover Penis-Shaped Clam Which Loves Nothing But Wood.” “Former Cop Claims to Have Seen Photographic Evidence That Elvis Faked His Death.”
Wait. The latter is a “news” story when it’s so old? Who didn’t know Elvis abandoned rock and roll to become a street-preacher in the South and is still at it now at the age of 84?
Or something like that.
One must concede some of the so-called journalists pissing all over journalism these days at least make for jolly good fun at times. Maybe the Onion or National Lampoon could start its own online “fact checking” service.
The internet could use more humor. Journalists who have endlessly denied liberal bias only to come out as flaming liberals are not funny. They are just adding more train cars to the smoldering heap of a train wreck of journalism.
Baird’s name calling in this case is the least of it. I have no problem with him calling Dunleavy names other than the damage name-calling – the cheapest and easiest of behavior – does to the idea that journalism is more about reason than emotion.
Children engage in name calling because they are not yet fully developed intellectually. Adults should be able to do better, but what the hell, there are some journo types who’ve built their Alaska careers on name-calling, and being called names pretty much goes hand in hand with being a pol.
“You can please some of the people all of the time; you can please all of the people some of the time; but you can’t please all of the people all of the time,” as the English poet John Lydgate observed several hundred years before President Abraham Lincoln appropriated the phrase, or didn’t, and twisted it a little by changing please to fool.
My personal view on politicians is this: I’ve really never met one I didn’t like on a personal level (Dunleavy included) and I’ve really never met one I’d trust because they can’t be trusted. They are invariably in the business of getting re-elected, and that entails sniffing the way the political winds are blowing and, all too often, trading principle for votes only to rationalize it all away after with the comfortable observation that it’s hard to fix the system if voted out of office.
So what is truly troubling about Baird’s commentary is not what he says about Dunleavy, but what he says about the bureaucracy. He has a huge bias there and doesn’t even seem to understand.
Jobs for life
Baird’s interest clearly isn’t about what is good for Alaska. It is about what is good for his friends in the bureaucracy and their constituencies:
“Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget has instilled fear among state employees, teachers, and university staff as they stare at the prospect of unemployment….Mr. Dunleavy’s proposal to privatize and limit the services of the Alaska Marine Highway System has many Alaskans in coastal communities wondering if they will be left stranded. Seniors worry about their future in the Pioneer homes. Others worry about Alaska’s future as Dunleavy buries his head in the thawing permafrost and ignores climate change. The list could go on.
“Since Dunleavy and many in his administration do not seem to give a damn about the people who will lose their jobs as a direct result of Dunleavy’s budget, I have an idea….My proposal is for Alaska’s Senate or House Finance Committees. I want to see the creation of a finance subcommittee on Thoughts and Prayers Assistance, or TAPASS. The purpose of this TAPASS subcommittee would be to comb through the budget bill and find each provision that would result in a job loss or cut needed services. The TAPASS subcommittee’s next task would be to add amendments to the budget bill containing language that assures those soon-to-be-unemployed Alaskans, or other effected(sic) Alaskans, that the Dunleavy administration’s thoughts and prayers are being sent to those people. I’m sure it will alleviate their pain.”
And there you have a near perfect definition of the Nanny State, the place where government exists not just to provide vital services and give people a hand up when they really need it, but to take care of everyone all of the time.
It’s a great and wonderful idea in theory. On a global level, it has historically failed again and again, and the human suffering, not to mention deaths, associated with the failures have often been great.
America has been lucky in the latter regard in that at least at state levels, government bureaucracies that grew too big merely imploded as California’s did a decade ago.
The results were not pretty. “Government job cuts ravage California,” the Los Angeles Times headlined in 2010.
“Weighed down by a struggling economy, government agencies in California shed 37,300 workers last month — more jobs than were lost in the private sector — as cities and counties made their biggest payroll cutbacks since at least 1990,” the Times reported.
“What’s more, analysts see more job cuts ahead as California faces an estimated $10-billion shortfall in the state budget that the next governor must address. Cities and counties, meanwhile, are still struggling with tepid sales and property tax revenue.”
California put about 9,000 more people out of work than are employed by all of state and local government in Alaska today. California had little choice. The state was out of money.
Alaska is far better off. It’s sitting on about $1.7 billion in the Constitutional Budget Reserve Fund, and another $19 billion in the Permanent Fund Earnings Reserve along with $47 billion tucked away as principal.
The governor’s Office of Management and Budget concedes the California-scenario remains a distant threat here.
“An alternative to addressing the fiscal issues currently facing the state is to simply ignore them and hope they solve themselves,” says the State of Alaska Fiscal Plan for FY-20 – FY-2029. “While it is possible for oil prices to increase, or (Permanent Fund) investment returns to beat projections, hoping for those outcomes cannot be considered a plan.
“This scenario completely depletes all savings balances by FY28, due to overdrawing the Earnings Reserve. As a result, only the principal of the Permanent Fund balance remains, and its balance is limited to just $63 billion at the end of the 10-year period. With no accessible savings, this scenario leaves few options and fewer assets for future Alaskans.
“Taxes or budget cuts would still be required, but the conversation would just be delayed for a decade. The short-term benefits are highest in this scenario, as no money is removed from the current economy, and PFDs are greater than in FY19. As a result, total household income in FY20 increases by about $1.3 billion, and no subtractive impacts are felt by the current economy.”
Huh, I’d be happy if I had $63 in my bank account today let alone $63 left by 2028. And growing household incomes and an intact economy don’t sound so bad.
If you’re old, like me, this scenario actually looks pretty good. I’ll be 75 in 2028. It might be a good time to think about giving up on the state, as nearly all the old timers once did, and retiring to some place warmer with a lower cost-of-living.
There’s no good reason I can see to change things now, but it appears Dunleavy wants to be a troublemaker.
“The Governor does not believe it is just to saddle future generations with the questionable fiscal decisions of today,” OMB says. “Therefore, he does not support this scenario.”
Grab the machete
Instead, he wants to slash the budget down to what the state can afford to pay without tapping into savings, an idea that is either noble or insane.
More often than not, massive budget cuts come back to haunt governors as they did Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, once a rising star in national politics. Slate attributed Walker’s demise to budget cuts for education and the University of Wisconsin, the same kind of cuts Dunleavy has proposed in Alaska.
Obviously, Dunleavy is playing with political dynamite. It could be he’s doing so out of stupidity or a desire for self-immolation. It is, however, more likely a calculated conclusion that a majority of Alaskans share his view that Alaska government is too big.
What he thinks a majority might well be a minority. People, in general, don’t like giving up anything government has been giving them from road maintenance to Permanent Fund dividends to regular state ferry service in Southeast Alaska that has never made economic sense.
But even if Dunleavy’s constituency for budget cuts is a minority, it no doubt constitutes tens of thousands of Alaskans, probably hundreds of thousands of Alaskans, and what do they all think when a former journo who has run away to the liberal enclave of Portland observes that the governor is only proposing budget cuts because he wants to “take a shit” on them?
Do they think, “OK, now there’s a guy we can trust for an objective assessment of the pros and cons of budget reductions?”
Do they think, “Yeah, the media doesn’t have a liberal bias. Clearly we’re just reading this into the news?”
Do they rush out to buy newspapers thinking those are going to give them a fair assessment of the pluses and minuses of cutting the budget versus somehow raising taxes to cover the deficit or the many options in between because journalists can be trusted to at least try to be objective?
No, they think the obvious. They think journalism has turned to shit. They think journalism has been overrun by people more interested in opinions than facts, and if you wants opinions you can get those for free at the Triangle or in any other bar in Alaska.
The facts here are pretty simple:
Dunleavy wants to cut the budget. There are costs and benefits associated with cuts.
The last governor and the Legislature agreed to use some of the earnings of the Permanent Fund, thus reducing the beloved Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD), to fix the budget. There were benefits associated with that plan and a cost – smaller PFDs – a lot of Alaskans didn’t like.
Some legislators now want to raise taxes in various ways to fund the deficit instead of shrinking the budget. There are costs and benefits associated with taxes, too.
Journalists, even closeted liberal ones, used to at least make a good faith effort to lay out the costs and benefits on a broad scale in the interest of an informed democracy. Granted a lot of people ignored those stories. Numbers are boring unless you’re an accountant.
But numbers at some point cannot be ignored.
What Dunleavy has done – whether Alaskans like it or not – is outline a budget that faces the reality that the days of riding on the back of the oil industry are over because oil prices just aren’t what they were in the days before technological advances and high prices combined to spur a U.S. oil boom.
Oil prices that punched above $150 per barrel in 2008 took a beating from the old law of supply and demand. As supply exceeded demand, prices began falling and falling and falling. Oil is today hovering near $65 a barrel, and the forecast is that it will stay near that price for the forseeable future.
Even if Alaska can generate more revenue with taxes, and there are lots of taxes options, some cuts in the state budget are probably still necessary. To try to understand this issue, you almost need to ignore the traditional media – the kind for which Baird worked – and go elsewhere.
Alaskans for Sustainable Budgets has been talking about the state’s budget problem for a longtime now. It leans toward imposing a flat-rate income tax to close the deficit while maintaining maximum PFDs, but it backs its argument with plenty of numbers.
The Alaska Policy Forum is more in line with the Dunleavy philosophy of “right sizing government,” a definition hard to explain, but largely makes its argument with numbers as well. If you want to know who the high-paid government employees are, you will find them listed there.
The condensed version
And if you just want a short, solid, snapshot view of the essence of the problem, Larry Persily – a former journalist, a former Deputy Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Revenue and the new Atwood Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska – summed things up well in an old-style, journalistic way for the Juneau Empire in February.
Here’s the crux of it:
“The Alaska Department of Revenue in December forecast approximately $5.2 billion in unrestricted general fund dollars for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Of that, about 58 percent would be the annual draw on Permanent Fund earnings, as established by legislators last year. Almost 33 percent would be oil revenues. Coming in at a trickle would be 9 percent from all other taxes in total collected from businesses and individuals fortunate enough to live in a state that equates taxes to the plague.”
Persily didn’t rant, didn’t rave and didn’t accuse anyone of shitting on anyone. He did what journalists once tried to do: define the problem.
It’s a pretty simple problem. The state either needs more money or fewer people.
Each new immigrant to Alaska makes the state’s revenue problem worse. Even those who use only minimal services, cost the state the money. Those who use more services – welfare, Medicaid, food stamps – cost the state a lot.
Just firing a bunch of state employees and watching them leave would help with the fiscal problem. Along those lines, Alaskans should thank Baird for leaving. Bye, bye. Enjoy Portland.
Others who left before him actually helped the state’s revenue picture. It would help if even more left. The state is generating enough revenue that it could support the Alaska population circa 1987.
The problem is that more than three of every 10 of your neighbors would have to leave to reduce the population by that much. Alaska has a problem. It can figure out a solution now or wait until it has even fewer options and fewer choices.
Whether you agree with Dunleavy or disagree with him, he deserves credit for making Alaskans at least, at last, face their collective problem. And on a fundamental, human level, he’s morally right in the contention that a failure to act soon – no matter what action is taken to fix the problem – saddles future generations with the cost of the state’s past largesse.
Or maybe he just cooked up a really crafty, secret plot to get Baird and others to add to the shit heap that is increasingly burying journalism.
Correction: In an early version of this story, principle and principal were misused in two places.