Sometimes the state of journalism in this country today is enough to make someone who has spent a life in the business want to cry.
“Some (the ‘some’ was a story here days ago) have suggested that if Alaskans are given $3,000 Permanent Fund dividend checks, they might contribute at high levels through Pick.Click.Give, a program that allows people to pick individual organizations and donate part of their checks. (Rasmuson Foundation president and CEO)Kaplan said that Pick.Click.Give generates $2.7 million, which is spread among 628 organizations.
“‘To make up for the cuts, every Alaskan, including children and babies, would have to donate their entire PFD,” she said.”
- 2017, 633,005
- 2016; 638,178
- 2015, 641,561
- 2014, 637,289
- 2013, 634,366
As is obvious, PFD payments have fallen as the state’s long recession has shrunk the population. The 2017 payments were less than 2013, and it is possible 2018 could be even less than in 2017.
The biggest drop in PFD history – almost 14,000 checks – came between 1985 and 1986 when Alaska was in the heart of another recession. With the Alaska economy now stabilizing, although not improving, there is no reason to believe that will happen this year, but let’s say it does.
A 14,000 drop in PFD payouts from 2017 to 2018 would equal 619,000 checks.
Here’s the math that translates that into dollars: 619,000 X $3,000 = $1.857 billion.
The number for Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget vetoes has ranged from “approximately $400 million,” the governor’s official statement, to the ADN’s leading estimate to date of $444 million.
No one, not even Dunleavy’s harshest critics, has suggested a cut anywhere near $1 billion, let alone $1.857 billion.
A $444 million cut is about a quarter of $1.857 billion or just shy of 24 percent, depending on how you look at the numbers.
Old journalism’s job
The idea of “children and babies” being asked to donate their dividends to close the budget gap is pretty dramatic. It is also nonsense.
The U.S. Census puts the number of Alaskans under age 18 at 24.9 percent. All their PFDs combined would thus amount to something near $444 million.
Remove their PFD’s from the discussion, and the pool of money left over is $1.413 billion. To cover the budget gap, a little more 32 percent of Alaskans would need to sign their PFDs back to the state.
Kaplan made an outrageous and false claim so easily documentable that it should be immediately obvious to anyone the least bit familiar with the numbers. And there is nothing wrong with her doing that. It is to be expected.
She is an advocate. Her sound bites are shaped to sell the story she wants to sell. We should all be familiar with this now. President Donald Trump has rendered normal the practice of tossing out whatever numbers come into his head that he believes will support his positions.
The national media, in turn, has made a cause of tracking his falsehoods. As of May, the Washington Post Fact Checker claimed more than 10,000 fibs, fabrications, falsifications, fictions, untruths, inventions, lies, cock-and-bull tales, trumped-up stories, or call them what you will.
Fact-checking everyone – both the people with whom you disagree and most especially the people with whom you agree – was the bedrock of modern journalism.
For people wondering how much things have changed, the Kaplin quote is an example. It would never have made it past the late Marc Salgado, one of the last, old-school editors at the ADN. Salgado would have said simply, “We can’t say this.”
And if a reporter had tried to argue, Salgado would have explained in crusty way why: A.) The math doesn’t work; B.) Given that the math doesn’t work, it makes the newspaper look to be helping push an agenda.
It’s possible neither matters anymore. Increasingly the country appears head back toward the so-called “party press” of the 19th Century.
Back then, “news” was pretty much synonymous with “propaganda.” It was written to “convert the doubters, recover the wavering, and hold the committed,” as the historian William E. Gienapp observed. “‘The power of the press,’ one journalist candidly explained, ‘consists not in its logic or eloquence, but in its ability to manufacture facts, or to give coloring to facts that have occurred.'”
Change came slowly.
In a speech at the start of this decade, James L. Baughman, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who helped establish The Center for Journalism Ethics, observed that so-called “modern journalism” didn’t become widespread until the 1950s when “most newspapers, large and small, as well as the broadcast networks, tried to present the news objectivity. What factors, in effect, closed the deal? The relative neutrality of broadcast journalists was explained in large measure by federal regulations that all but mandated fairness. But there are other explanations as to why our national news culture, whether print or broadcast, preferred the middle ground.
“The middle ground was more populated. By that I mean that partisanship in the 1950s was less intense. This was in some degree because the Cold War had created a consensus on foreign policy, and much of the Republican party had accepted the outlines of the welfare state created in the 1930s. Even Robert A. Taft, the Republican Senate leader detractors said had the best 19th century mind in the upper chamber, favored federal housing programs.
”’Old Party divisions are less meaningful,’ wrote one Fortune magazine writer in 1960. “American political debate is increasingly conducted in a bland, even-tempered atmosphere and extremists of any kind are becoming rare.”
Oh, how the times have changed. Baughman died in 2016 at the age of 64. The mainstream journalism that thought it could hold the middle ground is fading fast. And the partisan divisions are huge both in politics and increasingly in the media.
Former CBS chief foreign affairs correspondent Lara Logan caused a stir earlier this year when she broke ranks to accuse what is left of the mainstream of liberal bias, but she was only reflecting what a significant part of America believes.
The Pew Research Center for Journalism and Media last fall found that more than two in three Americans consider the media slanted and a staggering 88 percent of Republicans/conservatives think the old media untrustworthy.
In Alaska, the ADN and the upstart, online publication MustReadAlaska, an admittedly right-slanted entity, look more and more like direct competitors, and the ADN’s behavior isn’t doing a thing to help undercut that perception.
Ignore why or why not ADN reported Kaplan’s outrageous claim as fact. It is possible reporters and editors who share her views on budget cuts wanted to dramatize the inability of charity to cover the veto-gap and willingly embraced an exaggeration of Trumpian proportions. It is equally possible the reporter and editor or editors were mathematically asleep at the switch.
Or they might simply have been engaging in the new practice of journalism as stenography. If someone tells you something, it is “their reality,” and you unquestioningly report it no matter how it muddies the real world of facts. This is especially true if the quote sounds juicy.
The problem is that none of these excuses make the situation better. What the mainstream media sold for a long time – the mainstream “product,” so to speak – was accurate coverage of the numbers. Stories might have sometimes ended up slanted by the nature of information left out, but the profession held to a pretty high standard as to the information put in a story.
It was supposed to be defensible. If the news told you something happened in the dark of night, you could count on the absence of daylight. That is no longer always the case. A lot of slop has crept in.
And a lot of the slop, whether by accident or design, presents a picture of a media heading back toward the days of the party press. The ADN has always been accused of a liberal bias, and there are those who would argue the news organization should embrace that image.
Why? Because the data show that Democrats are more likely to subscribe to a newspaper or pay to access a website. And most news consumers want the news to reflect their world view. This has had some arguing for a while now that the salvation of news might be to go back to the future.
Early American “journalism was hyper-political and deeply biased. But some historians believe that it was also more engaging,” Derek Thompson of The Atlantic observed in December. “The number of newspapers in the United States grew from several dozen in the late 1700s to more than 1,200 in the 1830s. These newspapers experimented with a variety of journalistic styles and appeals to the public. As Gerald J. Baldasty, a professor at the University of Washington, has argued, these newspapers treated readers as a group to engage and galvanize. Perhaps as a result, voting rates soared in the middle of the 19th century to record highs.”
Thompson argues the days are gone when Americans can agree on a “single set of facts” around which to base public policy debates.
“That past is dead and irrecoverable,” he wrote. “We’ve accelerated backward, as if in a time machine, whizzing past the flush 20th century to a more distant, more anxious, and, just maybe, more exciting past that is also the future.”
As someone trained more as a scientist than a journalist, as someone who entered the journalism business when facts mattered, this is a scary prospect. It is pretty hard to have a sensible discussion of public policy when one side of the debate believes the budget cut equals $444 million and the other side wants everyone to believe it equals $1.857 billion.
For the record here, I admit to being hugely skeptical that Alaskans would give back $444 million in PFDs if asked to bail out the state no matter the numbers. We are a generation of greed not just at the corporate level but at many levels. The trickle down has infected most everyone.
From top to bottom and bottom to top, people do their best to take advantage of the system. Yes, that is a negative view of Americans in these times, but it is also a realistic one. This website is funded to some degree by contributions. The ratio of contributors to readers is tiny. Absolutely tiny.
It’s not a complaint. It’s a reality. I’m somewhat amazed anyone contributes. That altruism still exists comes as a pleasant surprise in an all-about-me time when some would consider others foolish to pay for what they can get for free.
Much of the print media understands the latter all too well. Led by The New York Times, their reaction to has been to throw up paywalls on the internet to force people to pay for news. It seems a sad act by businesses claiming to operate in the “public interest.”
And this is another part of Thompson’s argument for why a return to the partisan press would be better.
“As the news business shifts back from advertisers to patrons and readers (that is to say, subscribers), journalism might escape that ‘view from nowhere’ purgatory and speak straightforwardly about the world in a way that might have seemed presumptuous in a mid-century newspaper,” he wrote. “Journalism could be more political again, but also more engaging again.”
As someone who long believed journalism could be engaging and still get the numbers right, as a believer that journalism could focus public discussion on facts at least as much as emotion, that observation is troubling if for no other reason than that it fuels the nation’s political leader of the moment and increasingly appears to fuel his opponents.
“There’s a reason why, in the crucial battle for the legitimacy of a free press, Trump is still on the offensive,” Andrew Sullivan observed in New York Magazine in January. “Our mainstream press has been poisoned by tribalism. My own trust in it is eroding. I’m far from the only one.”
I share Sullivan’s views and fear the history of all of this. The debate in the partisan press might have been more entertaining than the news of the 1950s, but it wasn’t very productive.
“….America survived the fiercely partisan press of the 19th century,” Baughman observed. “But just barely. The robustness of political engagement then could not prevent the Civil War….”
Sometimes it almost seems like we’re trying to work our way into another of those with media the biggest cheerleader.