Tuesday, June 06, 2006

A Particularly Low Moment in Local Journalism

I refused to admit it to myself, but I knew that Nagin had the election sewn up the night before the run-off. When the panel on Informed Sources informed me that Nagin was the better candidate and that Landrieu appeared uninformed and unprepared for office, I knew that it was over. Well, those weren't the exact words. In addition to the usual cohosts Larry Lorenz and Errol Laborde, Norman Robinson and a fourth panelist (sorry can't remember who, and transcripts not available) were on. In a discussion of the debates they all said that Landrieu seem unprepared and they all chuckled over the fact that he even admitted that he didn't know what shape the city's finances were in. Frankly, at that point I was mad at Landrieu, thinking that if even these esteemed journalists didn't know the reason for that, Landrieu had done a poor job indeed of explaining that nobody could possibly be informed about the city's finances because Nagin refused to provide information (certainly documented information) about the city's finances. However, the discussion rapidly reached a level of utter clowning that Bob Somerby couldn't begin to describe. Remember the panel consisted of four of the city's top political reporters, including a journalism professor who considers his task, well:

His job, his niche, is asking the reporters why the hard questions are going either unanswered or – even worse – unasked.

I suppose the professor is just more interested in underlying philosophical questions than questions about factual details. One of the panelists did explain that Landrieu offered the excuse that he was uninformed about the city's financial condition because Nagin refused to share the necessary information. However, they all chuckled in agreement that Landrieu's excuse was a lame one, because, as Norman Robinson pointed out, if BGR was able to gain access to the city financial figure, so Landrieu should have been able to.

That four of the city's top journalist could be that uninformed shouldn't be overly surprisingly, that they should all be too lazy to look at the BGR report shouldn't be surprisingly, that contemporary journalists should reduce a factually resolvable dispute into a he said/she said issue shouldn't be at all surprising. But that all four would reach the same incorrect conclusion from uninformed speculation and decide to laugh at the candidate that the facts actually backed is just, I was going to say inconceivable, unfortunately it's not.

To begin, one can only wonder whether any of the four actually watched the debates. Didn't any of them hear Nagin say that the BGR went on estimates, that they had no idea what the city's financial condition was, that only he (Nagin) did? Did they even bother to read the BGR/PAR report? If so, they must have found out that Nagin was honest about one thing, the BGR didn't "know" what the city's financial situation was, the report was based on estimates, projections and unaudited figures.

In retrospect, that exchange probably illustrates why it would have been almost impossible for Landrieu to win. If even the city's most informed political commentators refused to listen when Landrieu made his points in a polite manner, I don't know how Landrieu could have made his points without being accused of being the mud slinger in the race. That carried over to Nagin's insinuations about Landrieu's campaign financing. In that regard, Nagin may have executed a sort of boiled frog strategy beautifully, but he had more than a little help from the media. Every time Nagin turned up the heat, some commentator remarked on the remarkably cool water temperature. This actually continued into the last week of the campaign, when Nagin ran an endless barrage of commercials suggesting that Landrieu must be crooked to have the money to air so many commercials. I have no idea whether individual journalists were useful idiots or willing accomplices, but I wouldn't rule out the latter in every case. Had Landrieu elbowed back as Jeffrey, I'm not sure who else and I advocated in real time (while we saw what wahappeningng), he'd have probably been subject to a real media lynch mob. Of course, he had to do something.

The above was intended as a two paragraph intro into the subject of whether we should expect better second term coverage than election coverage from the local press--I suppose that we all tend to vent on certain subjects. With the exception of Sunday's Picayune--which I'll get to-- the answer would appear to be an emphatic no.

I've already made fun of Jarvis DeBerry's and Stephanie Grace's entries into the "Ray Nagin is the coolest thing since crushed ice" essay contest, but let's face it, with serious Nagin criticism apparently off the table, all three of the paper's main op-ed writers seem to be writing about less important topics than they might otherwise be.

More importantly, other than the previously mentioned exception, I've seen very little in the T/P (or on TV) to help me follow the advice in a recent editorial:

When a plan carries a high price tag and many complex parts, citizens need to study it carefully.

Until Sunday's article (by a business writer) I had none of the information needed to "study it carefully." Though the article left out, or underplayed, some important details, it was a major step in the right direction. Almost enough to make you wish that the T/P would throw a business writer in with political reporters and commentators next time we have an election. For one thing, since so much of the public financing involves "TIF's," i would have liked a little more explanation of the mechanism. Fortunately, since I'm not a paid political analyst or one of the merry panelists on Informed Sources, I knew where to look for more information. I'm sure that anyone reading this blog also knows, but I'll save you a step (or a somewhat better link). For some negative views on TIF's, click here or here. I wouldn't be alarmist about the TIF concept, but I would want specific details on how large an area around the development will be in the TIF district, how long the tax revenues will be dedicated and a few other matters.

The reporter, Rebecca Mowbry, did express a healthy skepticism about most of the details of the project, but I was amazed at how little she expanded on one particular paragraph:

Portions of the money are an opportunity born of disaster. The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers financing to replace those irreparably damaged in the storm, FEMA spokesman Ross Fredenburg said. Through June 30, the federal government would pay for 90 percent of the damage caused by storms to public buildings; the federal participation drops to 75 percent next month
.
As there will probably be strong pressure to commit to the project by the end of the month, a little more information on what those details could mean might be advisable. As Adrastos pointed out:

They're nuts; of course, we already knew that. FEMA will ONLY foot the bill to replace or renovate buildings "irreparably" damaged during the storm: they've already declined to pitch in big bucks to replace Big Charity, which sustained more damage than the buildings involved in this project. Optimism can only take you so far: they need to drink some coffee and sober up.

I understand that it's not the reporter's job to advocate one way or another, but an informed estimate as to the likelihood of FEMA reimbursement (before the city's commits) wouldn't be advocacy.

Finally, this wouldn't be a Moldy City post if I didn't ask a few questions of my own. Will the complex have bombproof garbage cans? Will Billboard Ben have a say in the new complex's plumbing contract?

Comments:
After spending hours on the phone last year trying to correct some misprinted statistics that were written right there on the press release I faxed to them in the first place, I'm hardly surprised at the laziness (or in some cases, perhaps, outright ignorance) of some local journalists.

However, I think this is a problem is not exclusive to the New Orleans area. Just read "Lapdogs" or "Watchdogs of Democracy?" for some other examples. I'm starting to think that the public has to be responsible for policing irresponsible journalists.
 
You should send your post to Lorenz at his Loyola email address. He won't duck your criticism.
 
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