27 September 2011

Taking your brain out of neutral #nlvotes #nlpoli

He said.

She said.



Simple conflict.

Simple news story.

No problem?


Well, maybe. 

You decide.

Jay Rosen is a journalism professor at New York University.  He doesn’t like “he said,she said journalism”.  In a recent post at his blog Pressthink Rosen writes about his recent experience with a complaint to National Public Radio (NPR) in Kansas about an NPR story on new state regulations for abortion clinics.

Clinic operators say the regulations are a form of harassment aimed specifically at abortion clinics with the intent to close down the few remaining ones in the state.

The state says the regulations are just part of the normal state government business of regulating things.

He said.

She said.

Rosen complained to the NPR ombudsman about the story.  He complained specifically about NPR’s failure to provide any additional information in the story that would help readers evaluate the contending claims. Rosen accused the NPR of using its style of reporting to shield the organization from attacks on a controversial subject, thereby doing its listeners a disservice.

NPR replied that to do what Rosen argued would be to take an editorial stance on the issue, to take sides.  And there’s just no way NPR would violate its professional ethics in that way. From NPR:

We forwarded Rosen’s criticism to the reporter, Kathy Lohr, who responded:

“I’ve covered the abortion issue for 20 years. My goal is to be fair and accurate.

“It would be inappropriate to take a position on an issue I’m covering. So, I don’t do that, with abortion or other issues.”

In another exchange with Rosen, Lohr made her point more emphatically;

Me [Rosen]: Why does NPR throw up its hands and tell its listeners: we have no idea who’s right? Is that really the best reporting you can do? Is that the excellence for which NPR is known?

Kathy Lohr: You want me to take a position on a public controversy. You want me to editorialize. To pick a side. What you don’t understand is: That’s not my job!

Rosen gives more detail in the post than he may have in the twitter and other short exchanges with the gang at NPR Kansas.  As Rosen points out in the post, he thinks that going a step beyond the mere reporting of the superficial controversy is actually part of the business of reporting, of informing the audience.

He bases that position on a set of bullet points he laid out at the front end of the post:


The conflict that sits at the heart of the story goes unexplored even though evidence to evaluate the contending claims is readily available. As a result, the news organization remains – ostensibly – neutral.  in effect, people are invited to join the reporters in putting their brains in neutral.

You can see the same sort of he said, she said story in recent coverage of the Liberal’s idea of giving government pensioners a small increase in their pension every year.

The Liberals said, then CBC got the “she said” controversy going with the comment from the provincial finance department that seemed to criticise their idea. The provincial Conservatives chimed in to take up the criticism and so the thing carried on for a day or two.

At no point did CBC actually explain the pensions issue on any level at all.  They certainly didn’t explain what the Liberals were trying to do and then compare it to the idea of what Conservatives were driving at. Hunt around the CBC’s online election web space and you will find exactly squat on the pensions issue beyond what they covered at the first.  None of the other conventional media have stepped in to explain it either.

The evidence to evaluate the contending positions is readily available.  The provincial finance department officials could explain what they meant.  The Liberals could too.

Nobody asked either of them.

Interesting idea: you can have a news report that doesn’t actually inform anybody about anything beyond the fact that one side said one thing and another said something else.

Forget the limitations of the electronic media like television and the format that gives maybe a couple of minutes for a report.  There are plenty of ways to get at the issue, including a longer piece on the same television news casts that carried the first story.

Now CBC is not alone in this.  Look around and you’ll find plenty of news reports that follow this sort of approach.  What makes this one stand out is that the CBC story winds up fitting the Conservative political narrative about supposed Liberal fiscal irresponsibility now and in the past. While the “he said, she said” story format is supposedly neutral, this one didn’t turn out that way. 

The pensions story as CBC covered it did a disservice to the audience in another way, beyond leaving the substance unexplored or having CBC’s story effectively injected into the campaign.

Fundamentally, the pensions story is about the kind of basic policy choice that the wonks out there think political debate ought to be about.

The pension liability exists.  The provincial government must deal with it.  In effect, they are already dealing with it by paying what the provincial government owes.  They pay it out of current account funds, the cash the government has every year to pay all its usual bills.

What the Liberals proposed to do is add a small percentage to the spending every year.  The end result would be that what is now costing a little over $500 million this year would cost about $750 million 20 years from now.

The Conservatives hung their hat on the idea that the Liberal plan would increase the unfunded liability.  It would.

What they didn’t explain is that the notion of unfunded liability is basically an accounting calculation. It is based on how much money you’d have to salt away in order to cover the debts in the event the government stopped operating tomorrow.

No one expects the provincial government to stop operating tomorrow.  The government gets to chose what to do.  They can put cash away in investments and pay the pensions out of the interest or pay it out of current account money. 

Either way will work.

What any government might do depends, as much  as anything else, on what revenue forecasts look like.  If things are going to be good for a long while, it might be better to pay the liability out of annual budget money.

If the forecasts say times will be tough or unpredictable, then it would be prudent to salt cash away.

A couple of decades ago, the unfunded liability was roughly what it is today:  three maybe four billion.  The total provincial government income in any one year was the same number, or less. The total size of the economy – the gross domestic product – was about double the unfunded liability.

No one had a choice. about salting cash away because there was no leftover cash to bank.  Liberal and Conservative governments did exactly the same thing and they did it for exactly the same basic reasons.  When people like Shawn Skinner talk about Liberal fiscal irresponsibility, they are simply full of shit. They don’t know what they are talking about. 

These days, the provincial government has enough cash in the bank today to cover all the unfunded liability in one pop. You don’t even need to notice that the total unfunded liability – even with the Liberal extra bit – is less than 25% of the GDP.  It’s about half the total government annual budget.

So how come the provincial Conservatives haven’t done anything about the unfunded pension liability yet? 

Good question.

The good answer is that they did what all governments do:  they made a choice.

They decided it is better to commit years of windfall oil cash to a whole bunch of extra spending and hold pretty well all of extra cash in reserve to help pay for Muskrat Falls.

How many of you knew about the pile of cash the provincial government has today sitting in temporary investments? 

How many knew what they were planning to do with it?

Odds are, that number is pretty close to zero.  That isn’t surprising. Somebody decided not to tell you that.

Avoiding any debate today on the pensions issue and how to pay for it means that people won’t ask uncomfortable questions that people who made decisions in government don’t want to answer.

Notice the way the Conservatives have framed their idea on pensions, incidentally:

… Addressing public pension plan liabilities and other postretirement liabilities will be a priority.

  • We will develop a long-term plan to reduce
    our unfunded public pension plan liabilities
    in a responsible manner by making set
    periodic payments.
  • At least a third of any surplus will be
    invested in the pension funds

They promise that they whatever they do will happen in the future.

But you shouldn’t forget that they crossed their fingers a wee bit earlier in the campaign platform:

Implementation of our priorities will be phased, if necessary, to accommodate fiscal constraint.

In other words, if things go south financially, if there’s another recession, then all bets are off.

When governments of the past didn’t have a choice, they paid pensions out of the cash on hand.

When a government has cash, they elect to do something else with the money rather than reduce the unfunded pension liability. They criticise someone else for the unfunded liability and make a promise that they will do something in the future.


Or maybe not.

And in the meantime, very few voters have enough information   in the middle of an election to make an informed decision on which idea – the Liberal or the Conservative – is the way they want to go.

But they do have he said, she said.

- srbp -