Tibor R. Machan
Now and then I peruse newspapers from around the country and on one such occasion I ran across the article "Hundreds rally to place crime fighting tax on ballot" in The Palo Alto Daily News. The title was itself of interest to me because “hundreds” just doesn’t strike me as an imposing figure.
As I read into the piece, however, something more important came to light. It read exactly like a press release from those who support the measure. These folks want to have an additional property tax imposed on residents of East Palo Alto so as to raise funds basically to help ex-cons to get jobs, to facilitate their reintegration into the community.~
For the moment never mind about the propriety of a public policy measure that spends other people’s money on helping out convicted criminals. (One may even consider this double jeopardy against the local citizens!) What struck me as curious is that even though in a previous effort a similar measure lost at the polls, there was not one quotation from skeptics provided in the news report. Instead quotations followed quotations from supporters of the idea.
What kind of journalism is this? Could the reporter, Luke Stangel, find no one who objects to this idea? I cannot believe that.~The article thus ends up to be little more than propaganda for those who want to tax property owners to fund yet another welfare measure in East Palo Alto.
And Mr. Stangel wasn’t the only one who got on board with this mission. After a bit of research I discovered that Neil Gonzales, of the San Mateo County Times, in his piece, “East Palo Alto Coalition Seeks Tax to Fight Youth Crime,” did virtually the same thing—turned a supposed news report into virtual propaganda as well.
I am somewhat familiar with small papers and how some of those writing for them are community activists, so their “reports” are actually advocacy pieces. We have a monthly newspaper in my own community that engages in this kind of “journalism.”
Yet this is not at all unavoidable. Publishers and editors could easily insist that when an activist switches hats and becomes a journalist, his or her behavior change and instead of engaging in what in informal logic is called the fallacy of pleading one’s case, a balanced report be produced that reflects what is actually going on in the community. And if there are serious opponents of a measure being proposed for a vote in a community, someone who takes on the job of telling about it in a newspaper—instead of a political pamphlet—has the responsibility to include different views on the issue being debated.
But no. Both of these journalists have produced “reports” with no mention of the opponents’ viewpoints, let alone providing any quotations from them or reasons why some oppose the measure. These pieces, in fact, read very much like the kind of “reports” I used to encounter in the newspapers back in communist Hungary, where no one but the government had the legal power to produce them.
Maybe, however, when a paper is the sole provider of news in a small community, there is a temptation to get lazy and some, like the two journalists whose reports I read, cave into this instead of upholding professional standards. Readers, in turn, need to be vigilant in such circumstances because the ordinary forces of media competition are missing. Yes, some small competition might exist from bloggers and the like. Still, it is probably best to make sure whether a story has some other angle to it than what is presented in lopsided reports like those I ran across.
It is one of the widespread myths propagated by many journalists and their teachers that when it comes to news reporting, journalists can be independent, non-partisan, and fully relied upon to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. However, in fact no journalist is without some, perhaps well hidden (even from oneself), point of view that guides who will be interviewed, what stories will be covered and followed up on, etc. So what may start out as a report intended to be informative of how things are in a community turns out to be, well, a piece of propaganda.
Both of the reporters filing stories on the proposed East Palo Alto ballot measure managed to become advocates for the measure and thus undermine their journalistic integrity. Or that is, at least, what comes through from reading their “reports.”