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The L.A. Times’ Balancing Act

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James Rainey’s L.A. Times story, “Garcetti, Greuel Step Gingerly Around City Labor Issues,” shows the problem with the press’ approach to writing so-called “balanced” stories.

Rainey’s story is generally a good one, filled with facts and figures. He’s even careful to use his data to set the record straight when it contradicts what one of his interviewees says. For example, after the County Federation of Labor’s Maria Elena Durazo says “that the average city worker receives $32,000 in retirement,” Rainey writes, “The website for the city’s civilian retirement system puts the average pension benefit for 12,000 current retirees about 40 percent higher than Durazo’s figure.”

Okay, so he checks Durazo’s stats and she appears to be mistaken.

But what about that guy from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association? That’s the anti-tax group that brought us Prop 13 back in 1978. In Rainey’s story, Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Jarvisite group, says the city can’t afford civilian pensions because “you have to have real money and we are running out of taxpayers to make those payments because they are fleeing the state.”

Taxpayers are fleeing the state? Which taxpayers are fleeing the state? Because of taxes? Does Rainey fact-check this statement?

It seems to me that Maria Elena Durazo, unlike Vosburgh, had the bad sense to use real stats in her statements, which allowed Rainey to check them. Vosburgh, on the other hand, just spewed some hyperbolic nonsense. As a result, he got a free pass.

It reminds me of when I was a producer with public television’s California Connected. The California Chamber of Commerce would often tell us that businesses were fleeing the state. Some of the other producers started to report this statement as fact. I decided to dig a little deeper. Turns out there was no proof of it at all. When I contacted the Chamber, even they were unable to produce a verifiable study showing their statements to have any validity whatsoever.

The real problem here is that reporters feel obliged at all to ask people like the Jarvisites and Chamberistas for comment. I suspect they do it to achieve some notion of balance. But these are partisan operatives promoting ideological crusades, not responsible analysts. I encourage reporters like Rainey, who’s actually very good at his craft, to ignore these people in the future. After all, if they can’t be fact-checked, then their points of view aren’t worth printing.

(Lowell Goodman is director of communications at the Service Employees International Union, Local 721.)

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