Monday, October 05, 2009

My Rant

by David Ellis

I try not to be a media-basher. It’s hard in my job—that other one I have by day, as the lawyer for the Speaker of the Illinois House. It’s hard because more often than not, I am frustrated by the media coverage of the things we do in Springfield. Usually, it seems to me that the press is only concerned with conflict. Not who was right and who was wrong, or even what points were raised on the issue by both sides, but simply who is blasting whom over the issue. And there is always someone blasting someone else in Springfield.

After we removed Blagojevich from office, the theme for the following legislative session (2009) was reform. And there was plenty of it that session. We changed both the composition of government pension boards and how they did business—a direct response to one of the principal wrongdoers in the Rezko/Blagojevich scandals, Stuart Levine.

We changed the procurement laws—how the state purchases things and how it enters into contracts—again, a direct response to the pay-to-play scandals. We isolated the decisionmakers from the influence of the governor, so decisions couldn’t be based on who was giving campaign contributions to the governor.

You heard all about those reforms, right? The ones that cut to the essence of the problems under Governor Blagojevich? Um—well, to be fair, there was a small amount of coverage on those issues. There were “report cards” and the like, and I recall hearing favorable reviews on the pension and procurement reforms. But largely the media did very little to cover these two reforms, which in my mind were the two most direct responses to the Blagojevich scandals. I mean, look, there’s nothing wrong with taking the opportunity to do more than just address the Rod problems—but that was the impetus behind this whole thing, and the main things we did hardly received mention.

We did some other things, too, but let’s talk about the two things that got the banner headlines.

First, the Freedom of Information Act. Yes, Governor Rod famously abused it. His abuse was not the stuff of which criminal indictments—or impeachments—are made, but FOIA needed some work, and this was an opportunity to do it. Keep in mind, though, that on this issue, the media wasn’t playing watchdog. They were a participant. They negotiated with us. Ultimately, our reform of FOIA was a sweeping improvement over the current law. I simply don’t see how a fair-minded person could say otherwise. We simplified it, we made it easier to make FOIA requests, and we installed a watchdog under the Attorney General to resolve FOIA conflicts between citizens and local governments and the executive branch. But to listen to the media, you’d think it was nothing more than a half-baked measure. There is a legitimate separation-of-powers concern, for example, with letting an executive-branch body tell the legislature how to handle FOIA requests. And there are certain exemptions to FOIA that are based on sound public policy that we wouldn’t eliminate. Did the media air our side of that issue, or just their own? Go back and read the articles and decide.

And then there’s campaign finance reform. You know, caps on political contributions, that kind of thing. The idea is to prevent people from buying influence through campaign contributions. Was that a Blagojevich-spawned problem? In my mind, no. A governor could have shaken down companies or individuals for contributions, in exchange for government contracts or state jobs, even under a capped system. A crooked person can easily find his or her way around that kind of restriction. But others disagreed and said we needed campaign finance reform. To be fair, I absolutely can see how people would draw the connection between Rod and the need for contribution limits. I don’t agree but I see it.

The vast majority of those people are good-hearted people who truly want a fair and honest government. Do their obviously good intentions mean their proposals are the right ones? Obviously not. But it doesn’t mean they’re wrong, either.

It’s a legitimate debate. The idea of limiting how much one person or company can give to a politician has some logic to it; you can’t “buy off” a politician with $2,500, but you could with $25,000, the theory goes. Okay, that’s a fair point. But have federal limits cleaned up Congress? Some fair-minded people think federal limits are an “incumbency protection” plan—incumbents raise boatloads of money thanks to incumbency and plenty of loopholes, while challengers struggle to match them financially under very low caps. And there is a legitimate argument that the First Amendment protects that giving of campaign contributions as free speech, and no law—or bureaucrat from the Federal Elections Commission—should decide the parameters of our free speech. People hear the free-speech argument and roll their eyes, thinking it’s code for preserve-the-status-quo. To those people, I say, watch what the U.S. Supreme Court has to say, some time very soon, about this issue.

Look, I see both sides here. I’m not sure who’s right, and the answer may be somewhere in the murky middle. But are both sides fairly presented in the media? I think not. And that’s my only point. I don’t think the issue receives a full presentation. If you’re against contribution limits, it couldn’t be because you think they’re ineffective, unfair, or contrary to the First Amendment—it can only be because you’re corrupt.

We ultimately passed a campaign finance reform bill that pleased nobody. The criticism came from all sides, and perhaps rightly so. But to read the headlines, you’d think that the entire reform package in Springfield didn’t exist because this one bill, on this one issue, didn’t pass muster. (I recall reading an article entitled “How Reform Failed in Illinois” by someone who I like and respect, and thinking to myself, “Reform failed? All of it failed?”)

The reason I try not to be a media-basher is because I know a lot of the people in the media, and I think they’re largely trying to do the best they can. They can’t know some issues like the people in the trenches know them. It’s simply not possible. They don’t have the time or the resources to do it. I understand that. But sometimes it seems like the only thing I read is a brief description about the topic, followed by some political opponent blasting away at someone else. The conflict, I guess, is more interesting than the substance. The rub is that I don’t have a solution. Just a complaint.


Dana King said...

The traditional main stream media appear to have decided to save money by competing on the preferred field of their competitors: opinion and celebrity news. Actual reporting is expensive, most people don't read it, and half of those who do don't understand it, so why bother. They fail to see they are sowing the seeds of their own demise by trying to compete with blogs and cable news in areas that blogs and cable news do better, and we're all worse off for it.

Sean Chercover said...

Very interesting post, Dave.

I agree with Dana's point about the cost of actual reporting compared with the less expensive opinion and celeb reporting.

But it also goes way beyond cost cutting. Political reporting used to be divided into two categories: the serious stories about public policy, and the "horserace" stories that treated politics as a sporting event.

The sad truth is, (in addition to being expensive) serious reporting on public policy requires news consumers who want to think, while the "horserace" stories offer all the drama and excitement of the Kentucky Derby, while making no such demands on the consumer. And most news consumers simply prefer the sport of politics to the serious stuff. Once news directors saw this in their ratings, it was just a matter of time...

Traditionally, television network news divisions were expected to lose money. They brought in some ad revenue, but never as much as they spent on reporting the news. The news was paid for by the profits made in the entertainment division.

Then Roone Arledge came along and wrecked everything. Arledge was the genius behind Wide World Of Sports. He took over the ABC News division, and transformed it into a profit center. It was the first time a television news division turned a profit, anywhere. He proved it could be done, and the rest of the industry followed.

Since the news outlets (including the papers) are now owned by huge publicly-traded companies, the focus is on maximizing profits to maximize share price. Once was a time when a news outlet had a sense of civic responsibility, but those days are gone. 10% annual profit just ain't good enough for Wall Street anymore, and now it is ALL about Wall Street.

Anyway, it may end up being our undoing as a democracy, and I wish it were different. But there it is.

David Ellis said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. Sean, that's a depressing prediction but you well be right ...

Sara Paretsky said...

I worry about this constantly, Sean. Just one example: it was John Conroy, writing for the Reader, who doggedly uncovered and followed the Burge police torture scandal. Conroy has been "downsized," just one of many Investigative reporters who've been laid off to satisfy wall street's demand for profits at any cost. With the absence of first-class journalism, I don't know what real checks there are on public corruption, or private, for that matter. Not the blogosphere, for sure, which thrives on anonymous conspiracy theory.