(The Center Square) – Information is neutral: That thought, which I developed as a younger journalist and have been able to share with my newsrooms, doesn’t seem to apply to media as it once did. It’s what’s been lost in the fire of American media’s sad decline.
Take for example two news stories from the past week:
• The Vote Yes For Fairness campaign and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration still have not spoken about why the campaign spent more than $10,000 with Facebook to promote a fake tweet in an effort to persuade voters to support a progressive income tax. Since the fake tweet, Pritzker has defended his position on the issue, but hasn't addressed the tweet itself – more than a week after it was posted. Vote Yes For Fairness has been silent on the issue, but others have raised concerns about the misinformation, which, per Facebook data, would have reached more than 1 million people. The story of the fake tweet itself has not been widely reported in Illinois or elsewhere. Pritzker, whose $56.5 million in contributions to the progressive income tax initiative, refused to speak to the campaign’s use of the fake tweet. In Illinois, only The Center Square has pursued this news story. This is a relevant news story, and our reporters will continue asking questions about the inner workings of the progressive-tax campaign until they are answered.
• While most of the national mainstream media largely ignored the New York Post's blockbuster stories highlighting newly found emails that purport to show that Hunter Biden introduced his father, Joe Biden, to an executive at Ukrainian gas firm Burisma when Joe Biden was vice president of the U.S., The Center Square didn't shy away from independent follow-up coverage about Biden's ties to the alleged corruption in the Ukraine. The emails seem to contradict claims Joe Biden has repeatedly made to the media regarding an awareness of his son’s Ukrainian interests. Separately, The Center Square covered fallout from Facebook's and Twitter's decisions to mute the Biden-Ukraine story and Republican U.S. senators subsequent vows to investigate.
Where is the fairness, you may ask? Are not each of these stories newsworthy? Shouldn’t every outlet whose audience would care about such news – whether to report on its validity or to invalidate it with new information – be participating in the telling of such stories?
Well, so much has changed in the news industry.
When I jumped into the business in the 1990s, straight-news reporting was a commodity. There were local papers everywhere that covered news not only from their towns, but also – alone or in partnership with affiliated news outlets within their ownership chains – from state capitols. Metropolitan newspapers had their own reporters in the statehouse, in Washington, D.C., and in other places around the world.
Newspapers weren’t reliant on a handful of global newswire sources – and we all were better for it.
But there has been a slow melt of the news industry over the past 30 years. Search engines, content aggregators and social media have forced unrelenting, downward pressure on the valuable local advertising categories that made local news profitable. And although this competitive pressure first seized upon the weaknesses of local newspapers, it has not spared in-market radio or television.
The reality: Newsrooms today have much smaller operating budgets and produce far fewer straight-news stories. This builds on the public criticism that their local news outlets specifically skip some stories that do not fit their editors’ view(s) of the news.
The consequence: News consumers lose. Stories go uncovered, are under-reported, or are reported poorly. And commentary – once the specialty of newspapers – has become commoditized. Readers today are fed a steady diet of hot takes or insta-commentary of a news story before they’ve had an opportunity to read the original straight-news report. Opinion overwhelms the original news stories that readers consume because this work is far less expensive to create, can be published more quickly, requires less expense to produce and far less editorial expertise or supervision.
The Center Square believes in the value of straight-news reporting and serves its audience with a diversity of voices, independence and an unwavering courage to report the truth because that’s what journalists are supposed to do.
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Federal authorities charged a pair of post office employees with discarding mail, including political mailers and applications for mail-in ballots, furthering concerns about the integrity of ballots mailed this election season. Sean Troesch, 48, of Pittsburgh, a city carrier who worked out of the Mount Oliver, Pennsylvania, post office, and James McLenigan, 29, of Pittsburgh, who worked out of the Pittsburgh Post Office Bloomfield Station, each was charged with delay or destruction of mail. If convicted, both men face up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Also in Pennsylvania this past week, Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf continued to push for adult-use legalization of recreational marijuana as part of an effort to close a $5 billion, COVID-19-related budget gap for fiscal year 2021. Critics said that additional tax revenue captured through the governor’s plan “wouldn’t put a dent” in the budget gap.
At least 17 states have authorized and or made withdrawals from their rainy day funds this year to fill budget holes, according to a new analysis by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Some withdrawals were small, others were more than half of what was set aside. In fiscal 2020, at least 36 states had planned to make additional rainy day fund deposits but were constrained by fiscal and economic difficulties resulting from their respective state COVID-19 shutdowns, which resulted in increased unemployment and decreased revenue. Perhaps the worst-case example was Illinois, which had less than $1 million in its rainy day fund, and exhausted that amount within minutes of the start of mandated lockdowns in March.
Daily watchers of Missouri’s "Show Me Strong" website tracking COVID-19 infections and deaths in the state were alarmed Saturday when the number of new reported cases more than doubled in one day, topping 5,000. By Sunday, state officials were attributing Saturday’s spike to a “database extract error” related to efforts by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) since Sept. 28 to upgrade its online coronavirus dashboard to include integrated public health, economic, employment and social impact indicators into the updates.
A new audit from the Legislature Audit Bureau looked at Wisconsin’s State Retiree Health Insurance program. “Based on [the] valuation and the adjustments, the total liability for the program was $682.5 million as of June 30, 2019, an increase of $142.8 million from June 30, 2018,” the audit stated. While taxpayers don’t directly pay the premiums for retirees, the audit states taxpayers do subsidize them.
Elsewhere in Wisconsin, a new report alleged Milwaukee Public School leaders hid the truth about its empty school buildings in order to deny private schools and charter schools opportunities in the city. The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty released the study Tuesday. In it, researchers say Milwaukee school leaders all but lied to make sure they didn’t have to sell empty or surplus school buildings.
A new Minnesota Senate report blames the slow response of Gov. Tim Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey for an estimated $500 million in damage after the death of George Floyd. The report concluded the rioting, escalation of violence, and burning of the 3rd Police Precinct wouldn’t have happened as quickly had the leaders acted faster.
The Michigan Supreme Court on Monday rejected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s statement asserting her unconstitutional orders still hold power over Michiganders through Oct. 30. Whitmer previously claimed her executive orders retained the force of law for 21 days after the court's Oct. 2 ruling. Whitmer on Oct. 5 had asked the court for clarification, and the state's top court answered. However, the governor continues to push her agenda absent input from the state legislature through edicts issued by her department directors.
Reviving part of a budget battle from mid-2019, a progressive think tank in Ohio wants to close what they call tax loopholes. Ohio’s Republican senate president responded simply, quickly and to the point with a Tweet that said there is zero chance Senate Republicans will raise taxes.
Louisville’s bars and restaurants received some help from city government when it decided to provide a break on annual alcohol and liquor license renewal fees.
A Kentucky family court judge told lawmakers last week that fewer non-family people seeing children during the COVID-19 pandemic is one reason for a drop in reporting of child abuse and neglect cases, and a lawmaker thinks that could be a good reason to completely reopen schools.
Florida's school-choice program already is the largest in the U.S., and legislation passed earlier this year will help it grow this school year. Step Up For Students, a nonprofit that administers five of Florida’s six school-choice voucher programs, said 1.68 million K-12 students were attending schools other than their designated public school last year. Legislation dubbed “the largest expansion of school choice in the country” by Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran will double eligibility in one of Florida's school-choice programs and expand eligibility in another by dropping income levels from the equation.
In the wake of police brutality protests in Atlanta since late May, taxpayers have paid for more than $8 million in overtime for Atlanta Police Department officers. According to APD records obtained by The Center Square, 1,765 employees worked about 178,000 overtime hours from June 1 to Sept. 1 – over 70,600 hours of overtime more than during the same period in 2019. APD uniformed patrol officers' overtime tripled from June to September when compared with the same time frame in 2019, according to records. Patrol officers worked more than 94,000 overtime hours.
In what has become a frequent refrain from legislatures elsewhere around the country, the Louisiana Legislature on Thursday rammed through a spending plan in excess of $100 million that a Republican lawmaker said he and his colleagues only had a few minutes to read and review. House Bill 39 dedicates $85 million to the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund, which has run out of money during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Louisiana Workforce Commission has borrowed at least $11 million from the federal government so far to pay for legally required benefits and expects to borrow about $233 million by the end of next August.
The number of ballots turned in so far by Colorado voters indicates "record turnout" this election. More than 300,000 ballots were returned as of Wednesday, with more than 240,000 of those ballots coming from registered Democrats and unaffiliated voters. If that trend continues, "it will be worrisome for Republican candidates."
Portland could see some of the highest income taxes in the country if a host of ballot measures succeed this fall. Portland and Multnomah County voters are deciding on a $4 billion transportation measure, a $387 million Multnomah County Library bond, a $239 million park operating levy, and a $133 million countywide free preschool measure. If approved by voters, the tax measures would increase the combined tax burden on businesses by 40% around the end of 2021, according to a recent study.
The state's Supreme Court unanimously struck down a ballot initiative approved by voters that capped car tab fees and also repealed motor vehicle and motor home weight fees, saying it violated the state's single subject rule. The state's budget office estimated the measure would have slashed $4 billion in state tax revenue by 2025.
In Phoenix, taxpayers paid nearly $3.7 million for non-city-related union work last fiscal year, more than any other city that disclosed the data. The Center Square reported on the new analysis by the nonprofit Goldwater Institute that found the city spent much more than any other body of government that keeps track of that information. Unfortunately for taxpayers elsewhere, 68 of the 150 public bodies Goldwater sought information from wouldn’t, or couldn’t, provide any data because they simply don't track how much they pay for.