December 31, 2014

OKC Reporter Sings Praises of Government Program

[This post is adapted from an earlier post at OCPA. It will be updated, below, to include other examples of stories written with a puff-government-spending narrative framework.]

Commenting on the liberal bias of the Associated Press, former University of Texas journalism professor Marvin Olasky once suggested that we "think of it algebraically, with AP standing for coverage of person A, who has a problem, and person P, the politician who purports to have a solution."
The Associated Press typically did not bother to cover person F, the one paying taxes so that person P can gain glory for sending aid to person A. In the nineteenth century, Yale professor William Graham Sumner had offered a similar equation and called person F "the forgotten man." In the twenty-first century, AP regularly broke its pledge to be evenhanded by highlighting person A and forgetting Mr. F.
It's not just the Associated Press. Each new day brings examples from media outlets nationwide of news stories from which person F is conspicuously absent. Consider, for example, a front-page story today in The Oklahoman headlined "OKC woman sings praises of heating aid program." Staff writer Jaclyn Cosgrove profiles a 59-year-old Oklahoma City woman, "one of thousands of Oklahomans who benefit from the federal government's Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program."
This year, Oklahoma received about $8 million for the low-income winter heating bill program. The state Department of Human Services, which administers the program, started accepting applications Dec. 9. Officials say they expect that $8 million in federal funding will be gone by the end of the day Wednesday, only about three weeks after applications opened. … Last year, the program helped about 88,000 households pay winter heating bills. 
In the 658-word story, Cosgrove quoted person A, the aid recipient, as saying "I love the program." No surprise there: as George Bernard Shaw taught us, "a government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul."

Cosgrove also quoted a government official—a proxy for person P—who predictably explained how helpful the program is.

But person F was nowhere to be found. Person F was the forgotten source. Had he or she been included, the story would have been more evenhanded, more informative, and—most important of all—more interesting for the newspaper's actual customers. In a metropolitan area where conservatives outnumber liberals more than 6 to 1, one can imagine person F's contribution to the story:
"I don’t mind helping people who are down on their luck," said Jane Q. Taxpayer, a Del City nursing assistant. "In fact, I pay my taxes and still give to folks in need whenever I can. But aren't there some family members or church members who can help with heating bills? I mean, I don't see why it's up to complete strangers to come up with $80 a month. I've got my own bills to pay. My husband's got past-due medical bills and our car needs new brakes." 
Mrs. Taxpayer also expressed concern with the nation’s $18 trillion debt. "I'm all for helping people pay their bills," she said. "But we just can’t afford to keep borrowing all this money from China and putting it on my granddaughter's credit card."
"I'm a reliable source, but (sigh) I don't fit
the reporter's predetermined story formula."
That would only be 130 words from person F. Tack it on at the bottom of the story, and person F still only gets 16 percent of the article. Still not evenhanded (given the puff-big-government story formula), but at least more evenhanded than before.

Regrettably, media bias—from staff writers and also from liberal Oklahoma Watch reporters—is not uncommon in the news pages of The Oklahoman. (Occasionally the conservatives can come along with a house editorial to clean up the mess, but ultimately it's a losing Whac-a-Mole proposition.) I do believe Mr. Anschutz would be unpleasantly surprised at some of the agenda journalism that reporters are getting away with down here.

Media bias is oftentimes intentional, but not always. Just as a fish doesn't swim around all day wondering how he can manage to stay wet, reporters don't wake up every morning asking themselves how they can construct narrative frameworks that ignore the taxpayer. A fish doesn't realize he's wet, and many journalists don't realize that their J-school training and subsequent existence in a center-left newsroom bubble have conditioned them to ignore person F.

He's out there. Yes, the Forgotten Man is "the real subject which deserves our attention," as Sumner said. "He works, he votes, generally he prays—but he always pays—yes, above all, he pays." Reporters should talk to him.


UPDATES:

  • Brianna Bailey has a one-sided story in The Oklahoman puffing a government program ("Cuts to senior food programs loom in Oklahoma"). More than 1,100 words, and the only shout-out to civil society seems like an accidental one: the reporter quotes these 19 words from a source: "It's the time right now where the families have to really step up and help their parents and grandparents."

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