The Starting Line –Three Halloween Stories About Politics That Should Send Chills Up Your Spine

by on October 29, 2012

in Columns, Education, Politics, The Starting Line

Politics takes a back seat today as the nation casts its eyes towards the East Coast and mid-west , which are under assault by Hurricane Sandy barreling from the southeast and an early winter storm coming in from the northwest.  Here on the left coast life goes on and there are headlines to report.

The Giants won, the Chargers suck and there are too many political commercials on TV this week. That about covers it for today.

In the absence of any major breaking news, I’m putting out three stories that illustrate what a tangled web the media can spin when it comes to politics.
David Zero, Goliath $1.3 million

The Los Angeles Times today features a cautionary tale about a mayor who thought he could implement a tax on sugary beverages to save the city of El Monte.  The San Gabriel Valley city was facing the possibility of insolvency, and has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the state.  Mayor Andre Quintero thought a tax on sweet drinks would be a doable solution to twin problems.

But he didn’t figure on the determination of the soft drink industry and their allies, who have poured $1.3 million, or more than $10 per resident, into a campaign to defeat the measure. The No on Prop H campaign has drawn high profile political consultants from around the country. The City is awash in signs and billboards opposing the measure as professional phone bank and canvassing operations are making sure that no household misses out on their message.

It’s safe to say that Mayor Quintero’s political future has been ruined by his support for the measure. Proposition H will fail. And when it’s all over the city’s clean up crews, already diminished by 33% via budgetary cuts, will be left with the task of sweeping up the mess.

Looking Bassackwards At School Supes

The propensity of our local daily newspaper to frame an issue in an absurd manner to drive home their political agenda never ceases to amaze me.  This weekend SD-UT’s Watchdog took on the issue of School Superintendent Pay.

The way the story reads we’re supposed to get all incensed because six managers of the thirty four school districts in the county got double digit pay raises. Never mind that fourteen of those thirty four executives saw pay cuts (counting zero as a pay cut since inflation is typically factored into executive salaries). Or that fourteen of those superintendents took unpaid days as part of school budget cuts.

The way I read the article is that we’re all supposed to be mad as hell about these outrageously overpaid bureaucrats.  The San Diego County Taxpayer’s Association spokesperson is quoted as some sort of non-partisan authority. (Sorry, gang, that group is just a front for the GOP and, as a non-profit, they are ultimately subsidized by taxpayers.)

There are a lot of different ways this issue could be framed. Cost per student, ratio of pay to overall size of budget, or even a comparison of test score improvement to pay. But, noooo, the UT-SD and their fellow worshipers at the throne of Grover Norquist have to frame this issue as in “OMG, look, they’re paying this person $$$,$$$!”

Funny, they don’t ask the same questions about executive pay at Bridgepoint Education. (And before you get me started on this subject, Bridgepoint is churning through your tax dollars.) And why is paying somebody in the public sector that manages a multimillion dollar budget somehow worse than paying somebody in the private sector?

If you really want to stand this issue on its head, maybe we should be asking why we don’t pay our school superintendents more than their counterparts in the private sector.  After all, don’t we want the best protection possible for our tax dollars?

Left unasked in these “made up news stories” are questions like ‘does it really make sense to have 34 school districts?’ Or, God forbid, ‘does it seem right that a school district (Warner) is paying over $500 per student annually for a manager?’

Why do they do this, you ask?  It’s my view that these folks all have as part of their core agenda, a desire to rid government of as many services as possible, including public education. And the fastest way to get there is to undermine public trust.

A Hatchet Job at the Voice of San Diego?

credit batcroz @ deviant art

Those of you who don’t follow the Voice of San Diego, our city’s venture into non-profit online journalism, probably aren’t aware that they’ve had quite a bit of ‘churn’ with their staff lately.  Some good people have left the organization, and VOSD has reached out and recruited some reporters and editors from around the country that they hope will maintain their standards.

One of the issues that arise when you enlist out of town folks to cover local news is context; learning how to judge the relative importance of a story against the historical and political backgrounds surrounding events or people.  The addition of former Arizona Republic reporter Lisa Halverstadt to the VOSD staff is, I’m sure, a good choice.   But…

Last week’s profile of Scott Barnett by Ms Halverstadt is a fine example of just how important context can be.  There is not, as far as I can see, a single factual error in the story.

We’re told that a mailer in support of Proposition Z, the SDUSD bond measure before the voters this fall, fails to list Barnett as a School Board Member. He’s listed as “President SD Taxpayer’s Advocate”.  Clearly, this representation is an attempt by somebody to influence low information voters.  But…

Barnett is a fairly public figure, having served as a Del Mar City Councilman, and undergone intense scrutiny in his campaign to unseat long term incumbent John DeBeck from the SDUSD Board in 2010.  The School Board job is, in fact, paid as a part-time position at $18,000 annually. Most younger (non-retired) members do work other jobs.  Reporters with a sense of the local landscape can take this into account.

The story then goes on to “expose” the fact that SD Taxpayers Advocate is basically a one man show. That’s hardly a secret around town.  Barnett is known for analyses of government spending and is known as a consultant on tax matters.  He’s on TV all the time.  A clearly out-of-date web site and quotes from the leader of a competing entity are used to “pull back the curtain” with the clear implication that there must be something fraudulent about the guy.

Like I said, there is not (as far as I can see) a factual error in the story. But when you start putting things into context, you have to wonder whose interests were served by the tone and demeanor of the story.

There is a larger struggle going on here between the current make up of the San Diego Unified School Board and the local GOP establishment.  (Barnett, for the record, is a member of the rapidly vanishing breed of ‘moderate’ Republicans).

The School Board has sided with labor unions in awarding construction contracts by signing on to a Project Labor Agreement (PLA).  Local GOPer’s and non-union contractors (who are allowed to participate in local contracts under a PLA) declared war on the Board.  Everything that goes on in San Diego regarding education has been influenced or defined by this conflict over the past few years.

One of the most-used surrogates for the local GOP is the San Diego County Taxpayers Association.  They are among the most active opponents to Proposition Z.  And Scott Barnett, as a ‘reasonable’ voice has been a thorn in their side.

So the Voice of San Diego takes a relatively typical (and minor) political transgression (the failure to represent Barnett as a School Board member in a mailer) and blows it up into a major feature story. Another way to “spin” this story is that a newbie reporter has just abetted the more ideologically ‘pure’ wing of the Republican Party in purging a moderate. And the local right wingers got to cast aspersions via VOSD on the local school as a bonus. So conserv blog SD Rostra doesn’t have to do anything more than quote VOSD as they trash yet another RINO.

Maybe I’m just making a mountain out of molehill here. Perhaps it’s all innocent.  But a little more context here seems like it would have been the fair thing to do. The job of providing that framework should have fallen on the shoulders of her editor(s). And in my opinion they let her down.

On This Day: In 1929 America’s Great Depression began with the crash of the Wall Street stock market. In 1966 the National Organization for Women was founded. In 1967 the musical “Hair” opened off Broadway.

 On This Day: Eat Fresh! Today’s Farmers’ Markets: Escondido (Welk Resort 8860 Lawrence Welk Drive) 1pm –Sunset

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Doug Porter

Doug Porter was active in the early days of the alternative press in San Diego, contributing to the OB Liberator, the print version of the OB Rag, the San Diego Door, and the San Diego Street Journal. He went on to have a 35 year career in the Hospitality business and decided to go back into raising hell when he retired. He won awards for 'Daily Reporting and Writing: Opinion/Editorial' from the Society of Professional Journalists in 2013 and 2014. Doug is a cancer survivor (sans vocal chords) and lives in North Park.
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