Dwindling Information Makes Voters Susceptible to Spin

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Mon, Oct 26, 2015, 11:39 pm  //  Whatcom Citizen

Whatcom Citizen is a pseudonym for a local writer whom we know and respect. The writer must remain anonymous, and is not necessarily the same person as last time.  

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The biggest untold story of our political landscape over the last five years has not been the influx of coal money, or the increasingly violent rhetoric of everyone from presidential candidates to high school students, or even the shifting tide of voter demographics. All those are important factors, but they miss a key component: the apparatus for informing the voting public is broken.

Going back a mere ten years, to 2005, if a voter needed information on a local candidate, they would read the Bellingham Herald’s insightful endorsements, peruse the Cascadia Weekly’s columns, sample the good work here at Northwest Citizen, enjoy a healthy political debate either on KGMI or in person at the Bill Mize forum, or read the Voters Guide provided by the County Auditor’s office.

Now, the Herald is a shadow of its old self – unable to summon enough insight or (more likely) page space to offer endorsements on local races. They’ve surrendered their editorial page to whichever candidates want to write for them. Tim Johnson, editor of the Cascadia Weekly, was bragging on social media in September about being able to write all his Gristle columns ahead of time.  As for political forums, they are left in the hands of obvious partisan hacks like KGMI’s Kris Halterman or ignored and neglected by the media.

This effect plays out on the national level as well. The Republican presidential debates, hosted by their favorite conservative cheerleaders, have become attempts to create “media moments” rather than efforts to illuminate policy differences between candidates. In the Democratic debate the candidates actually discussed details of issues like student loan debt, education standards, international relations and climate change without falling back on hackneyed slogans. The national media, such as it is, responded by mocking the “boring” debate.

This all has a damaging impact on the voting public. Without a good grounding in what the candidates plan to do and what the job entails, voters are left to choose based on trivial identity issues: “I don’t like the way that candidate introduces himself.” Or, “I’m voting for this person because they’re for farmers.”

Operating in this kind of informational vacuum is difficult, even for those trying to stay informed or make a considered decision. A case in point is the Charter Review measures. They are complicated and have very real repercussions, but the “debates” have mostly been supporters and detractors shouting at each other on social media. By the same token, the money spent on print mailers every year is nothing more than an opportunity to shout at each other through the mail. Neither mechanism is a good way to conduct an informative discussion or educate the public on the nuances of each position.

Unfortunately, there is no single solution that can solve this problem. Yes, the Herald could return to life and offer endorsements, and the Whatcom Watch could widely distribute their full-spread candidate comparisons, and, yes, KGMI could bring in experts and conduct town hall meetings to examine the repercussions of changing the County Charter, but it would not change voter behavior.

The reason newspaper endorsements used to matter, but no longer do, is that voters are changing how they consume information. Voters no longer look to newspapers as bastions of sage advice and none of the blaring 24-hour hyper-partisan news channels offer a stolid, trustworthy Walter Cronkite figure. Without access to facts they can trust, information about political debates is absorbed via tweets or casual conversations with friends. In short, information is fragmented and unreliable.

Most alarming is that national politics are racing full-tilt toward a post-policy world, where the leading Republican contenders for president can conjure specters of organ harvesting with no fear that their words will be fact-checked or contested by any trustworthy media source.

But not all is lost. Internet news ventures are allowing for better use of original source documents (Curious about the vote of a specific Senator? Here’s a video clip from 2007 of him talking about it.) And as high-speed internet access becomes a priority for rural communities, the tendrils of new media are trying to rebuild the credibility lost by our print media. But it will take time and resources.

The alternative is just too terrifying to imagine.

Abe Jacobson  //  Tue, Oct 27, 2015, 8:04 am

A couple of quibbles with the otherwise worthwhile article:

(a) The Herald’s main problem during its present decline is not the lack of election endorsements, but rather its ongoing retreat from anything resembling journalism. The Herald is morphing into a school-sports booster rag. Anyone searching for timely, probing, and reasonably comprehensive coverage of local news will be sorely disappointed. For example, today’s Herald puts most of its energy into school basketball, with a front-page leader on Lyndon Christian’s team. The same issue, and all before it since the event happened last week, have been totally silent on the corruption of our local election by coal-funded dark money pouring into the new PAC called Clear Ballot Choices.

(b) Tim Johnson’s Gristle, and long-form Current, sections of Cascadia Weekly provide important investigation of local issues. Many of these issues are ongoing rather than fast-breaking. Thus Johnson can write some of the Gristle pieces without waiting until 2 hours before press time. There is no way that a weekly can serve as a daily record; it should focus instead on issues that endure more than a daily news cycle.

Abe Jacobson

Sandy Robson  //  Tue, Oct 27, 2015, 11:10 am

Here is just one example of the Herald’s sub-par job on informing the public. During the height of the election season in what is a highly contentious election due to the numerous coal terminal-funded Charter propositions on the ballot, the Herald runs a 1-paragraph blurb (copied and pasted below) on a “What’s happening in Whatcom County on Oct. 21st” page.

The other “happenings” featured on that page space were the Back to the Future party at the Pickford, Amtrak’s 20-years of running passenger train service to Canada celebration, Whatcom County getting financial assistance for repairing/replacing facilities damaged by wildfires, and an announcement that a canned seafood recall is expanding. That space is where the Herald places the blurb. It should have been a detailed news story. And it was in the middle of those other blurbs, not even at the top of the list.

So, a 1-paragraph blurb about coal interests in our County elections and the large amount of money being spent, which included a small mention of the Clear Ballot Choices PAC formed by coal terminal applicant PIT was all the Herald did on that front.

Thousands of voters were likely, and are likely, voting since the Herald had the news about the coal terminal PAC, and could have been informed before marking their ballots. But no, they weren’t informed.

What has been going on in this election is big news and it’s not being covered to any degree deserving of the public and voters. The fact that the coal terminal applicant is spending huge money trying to get ballot measures/Props 1, 2, and 3 approved, which directly affect our County Council election system and in-turn the Council make-up is a big story needing more attention. That PIT-formed and funded PAC is also opposing Prop 9.

The blurb in the Herald’s What’s Happening section:

“Coal interests”

“Were you asked to participate in a phone survey about this year’s Whatcom County elections? Some of that polling was paid for by the company that would build a coal terminal at Cherry Point. SSA Marine gave more than $42,500 this year to the Republican Party, which conducted some of the polls. The terminal operator also formed its own Political Action Committee, Clear Ballot Choices, which did more surveys. The proposed coal terminal spent more than $80,000 on this year’s ballot, according to Public Disclosure Commission filings, more than any other group.”


Sandy Robson  //  Tue, Oct 27, 2015, 11:30 am

Another example of sub-par performance of The Bellingham Herald would be when important context from Charter Commissioner Chet Dow’s email quote was omitted, in an Oct. 14 Herald article.

The quote from Commissioner Chet Dow’s April 18, 2015 email, cited by Ralph Schwartz in the article, was missing what I believe to be the most critical part of the entire email. It is a critical part of the context for that email. Mr. Schwartz left off the last 3 sentences of the paragraph he quoted. I really don’t understand how this part of the quote could be left off:

“This is why I believe that all other topics pale in comparison to getting Amendment 1 enacted. From a purely political point of view, we cannot afford to dilute our focus, in my opinion. Not if we want to maximize our prospects for getting this done.”

Below, is the full paragraph from Commissioner Dow’s April 18 email. It is important to note that Charter Amendments 1, 3, and 10 are now identified on the Nov. ballot as Propositions 1, 2, and 3 respectively. So, when Mr. Dow referred to Amendment 10 in his April 18 email quoted below, that amendment is now identified as Proposition 3 on the Nov. ballot.

[Referring to those whom Mr. Dow called “extreme environmentalists” in his email, he wrote]:
“Their small group of true believers clearly understand what is at stake with respect to Whatcom County’s demographics and the potential future make-up of our County Council should we succeed in first placing Charter Amendments 1 & 10 [now Propositions 1 and 3 on the Nov. 2015 ballot] on the ballot, and then in getting out the vote and getting a majority of the voters to approve these measures. It has not escaped subscribers to the environmental religion that at some point it is likely that County Council will cast votes concerning whether or not to issue the needed permits for the shipping terminal. Between now and November our people have to educate and persuade their friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, etc. about what is at stake. It will be a long time (not in our lifetimes), if ever, before another private enterprise comes along willing to risk nearly a billion dollars of private money in Whatcom County. This is why I believe that all other topics pale in comparison to getting Amendment 1 enacted. From a purely political point of view, we cannot afford to dilute our focus, in my opinion. Not if we want to maximize our prospects for getting this done.”

On a related note, the article also stated: “In the roughly 200 emails Dow released in response to a public-records request, he says hardly anything else about the coal terminal.”

That April 18 email packs quite a wallop and I really don’t think there needs to be much more than that statement Dow made right there in his email. It pretty much sums things up. How many more times does he need to repeat that? Not only does Commissioner Dow say that the Gateway Pacific coal terminal project is the reason for the focus on Amendment 1, he also goes into the detail behind his reasoning.

Plus, the Herald article made no mention of the fact that Commissioner Dow was communicating via email with SSA Marine’s consultant on the GPT project (since 2013), Dave Brumbaugh, who, according to emails reviewed from public records requests, advised Dow on matters related to Proposition 1 district-only voting.

Abe Jacobson  //  Tue, Oct 27, 2015, 5:22 pm

You raise very important points. What you describe is really journalistic malpractice on the part of the Herald.
Abe Jacobson

Bill McCallum  //  Wed, Oct 28, 2015, 11:36 am

This article contains an error.

It refers to one source of information about local candidates in 2005 as a voters guide provided by the county auditor’s office. A local voters guide did not exist in 2005.

On the 2005 general election ballot was Charter Amendment 3. It passed with 60 percent of the vote and required the auditor to publish and distribute a voters’ pamphlet for all Whatcom County primary and general elections. The first time Whatcom County had a local voters’ pamphlet was 2006.

Why was it necessary for the writer of the article to be anonymous?

Dwindling Information Makes Voters Susceptible to Spin

A perspective on the our changing news system, the consequences, and the challenges for the future. With a suggestion of the solution.

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