Saturday, June 11, 2011

Howard Fischer goes after David Schapira, and blurs the line between professionalism and partisanship

Last night, I put up a post that quoted from a story written by Howard Fischer of Capital Media Services.

Actually, I should just say "written by Howard Fischer" because he *is* Capitol Media Services.  It's a one-man operation where he is reporter, photographer, editor, business manager, chief cook, and bottle washer.

He is called the "Dean of the Capitol press corps" for a good reason.  He's earned it with decades of tireless coverage of the Arizona Capitol.  He's good at the job, and most of the state's media outlets use his stories.

He's a Republican (I think so anyway, based on some of the things that I've heard him say at the Capitol), but he is willing to grill electeds regardless of their party affiliation.

If most of his stories seem to be a little R-centric, well, there are a LOT of Rs in and around the Capitol.

However, on occasion, his partisan preferences burst into view in one of his stories, and yesterday's coverage of the "special" session was one of those occasions.

Professional journalists aren't supposed to editorialize in "news" pieces, and they are supposed to be even-handed.

From his story on the special session, published by -
Senate Minority Leader David Schapira, D-Tempe, said those who have been out of work for more than 79 weeks need help now.

"Maybe in another year a legitimate argument could be made that these folks just really need to try harder at getting jobs,'' he said. But he said Arizonans are hurting now.

More to the point, Schapira said they are entitled to the benefits.

"People who qualify for unemployment are people who have worked for years, who have paid into a system for years, who have invested in a system for years,'' he said.

"This is not simply welfare, this is not a give-away, this is not a handout,'' Schapira continued. " This is a return on investment into a system that people have paid into throughout their careers.

But Schapira is wrong on two fronts.

The first 26 weeks of jobless benefits comes from a state trust fund which is financed by a tax paid not by workers but by their employers. Premiums are based on how often companies lay off workers and vary from as little as $2 a year to as much as $378.

And all benefits beyond 26 weeks, both one program which provides another 53 weeks and the extended benefits program at issue here which covers another 20 weeks, are financed totally from federal tax dollars.
This post isn't meant to point out that the last two paragraphs in the quote point out that his point about Schapira being wrong is wrong itself (you can tell I don't work for a "professional" media outlet like Fischer or anybody from the Arizona Capitol Times or the Arizona Republic - this sentence would never make it past an editor :) ).

This is meant to point out that he took the time to refute a statement from one of the subjects of his story, something that professional journalists aren't supposed to do.  It's not an absolute prohibition, but when a journalist does, he has to be right when he calls out someone as wrong.

He also unfairly took pains to specifically criticize a Democrat, while allowing statements from Republicans to go unchallenged.

Also from his story -
 "The real issue is we have destroyed thousands of jobs in Arizona and also in America because of progressive socialist principles that have been used in the last 20 years that has changed our country,'' said Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake. "The real root of the problem is this country's in desperate need of jobs.''


Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said there is some evidence that what the governor wants actually would hurt the economy.

"Studies have been done ... controlling all other variables found that when you do extend unemployment benefits you have an effect of increasing the overall unemployment rate,'' he said.
Fischer left those statements from Republicans unchallenged which, as a professional journalist, was the correct thing for him to do. 

The problem is that he ignored the standards of his profession when he went after Schapira's statement, and he compounded the problem when he gave the Republican subjects of his piece a free pass.

Now, an amateur journalist (like me!) would have pointed out to Sylvia Allen that over the last 20 years, the Republicans have controlled one or both chambers of the US Congress for more the 12 out of the 20 years, the White House for approximately 1/2 of that period, and the Arizona Legislature for ALL of that time (no room for "progressive socialist principles" there) or that Andy Biggs didn't produce the unnamed studies that he cited (or the unmitigated arrogance of someone who literally made a fortune by opening his mail one day having nothing but contempt for Arizonan who work, or want to work, for a living).

Amateurs, such as those at Sonoran Alliance, can take an op-ed piece written by Schapira and published in the East Valley Tribune and give failed 2010 state senate candidate Wendy Rogers a platform to refute Schapira's statements (even more incorrectly than Fischer did, but that's my opinion, which I'm free to express here :) ).

Amateurs, such as me, Ted Prezelski at Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion, the team at Blog for Arizona, Greg Patterson at Espresso Pundit, the folks at Sonoran Alliance and the rest aren't professional journalists who aren't held to the same standards.  In addition, we are open about our partisanship.

Note my own partisanship expressed in the above paragraphs - links to the Democratic-leaning blogs, but none for the Republican-leaning ones.  Not trying to be subtle here.  :)

Generally speaking, Fischer doesn't cross the line. 

Yesterday however, he crossed it, and it wasn't by a baby step.  He took a running start before long jumping over it.

On the other hand, at his age (and mine!), "long jumps" aren't so long anymore.  He's not going to need binoculars and a GPS unit to find the line again.  :))

1 comment:

John said...

Based upon what I have observed over the past 5 years, while Howie Fisher is known to go after public figures, it is to elicit a good quote not to "get them" for partisan or self-serving reasons.

There are different levels of fact checking. Who pays what for unemployment insurance is an easily accessible fact and one not subject to subjective fudging. I suspect Howie knew who pays what because it came up earlier in the session when we debated whether or not to increase the UI tax for businesses to make the UI fund healthier. That being the case, it would have been irresponsible journalism for Howie to not correct Schapira's error because it would have misled the public.

The same cannot be said for Howie's not wading into the economic "fact" of whether or not extended UI benefits lengthen unemployment and the effects of liberal programs on the economy at large. These are more subjective issues and any knowledgable person knows that there are probably a mountain of studies by learned people on both sides of each issue. For Howie to have gone down that fact check road would have been impractical in terms of ink availability and losing the readers interest after twenty pages of dry copy.

The bottom line is that Schapira made a factual error that Howie probably knew was wrong and had an obligation to his readers to correct. Fact checking the R's comments was not practical, in the context of a non-academic news article.

State Rep. and Sometimes "Howie Victim" John Kavanagh