Sometimes I think the only story the Oregonian knows how to tell is the one about big government shafting the taxpayers. The pair of articles gracing today’s front page, “State Contractors Hit Jackpot,” and “High Pay Flows Freer in Portland Schools,” is a case in point. The former reveals how public money is flowing to contractors even in the wake of recession-era cutbacks, and the latter, about an excess of Portland Public School employees earning between $75,000 and $95,000.
On the surface, both articles describe a certain kind of truth about how taxpayer money is being spent. And yet, lurking behind the high minded journalistic descriptors– “months long investigation”–are formula stories peopled with formula characters. The journalistic formula is this: choose a public agency, any public agency, be it local, regional or state, commandeer budgets, contracts, vouchers, and FOLLOW THE MONEY. Once you’ve ascertained money is being wasted, let your story unfold via three stock characters: the clueless public employee, the greedy public employee, and the Kafkaesque public employee.
Voila: the story was written before you made your first phone call.
Now don’t get me wrong. Following the money is a storied journalistic tradition, as is the role of the fourth estate as a government watchdog.
But when the only big story a daily newspaper has to tell is about alleged misuse of government funds by villainous, idiotic or bureaucratically constrained public employees, the specifics of any given story get lost in the ideology–and the medium, in this case the Oregonian, becomes the message.
Does an article about the disproportionate number of PPS employees earning more $75,000 merit placement on the front page? Does it deserve more than a paragraph or two? Read this article, and the details of a few salaries are lost; what comes out loud and clear is there is something problematic about educators earning in excess of $75,000.
Not coincidentally, that message was also hammered home last month in another front page O story-about the University of Oregon president daring to hand out faculty raises during a recession. (Buried in the story was the fact that this money was not coming from public coffers, in part because there are no public coffers for education left).
You don’t have to be an Occupy Wall Street true believer to recognize that the real story in journalism today is not about government waste, even government waste during a recession, but about corporate influence over government. Imagine if the Oregonian ran weekly (monthly) investigations following the corporate lobby money trail, documenting pay disparities between corporate execs and rank and file workers, and discussing educator pay scales in context of the economic benefit tax payers would derive from supporting a well-compensated educator workforce.
Would that be journalistic overkill? Perhaps. But right now, in the O, such coverage would look an awful lot like journalistic balance and integrity.