Saturday, May 28, 2005

Independents or cranks?




Below is an editorial letter I sent to the local paper recently.

The Traverse City Record-Eagle is the major news outlet up here, and of late they've been on the warpath against the way things have always been done up here: behind closed doors, for the most part. Sometimes they seem to be on the side of the angels vis-a-vis opening up the town to contributions from new quarters, as I urge in my Creative Class article.

At other times, though, they seem to be both myopic and obsessed: endlessly beating on one small issue while letting the real story get away.

For instance, in a long series of articles last year, the paper brought forward a curious feature of the town's "Cool City" grant: a lot of the grant money was going to end up in the hands of the local chamber of commerce. The purpose of the grant was to set up an institute for creative entrepreneurship in the brand new Chamber of Commerce Building in town, and a lot of the cash from the state was going to end up going toward the rent for the offices.

Now, as a general idea--setting up an office to make it easier for people with cool ideas to cut through the red tape, communicate with potential investors, and imagine new markets--this was great. I had some problems with the details of the plan and how certain local interests groups were getting an inside track on the thing (e.g. the local "stop development" group), but all in all it seemed like a good idea.

The paper, though, went ballistic throwing around innuendo that the whole thing was setup as a cash bailout for the egotistical chamber, which had built its expensive downtown castle and now couldn't find anyone to rent the extra space in the building.

While the situation could certainly be construed in this way, the trouble was no one with any direct knowledge of the players involved (not even anyone at the paper, I'd guess) actually believed this to be the case.

Some months after the paper broke this story, the state suddenly decided that the proposed use of the grant was not consistent with the Cool Cities program, so they pulled the plug on the grant. The paper then proceeded to fulminate about how such a thing could possible happen and to question the competence of the folks who wrote the grant proposal and planned the spending. The net result was that in their dogged pursuit of cronyism and behind-closed-door decision-making, the paper ended up burning the grant writer, the least old-school public official in the area.

And because they were so terribly obsessed with tarring as many local officials as they could, the paper never asked some pretty basic questions of the state, like "How was it that it took you months to figure out how the city wanted to spend your grant money?" or "What were your officials doing when they came on officials visits to the grant recipients? Didn't they look at the spending plans, or did they just pose for photos? Why did it take you months even after the paper reported the story to find out how the grant money was to be spent? Why didn't the grant materials spell out that rent was not an eligible cost for grant spending?"

That was where the story was, and no one at the paper seemed to have the least curiosity about it.

The Record-Eagle has also reported on things like the financial situation of the local community college without having the least notion of how college finance works. They've reported, for instance, that certain departments are "losing money" when the fact of the matter is that tuition doesn't cover costs in any department across the campus. The whole point of giving the college a county millage and state grant money is to keep tuition low--to keep it from reflecting the true costs of running the college.

Every academic discipline "loses money" by design. The paper has written several articles on the school in a blissful state of unawareness of this fact.

One has to wonder what lets them think that this kind of reporting is OK: Laziness? Ignorance? Low staffing levels? A fear that accurate information kills drama?

I don't know the answer. But I do wish the paper would hold itself to some higher standards on these sorts of stories, rather than avidly trumpeting half-baked local scandal stories.

There's been some equally half-baked local opposition to the paper, one example of which you can find here

You can read the paper's coverage of these two issues by searching "cool cities" in its 2004 archives or "MTEC" in its 2004 and 2005 archives. The Record-Eagle search page.

Anyhow, here's the letter.

Independents or cranks?
One really has to wonder where the editorial writers of the Record-Eagle gain their uncommon wisdom and insight.
For instance, the May 22 editorial embrace of the Anne Melichars of the world. I would have thought that folks like Melichar and Jasper Weese were what are known as "cranks"; people who, as a matter of ego, are willing to ride their personal hobbyhorses at public meetings until an unruly mob or Robert's Rules of Order makes them stop.
But the Record-Eagle apparently knows better: these folks are actually freedom fighters, our own Yodas and Obi-Wans fighting against an evil empire of consensus.
All fun aside, I think it is time that the newspaper put aside its own hobbyhorse and admitted that Traverse City is not the last bastion of the Masonic Conspiracy, and that Know-Nothing obstructionism is a bad thing for local commissions, not a good thing.
When the public asks "Who's lobbying for us?" I think they generally have better sense than to answer "the local civic egomaniacs." The jury is still out on what to think of a newspaper that at the moment seems to be far more dedicated to self-aggrandizement than to things like "critical thinking."
Oran Kelley
Traverse City