Overt Newspaper Advocacy for Taxpayer Spending
Nobody wants to argue against assisting people who are striving to improve their lives during hard times, but when journalists leverage the public trust for naked advocacy, they do readers a grave disservice. Providence Journal reporter Steve Peoples did just that in a front page story on expiring social services programs, last Saturday, and the angles that he left entirely unexplored illustrate the bias. For example:
The 22-year-old Pawtucket native studies bookkeeping at Rhode Island College for six hours every Monday, Tuesday and Friday. She spends Wednesdays and Thursdays at an internship in the business office of Monster Mini Golf.
As Peoples notes, we’re in the midst of “Rhode Island’s worst economic downturn in decades.” Doesn’t it stand out, then, that a solvent company like Monster Mini Golf is filling a two-day-a-week job with an intern? The program arguably offers businesses valuable assistance, in that way, but one wonders why the reporter didn’t ask the company what it would do were it not able to fill a slot with a free employee. And, for that matter, why does it take a government program to join companies looking for unpaid work and people willing to work without pay?
Then there’s Peoples’s choice of a very sympathetic protagonist. She’s a 22-year-old single mother with a high school diploma. All we learn about the father of her child is that “it became clear that [he] could not contribute financially.” Why not? What’s he up to while taxpayers fill in the gaps that his actions have helped create? And didn’t the young adults receive “comprehensive sex education,” with lessons on (and probably access to) birth control? It goes a bit afield of Peoples’s article, but it’s also worthwhile to wonder whether, during an era in which how long and how extensively the government can and should prop up struggling citizens, we should also be devoting some attention to the deterioration of institutions — specifically, marriage — that shift some of the work over to the culture.
But the most egregious indication of the article’s advocacy is the fact that it was published at all. Note the information that Peoples saves to the end, having only mentioned the possibility of a three-month extension in passing previously:
[The woman’s] bookkeeping course ends in less than a month. There are no more training programs in sight. And her temporary welfare extension expires at the end of September.
State officials encourage her and anyone else hitting the new time limit to apply for another three-month hardship extension if necessary.
“Those 850 clients of ours that are closing are clearly entitled to a hardship. And the lack of finding work is something that fits our criteria,” says Buffi, of the Department of Human Services.
In other words, after two years of giving them welfare payments, the state doesn’t automatically cut people off. It just requires that the case be reviewed in quarterly increments. Whether there’s a limit to those, Peoples doesn’t say, but it seems to me that his article would have been more appropriate had he profiled somebody who isn’t getting an extension. Of course, such a character wouldn’t have made as effective a protagonist for the message that readers are meant to receive.