Everybody’s an Expert

January 29th, 2011 · No Comments · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

Albuquerque resident Eugene Aronson made a timely point in a letter to the editor that ran in the Albuquerque Journal Jan. 25, saying he didn’t understand “how the idea that one person’s opinion is as valid as anyone else’s came about.” He added:

If I am deathly ill, I certainly would not consider my plumber’s opinion to be as valid as my doctor’s.

For a sewer stoppage, I would defer to the plumber.

Aronson isn’t alone in questioning why any and every conceivable idea ends up in print. I’ve written before about letters to the editor, and while some letter writers have expertise and contribute valid information to a topic, most simply reveal the public’s feelings about a subject, largely based on what they’ve read and heard, whether or not what they’ve read or heard is verifiable.

Editors at the Journal usually publish letters without vetting them for accuracy (and sometimes, without even correcting the grammar). And, as stated in my older post linked above, even public sentiment isn’t reflected quite accurately, as people generally write when they’re against, rather than in favor of a policy.

However, (as we’ve mentioned before) the absence of editing and vetting extends beyond letters to Journal guest columns. In running just about anyone who sends in a piece, the Journal does readers a disservice by leaving them to their own devices in sorting out different sides of an issue.

Usually, the Journal will run a column taking one tack, and then, in “fairness,” will run an opposing viewpoint. Often the second is prompted by the first, and often one or the other is submitted not by an expert, but by a think tank or organization with an agenda to promote. Occasionally a column by an expert is paired with another on the same topic. Pairing opposing viewpoints on one day is better than the trickle method over several days, but unless both columns are written by experts, the paper ends up providing what is aptly called a “false equivalency.” Thus, editors are able to feign the impression they’ve provided debate-worthy sides of an issue, when instead they’re providing, as letter writer Aronson says, viewpoints from the doctor and the plumber.

An example appeared on the Journal’s Op Ed (Opposite Editorial) page Monday, Jan. 24, when two columns about New Mexico film industry incentives were packaged together.

The first, “Rebate Can Be Winner for All,” came from University of New Mexico law professor Sherri Burr, who specializes in entertainment law and has written five books related to the film industry. Burr’s column calmly and without rhetoric lays out the issue: that industry proponents want the state’s rebate program to continue and that others, including the governor, some legislators and the Rio Grande Foundation, are concerned about the program’s cost. She writes:

My research on the industry reveals that there are options that can satisfy both sides.

She then explains how the New Mexico rebate works, how other states are baiting the film industry and how New Mexico can actually finance film rebates to keep them going. She suggests four steps New Mexico can consider taking to bring in money and further enhance New Mexico’s reputation as a film location, adding:

Further, New Mexico could impose CPA audits to ensure producers are paying their bills before rebates are issues. Alabama, California and South Carolina require CPA audits.

This is good information. (By way of disclosure, Burr and I both serve on the board of directors of New Mexico Press Women, but readers can discern for themselves her expertise and the value of her suggestions.)

Underneath Burr’s article, equivalent space (in terms of column inches) is given to Paul J. Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation (which Burr even mentioned in her column), an organization that describes itself as “an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico in principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.” Lots of buzz words there.

Gessing’s contribution to this dialogue, as the headline writer cleverly summed up, is “Industry Giveaways a Box-Office Bust.” Gessing discourages the reader from getting caught up in pesky numbers when “simple logic is more useful than complex economic studies that are ultimately designed to justify a predetermined policy.” He says:

This logic can be best summarized as “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”

His column offers no suggestions for continuing the rebate, as he’s clearly against it. Instead, he maintains that the presence of the film industry in New Mexico “does not increase our economic prosperity” and basically says the state shouldn’t even consider doing it. But, not surprisingly, only half the column talks about the film incentives; the last half segues into support for the extractive industries, beginning with this statement:

Of course, the film industry is not the only group making wild economic claims.

Without having established that the film industry has made any wild economic claims, he continues by railing against environmentalists who support a carbon emissions cap, saying they defy logic. He then offers this logic of his own:

While government could easily create “jobs” by mandating that all construction projects be done by hand shovels — or better yet by spoon — it is hard to argue that government regulations can drive economic growth.

The most incredible paragraph in Gessing’s column, however, is this:

. . .we at the Rio Grande Foundation hope to convince ever-larger numbers of New Mexicans that they, not those industries with the best lobbyists, are the best stewards of resources in the economy. This is not easy when massive, well-funded public relations campaigns are carried out to convince us otherwise, but we’ll keep trying.

This is a rather disingenuous statement coming from someone who directs an organization whose mission is to encourage certain policies (i.e., limited government), and who also is on the board of CARE, an organization that lobbies year-round for the extractive industries, most notably oil and gas, via a public relations campaign that includes in large part columns (like this one) that run in the Albuquerque Journal.

The Journal has given this group generous and frequent coverage and space, despite its known biases, as we’ve commented on in previous posts.

The doctor/plumber analogy also fits when I look back on the first time I ever heard Gessing speak. After listening to several physicians testify in support of carbon emissions caps before the Environmental Improvement Board on March 1, the first day of hearings last year, Gessing took the podium and introduced himself as someone who had just become a father a month earlier, as if attempting to put himself on equal footing with the doctors who had just expressed concern about children’s health. (Gessing’s testimony that followed mainly consisted of questioning “the objectivity and fairness of the board.”)

Gessing’s colleague at CARE, Marita K. Noon, ostensibly made Gessing’s point regarding children’s health in a column that appeared a month later in the Journal’s sister publication, the Mountain View Telegraph. The air children breathe was not an issue for Noon, who asked readers instead to “think of permanent harm to the children” that would occur if oil and gas operations are regulated, thereby allegedly reducing royalties she claimed would otherwise go to children’s health care.

Fortunately for readers, in terms of the topic of the film industry incentives anyway, the Journal promises to provide an in-depth piece by Journal business reporter Winthrop Quigley in the Sunday Journal (Jan. 30). That’s according to a promo box that accompanied today’s (Jan. 24) reportage of Thursday’s meeting of the House Labor and Human Resources Committee. Now, that promises to be of service to readers.

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