Casual Insult Elicits Defense From Reporter’s Colleagues, Apology from Director of Think Tank

July 28th, 2014 · 2 Comments · journalism, state government, tax policy

By Denise Tessier

Paid libertarian Paul Gessing set off a Twitter run of comments last week when he tweeted the question:

What’s worse, the economic return on NM film industry or reporting on new study?

The point of the tweet was to direct Twitter followers to Gessing’s essay “New Study confirms film subsidies are a boondoggle.” In it, he straightaway dismissed film incentives and glibly insulted media reporting on the topic as “clueless.” Gessing is director of the Rio Grande Foundation (RGF), the self-described “research institute” funded by and following the policy of national ultra-conservative groups.

Gessing was referring to (and inferring “clueless” reporting about) the front page Albuquerque Journal story, “New Mexico film impact estimated at $1.5 billion” by Journal Capitol Bureau reporter Dan Boyd, which ran July 23.

Boyd’s story thoroughly reported on the results of a State Legislature-mandated study that had been released the previous day. The story (deservedly) was given prominent play, and his  capabilities as a seasoned daily reporter were evident in that he not only outlined the study’s major points, he compared them to two previous studies. He solicited and printed reactions from the Senate sponsor of study legislation, from a studio CEO, and from a business agent for a local film workers union. The story also included a statement from the governor.

Journal science writer John Fleck (@jfleck) was the first to weigh in with a response to Gessing’s tweet (@pgessing) and essay, questioning Gessing’s calculations about subsidy costs per full-time job (which Gessing later acknowledged as an error, both in his tweeted response to Fleck and in a correction posted on “Errors of Enchantment,” Gessing’s RGF blog).

Fleck continued the Twitter conversation, saying, “To be clear, I’m agnostic about film studies,” but added that he found Gessing’s other two arguments “unpersuasive” and that he found Gessing’s use of the word “clueless” when talking about Boyd “offensive.” Gessing replied:

Media’s overall coverage of film subsidies been one-sided. Not saying Dan is clueless in particular.

At this point, Boyd entered the conversation, saying:

Thanks, I guess. I know where you stand on this issue, Paul, but I’ve tried to be thorough and fair in reporting on it.

(Journal Investigative Reporter Mike Gallagher (@MgallagherMike) also joined the discussion about this time, saying, “I do read it as Mr. Gessing calling Dan Boyd clueless and an apology is in order.”)

To his credit, Gessing then outright apologized to Boyd, acknowledging that Boyd’s reporting was “more thorough than most.” But Gessing’s tweet also added, “More perspectives needed.”

These two parts of the conversation – Boyd’s comment and Gessing’s reply – reveal something telling about the collision between reporting news and the rigid nature of ideologically driven “think tanks.” As stated, Boyd knows where the individual in question – Paul Gessing – stands on this issue. By association, he also knows where the Rio Grande Foundation stands on it. Gessing doesn’t like film incentives.

But that doesn’t mean Boyd has to include Gessing in every story about film incentives.

In fact, reporting becomes inaccurately distorted when extreme lengths are taken to find another “side” of a story in order to be “fair.” To borrow from a Paul Krugman anecdote: A good reporter doesn’t waste time finding a single person who thinks the world is flat in order to write a “fair and balanced” article about the world being round. That’s “false equivalency” in a nutshell.

Note that Gessing replied “more perspectives needed,” even though three studies have been done and he himself is free to complain about film incentives on his blog and in his frequent speaking engagements. (And as we’ve pointed out repeatedly on JournalWatch, the Rio Grande Foundation gets loads of ink and free publicity for its views in the Albuquerque Journal.)

Gwyneth Doland (@GwynethDoland), a KNME correspondent and journalism professor at the University of New Mexico picked up on this when she entered the Gessing/Fleck/Boyd conversation, asking Gessing whether he had any data backing up his new assertion – that the Journal was lopsided in how it was presenting the film study findings and “more perspectives” were needed.

She wrote that “Media must accurately reflect range/ratio of perspectives,” and posed to Gessing a pertinent question in that regard: Was Boyd’s reporting “inaccurate or inconvenient?”

A review of the Albuquerque Journal online archives reveals that Boyd himself has written numerous articles on the film incentives, going back to the administration of Bill Richardson, who championed them and paved the way for their start in 2002. Many of those stories include a skeptic’s perspective, including “Film Credits Under Fire,” an article from Dec. 1, 2010, in which Gov.-elect Susana Martinez is quoted as saying she planned to review the program for possible cuts/elimination.

As Boyd pointed out in that story, a national think tank study of film incentives in 42 states was claiming that a previous study exaggerated the benefits to New Mexico. But he also wrote:

Advocates of New Mexico’s film tax credit, which offers filmmakers a 25 percent rebate on direct in-state expenses such as lodging, food and vehicle rentals, said Tuesday that the report doesn’t place enough emphasis on the trickle-down benefits of a booming film industry.

Jon Hendry, business agent of the local International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, said Tuesday that the program was not designed to provide immediate dividends.

Martinez ended up proposing that the incentives be trimmed from 25 percent to 15 percent. As Boyd reported in May 2011, the State Investment Council’s revamping of its film loans “marked the end of a months-long overhaul of almost every aspect of then-Gov. Bill Richardson’s aggressive New Mexico film-production incentive program.” His story continued:

Despite protests on some scores from people in the movie business, the controversial Richardson-era programs have been capped, cut and tightened since he left office at the end of 2010. The reformers — including a largely new investment council, Gov. Susana Martinez and legislators — aimed to make New Mexico’s film production incentives less generous, protect investments and save the state some money.

At the time, among those concerned about the cuts were New Mexico State University professors who told participants at a New Mexico Press Women conference (including this writer) that more than 100 students were graduating that month from NMSU with credentials related to the film industry – the result of programs instituted at NMSU in light of the incentives. They expressed concern there would be no work for these students and that the governor – who up until that time lived in Las Cruces where NMSU was based – had turned a deaf ear to their concerns.

As Hendry told Boyd in 2010, the program was not designed to provide immediate dividends, but the seeds had been sown.

Two years later, a smiling Martinez was touring the set of “Longmire” and shaking hands with its stars, calling the incentives program “extremely” important to the state, and saying she would likely support new legislation that would raise the 25 percent incentive to 30 percent.

By May 2013, 10 new productions were slated to start in New Mexico, and then-Journal Assistant Arts Editor Adrian Gomez reported:

The activity is good news for the local film industry, which found itself in a slump in 2011 after being a leader in the business for nearly four years.

Part of the slump was blamed on uncertainty under Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration over the future of the state’s film incentive program, which provided a 25 percent rebate on all New Mexico goods and services. In 2011, that was capped at $50 million a year.

This year, Martinez and the Legislature beefed up the program, giving a TV series that shoots six or more episodes in New Mexico a 30 percent rebate on all New Mexico goods and services.

In answer to Doland’s questions about lopsided perspectives, Gessing replied:

I saw zero critical voices despite wide-ranging concerns from left, right, and center.

Perhaps that’s a reflection of the governor’s change of heart.

In her statement printed in Boyd’s article last week, she said the film industry has helped diversify the state’s economy:

“We continue to have a strong incentive program, with increased predictability and stability in our state budget, and we are fighting to build a more competitive, diverse economy in every corner of the state,” Martinez said in a statement.

“New Mexico has so much to offer to those who are in the business of searching for the right place to shoot a movie or television program, and our communities clearly benefit from these opportunities,” the Republican governor added.

As it wound down, the Twitter conversation ended politely, with Gessing still pining for “critical voices.”

From Boyd to Gessing:

Appreciate the apology. I agree critical perspectives needed and always welcome your feedback.

From Gessing:

Thanks Dan. I’d love other critical voices both from NM and nationally, not just plugging RGF.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • diane denish

    Dan Boyd did a fine job but the Journal editorial board is where the bias exists. Never a mention or credit to Bill Richardson for kicking off the activity and providing incentives that worked. The film industry knows who deserves the credit for igniting this industry and it isn’t Martinez.

  • Bill Tiwald

    I was talking to two registered Independents a few days ago who thought the film incentives are the number one thing they support NM state government doing. Just two voices but I have a friend who has largely been employed by the film industry since 2005. I have seen several movies filmed in NM in the 11 years I’ve been here. I’ve been proud of NM for this.

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