Nancy Gibbs for the Higgy

April 6, 2020

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

A few years ago a friend of mine asked one of the Arizona Republic’s reporters why they were engaging in so much of what many former/potential Republic subscribers regard advocacy journalism. He reported to me that she shrugged her shoulders and said “it wins you awards.”

So it’s bad when newspapers go into full advocacy mode, worse still when folks at an Ivy League University can’t see through their tricks and hand them what perhaps used to be prestigious awards. Recently the Harvard Kennedy School gave the Arizona Republic, USA Today and the Center for Public Integrity an award for Copy, Paste, Legislate. The story made clever use of plagiarism detection software to selectively document the use of model bills by state lawmakers. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) serves as the bete noire in their story. “This fantastic reporting sheds light for the public and local media on the origins of legislation that gets passed in statehouses across the country” the above video proclaims from the judges of the Goldsmith Prize with what sounds like a string quartet playing somber music in the background.

Okay so what should the Harvard folks have been able to see through with this story? Well, not long after the publication of the piece Harvard Kennedy School graduate Pat Wolf noted on twitter:

@USATODAY spreads the deception that copycat legislation is an epidemic. Source of the problem is that @azcentral hid the fact that 99% of the bills they examined were NOT copycats. 1% is a rounding error, not a crisis.

That’s just the beginning of the problems with this story- but it’s a big problem. A few others: Trent England from the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs helpfully noted that model legislation has been around since 1892, and all kinds of groups create model bills. The story authors airbrushed the largest center-left source of model legislation (the National Council of State Legislatures) out of their analysis, comparing the right of center ALEC to a couple of very young and very small progressive model bill groups. TA-DA! Most of the model bills become right wing! If you are keeping score at home, so long as you are willing to ignore the 99% of bills that don’t come from models and also a large majority of groups who do model legislation, this looks scary to a left of center reader.

Unless…unless you pause to think for a moment and realize that model bills go through exactly the same legislative process that any other bill goes through. Either it passes through committees and chambers and receives the assent of the governor, or it doesn’t. Since anyone and everyone can and often do write model bills and they go through the normal democratic process so:

There are other problems, including factual errors which remain uncorrected, which you can read about here. I’ve simply had to accept that much of journalism has gone down the road of overt advocacy. It’s unfortunate, but as the Arizona Republic’s readership has continued to decline they seem to be attempting to play to the predispositions of their remaining subscriber base. It doesn’t seem to be working as a sustainability strategy: Arizona’s population continues to grow, the Republic’s subscriber base continues to shrink and the handwriting is on the wall. As a long time Republic subscriber who admires the work of multiple people at the paper, this is very sad. It feels more than a bit like watching Nick Cage drink himself to death in Leaving Las Vegas.

Which brings us back to the Higgy. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” the expression goes. I guess I can’t be too upset with USA Today and the Arizona Republic if they fall prey to the temptation to engage in sensationalism when they get rewarded for it. It would not have been past the analytical powers of a mildly skeptical Harvard sophomore to have spotted the flaws in this reporting, given a study of pluralism and policy diffusion. You know-the kind of things you ought to study at the Harvard Kennedy School as a sophomore. Figuring this out alas seems well beyond the power of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and their judges. I don’t know a thing about Nancy Gibbs other than what is in the above youtube video, but if newspapers are going to go they should die as they once lived- as something reasonably close to a neutral community institutions. The newspapers have more than enough problems without grandees tempting them to do slanted work with prizes.