Photo by Jack GouldYou can tell when a journalist gets too cozy with government sources: they report official spin as unadulterated truth.
Take Seema Mehta, a veteran Los Angeles Times reporter who covers the Orange County Board of Supervisors. On March 9, Mehta delighted supervisors by crediting them with previously unknown financial wizardry. Without attribution, she asserted that "harsh budget cuts" by the supervisors following the 1994 bankruptcy brought the county's finances "back on solid ground" by the end of the decade.
It must have been strenuous to make three errors in her lead paragraph, but Mehta succeeded. In the late 1990s, the county—or, to be precise, local taxpayers—still owed $1 billion in bankruptcy debt. I called a friend who teaches first-year college economics and asked if a 10-digit debt indicates sound finances. He said no.
But it wasn't just the simple numbers that perplexed Mehta. She also apparently doesn't understand that the primary reason for the increase in available money during the late 1990s wasn't due to "budget cutting"—in fact, the county today has a larger budget and more employees than ever. More important, the money pouring into the county's coffers in the late '90s had everything to do with skyrocketing sales-tax receipts during the Clinton economic-boom years.
These facts may be too complex for the Times' skeletal Costa Mesa crew. Later in Mehta's story about current budget cuts, editors let pass her preposterous claim that "tens of millions of dollars that were cut will have no impact on residents." The emphasis is mine, the absurdity hers. "For example," Mehta continued, "instead of spending $29 million to build a new South County courthouse, the construction will be financed over many years."
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Financing $29 million will cost taxpayers nothing in interest?
It's easy for reporters to unquestioningly rewrite press releases they're handed by reigning county politicians. The board told Mehta they had slashed $102 million from the next budget, and that's what she dutifully reported. But had Mehta wanted to exert minimum journalistic independence, she could have relied on another county press release, this one from Feb. 4. Not exactly buried there—why should it be when the local reporters don't bother to ask questions?—was this illuminating tidbit about the county's budgetary hocus pocus: at least $17 million of the alleged $102 million in recent budget cutting was a public relations fraud. The supervisors shifted $17.1 million in debt from one county account to another and then called the transaction a savings in next year's $4 billion budget.
I called county spokeswoman Diane Thomas for an explanation. "All I can tell you is that a debt was transferred between two assessment districts," she said after consulting with the budget staff. "How that saves the county money I don't really understand, either."
So we're all in the dark. Just like in the days that led up to the supervisors losing $1.7 billion of local taxpayer money in 1994, millions of dollars are mysteriously floating around the county Hall of Administration. And the mainstream press—just like in the months before Dec. 6, 1994—can't be bothered. The government's press releases say everything is okay.