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News coverage quashes sense of urgency

There’s an affliction in journalism. It’s called boosterism. A lot of reporters go all weak in the knees on some stories and put an upbeat spin on players, whether individuals or institutions, instead of scrutinizing them.

This is particularly true, though not exclusively so, in the case of those engaged in good works. United Way, food banks, art museums tend to get rose-colored news coverage, with the result that the public sometimes gets shafted. In 1975-76, reporters pretty much gave the Nevada Bicentennial Commission a free ride – and then people associated with the commission ended up facing both local and federal charges in court. There was once a scandal in United Way in Washoe, and the press was mostly a spectator.

One really good example of this syndrome was seen with the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. The virus got into the blood supply but the blood industry resisted testing donors to screen out carriers, seizing on any justification to avoid the added expense – even after transfusion recipients and hemophiliacs started contracting the disease.

Journalists tended to portray blood banks and the Red Cross in a supportive way. As author Randy Shilts wrote, “Seeing themselves as the bastions of common sense, science writers and reporters covering the epidemic also wrote curb-the-panic stories and avoided asking the blood bankers tough questions. Although there was ample evidence that [AIDS victims] were sexually transmitting the disease to each other long before they showed any overt symptoms, the media accepted the blood bankers’ assertion that transfusion AIDS could only be proved when a diagnosed AIDS case had given blood to a person later diagnosed with the disease. This is why ONLY those people showing overt symptoms of the disease were disallowed from donating blood…” Long after the evidence piled up against the blood industry, Shilts wrote, the blood banks still had “the unstinting support of the news media.” This was a case where people actually died because reporters failed to do their jobs.

Fortunately, the stakes are usually not that extreme, but they are serious enough. A good example at the moment is the way journalists seem to let state officials set the tone on the state’s economy. Those officials have a vested interest in describing Nevada as in economic recovery, exaggerating positive indicators, trivializing negative news, and inflating the state’s economic development efforts. Reporters have a habit of echoing that rose-colored view instead of seeking out competing viewpoints from economists, hard pressed homeowners, businesspeople, or officials with less buoyant outlooks. Last week I spoke with Sparks City Councilmember Julia Ratti, an unrelievedly optimistic person who, however, is dismayed by the way some problems are being ignored.

“We’re not investing in infrastructure,” she said. “We’re not doing anything in terms of prevention. We’re not doing the kinds of things that make a city great. So if what our community wants is to just get by, then our service level is adequate. But if we want to have parks that we’re proud of, if we want to have the kind of community services that, when businesses relocate, they’re looking for in the community because this is where their employees want to live, we have some investment that we still need to do.”

Two years ago, Nevada Controller Kim Wallin noted that a Brookings Institution study of Nevada’s economy prescribed investment. “Brookings said—and this is what we rest our laurels on—that our core strength on economic development has been and will remain our business-friendly environment, low taxes, low cost, light regulation, and ease of business start-up and permitting,” Wallin said. “But then they go on to say that key challenges include spotty economic planning and cooperation, weak innovation and technology commercialization enterprise, and substantial workforce skills shortfalls.” Those problems have scarcely been touched. While state officials say Nevada’s investment in economic development is adequate, Utah races ahead of Nevada.

“It just doesn’t look like that economy will ever be there again,” Nevada Senate budget chair Debbie Smith said this month of the state’s onetime reliance on construction as an economic engine.

Nevada has problems peculiar to its own economy. No other state has the highest foreclosure rate combined with a principal industry that is in decline. Historian Guy Louis Rocha points out that Nevada once experienced a depression of its own that lasted for twenty years. The state’s current problems will not be solved by what he calls “Kumbaya journalism.”

Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.