"The View from Nowhere" in Iowa legislative news coverage

When politicians lie, opponents often echo longtime Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous words: You’re entitled to your opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.

Politicians can get away with deception, however, when journalists present conflicting facts as opposing viewpoints in a “he said/she said” frame. So it was when Governor Terry Branstad recently touted phony job creation numbers, and reputable Iowa journalists hid behind “critics say” rather than acknowledging reality: no serious economist would recognize those statistics.

And so it was when the Des Moines Register again covered the Iowa Department of Revenue’s unprecedented attempt to rewrite tax code through the rule-making process. Statehouse reporter Brianne Pfannenstiel’s attention to the topic is welcome. The rule change has been an under-reported Iowa politics story this fall, even though it could have a huge impact on the state budget in coming years. Unfortunately, as was the case in earlier articles for the Register on the same controversy, Pfannenstiel avoided stating some important truths about the Branstad administration’s efforts, attributing such observations to “others” including “Democratic lawmakers.”

The journalist’s reflex to appear impartial by presenting factual statements as partisan opinions is part of what media critic Jay Rosen has called the View from Nowhere.

Rosen first used this phrase in 2003 and explained its meaning in a 2010 post at his Press Think blog:

In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position “impartial.” Second, it’s a means of defense against a style of criticism that is fully anticipated: charges of bias originating in partisan politics and the two-party system. Third: it’s an attempt to secure a kind of universal legitimacy that is implicitly denied to those who stake out positions or betray a point of view. American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance.

THE STORY

The topic at hand is a big story in Iowa politics but not an easy one to present to readers. An agency that rarely makes news (the Iowa Department of Revenue) has proposed administrative rules “to exempt manufacturers from paying sales tax on supplies consumed in the manufacturing process.” Few Iowans outside business circles understand how this part of the tax code works. Jon Muller, a former staffer for the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency, onetime budget director for Governor Tom Vilsack, and current partner at Iowa School Finance Information Services, explained what’s going on in a backgrounder for Bleeding Heartland in October. Legislative Services Agency staffer Jeff Robinson analyzed the rule change and its likely fiscal impact here.

Key takeaways from Muller’s analysis:

Iowa Code Chapter 423.3 lists 95 exemptions from the sales tax. “The specificity of these exemptions is staggering, both in number and scope.”

• Every one of Iowa’s current sales tax exemptions made it into the code the same way: “The Legislature passed a bill and the Governor signed it.”

• “Nothing in 423.3 gives the Department of Revenue and Finance the authority to simply change the definition to include an exemption for those things that are not part of the manufacturing value-added process.”

• “By using administrative rules, the Governor has flipped the process on its head. […] If the Legislature does not pass a bill denying the rule, the rule will likely go into effect.”

• “We do not know the cost of this rule.” The Department of Revenue “built its [cost] estimate on a survey of 17 companies, all of whom benefit if the rule is implemented.” But we do know “This is an ongoing tax cut of increasing value.”

• Department of Revenue staff used a different methodology when calculating the fiscal impact of the same tax cut in 2013. At that time, the “lower bound” estimate indicated the code change would reduce state and local sales tax revenue by $32.7 million for fiscal year 2017, with an “upper bound” estimate of $78.1 million. “It would appear the Department’s ‘lower bound’ has suddenly become its ‘best guess.’ Not only did the Department change its methodology and reduce the cost of the tax cut, it cut its inflation factor on the future cost.”

Robinson’s report includes tables showing projections from the Department of Revenue and the Legislative Services Agency for how much the change will reduce state and local sales tax revenues during each of the next five fiscal years. Key points:

• “The LSA estimate is approximately 13.2% higher in the first year and 17.2% higher by FY 2021 than the Department estimate.”

• “[T]he rule is not limited to what could be generally considered manufacturing companies. In 2013 (see SF 452, section 127, Standing Appropriations Act), the Iowa Code was amended to specifically remove any implication that a business must be a ‘manufacturer’ in order to benefit from the processing sales tax exemptions. […] The Department estimate only accounts for traditional manufacturers. The LSA estimate includes other types of businesses that will benefit from the expansion of the tax exemption to additional business inputs.”

• “The Department utilized a future growth rate for the impact of the exemption that equaled the U.S. Gross Domestic Price (GDP) Deflator. When applied to the previous five years, this method of growth projection significantly underestimates the growth in Iowa manufacturing over that period. For all projection years, the LSA estimate uses the average growth in Total Cost of Materials, as provided by the U.S. Census Bureau Annual Survey of Manufacturers.”

In other words, the Department of Revenue lowballed its cost estimate for the rule change, which could affect more than the 3,100 companies defined as manufacturing firms. The Iowa Policy Project’s research director Peter Fisher noted in an October 21 guest column for the Des Moines Register that the department could have clarified the rule “to codify the definitions as the department has applied them for the past decade or two,” at no cost to the state.

As Muller mentioned, up to now comparable sales tax exemptions have always been added to Iowa Code through legislation. In fact, the Department of Revenue proposed a bill in 2013 to enact this exemption along with several other tax code revisions. I sought further details from Iowa Senate Democratic staff on the fate of such legislation during the last three years.

The department’s 2013 proposal was numbered Senate Study Bill 1242 in the upper chamber and House File 634 in the lower chamber. The Senate Ways and Means Committee did not act on SSB 1242. The House approved HF 634 unanimously after some amendments. That bill then cleared the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which recommended passage provided that an amendment was adopted. Among other things, that amendment would have struck language enacting the new sales tax exemption for manufacturers. The full Senate never took up HF 634.

The Department of Revenue did not submit similar legislation to state lawmakers in 2014, but Democratic Senate staff pointed me to House File 2443, offered by the House Ways and Means Committee. It called for a new sales tax exemption for manufacturers and passed the Iowa House with bipartisan support, then died in the Senate Ways and Means committee.

In 2015, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Tom Sands proposed House Study Bill 174, containing the same kind of sales tax exemption for manufacturers. That bill never even made it out of a subcommittee. Iowa Senate Democratic research analyst Jace Mikels explained via e-mail last month,

After the subcommittee on that legislation [HSB 174], Revenue began having discussions about rulemaking to clarify the current process, which is how the proposed rules got started. The original discussion was about clarifying the rules on replacement parts, not about the consumable supplies. That clarification is a part of the current rules, but the rules go beyond clarifying replacement parts to include the proposed policy changes included in the legislation from 2013, 2014, and 2015.

To sum up: proponents of a new tax break for manufacturers knew this change required legislative action. But three years in a row, bills to accomplish that goal failed to reach the governor’s desk. Rule-making became the Department of Revenue’s plan B for getting the same result without lawmakers in both chambers passing a bill.

I thought hard about whether to write this post. Maybe I should just thank God for small favors, that there is still room in the Des Moines Register’s news hole for ongoing coverage of this kind of story. We aren’t living in an age of thriving statehouse journalism. Management delivered clear messages to the Register’s reporters in early 2015, such as “write stories that matter to your core audience” and be “recognized as an expert on your beat,” in part by “regularly producing work that resonates with a digital audience or is displayed on Page One or section covers in print.” The same memo instructed journalists, “Look at your stories by month: What was your most read and least read content? How can you adjust your coverage accordingly?”

At the Register, three artists’ makeover of Donald Trump’s former campaign bus was front-page news on the same day a follow-up on the Branstad administration’s inability to account for Medicaid privatization savings estimates was relegated to 3A. (Other major Iowa newspapers put the Medicaid story on the front page that day.) Judging by what I saw on Facebook and Twitter, the Trump bus story resonated with a digital audience.

The path to journalistic glory will never run through a close look at Iowa Department of Revenue rule-making. An attempt to smuggle an expensive change into the tax code does not lend itself to “clickbait” headlines. It will not generate large numbers of social media shares, unlike, say, the Register’s “news” account (published on the politics page) of “10 excellent post-9/11 rock albums Ted Cruz hasn’t heard” since he switched to country music.

So I sincerely appreciate that Pfannenstiel has been on the case for months, writing about the proposed manufacturing sales tax exemption and the obscure legislative committee that considered it.

Yet here I am, writing this post, because this new development in Iowa politics has the look and feel of an old story: Governor Branstad is trying to do something that House Republicans quietly endorse while Senate Democrats scream bloody murder. And that familiar narrative lends itself too easily to the “he said/she said” frame.

THE STORY VIEWED FROM NOWHERE, PART 1

The Register’s first report on this topic appeared on October 5. Pfannenstiel’s lede conforms to prevailing journalism standards: “State legislators will consider a proposal next week that would reduce the tax burden for manufacturers by up to $46 million in a move critics say bypasses the legislative process.”

As Muller explained, the tax break could reduce state and local revenue by much more than $46 million per year. But let’s leave that aside for now and consider the last clause. The construction “critics say” signals 1) this policy is controversial, and 2) the reporter will present both sides. That the Department of Revenue embarked on rule-making because the tax proposal could not get through the state legislature is an indisputable fact. But the way the reader receives the information, “bypasses the legislative process” is just one side’s opinion.

The “he said/she said” frame continues as Pfannenstiel quotes Iowa Association of Business and Industry President Mike Ralston supporting the tax break, while Democratic State Senator Joe Bolkcom, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, “pointed out the fiscal effects of the legislation [sic]”. Alluding to the timing of this tax proposal a few months after Branstad vetoed $55.6 million in funding for K-12 schools, Bolkcom asserted that it’s “wrong” for the governor to provide “another big tax cut for Iowa’s largest corporations,” putting “their needs ahead of our kids.” Pfannenstiel paraphrases Bolkcom as saying the Department of Revenue’s bill did not pass in 2013 because lawmakers were worried about the costs.

Now, Bolkcom said he’s concerned the governor is attempting to avoid a legislative confrontation by attempting to move the changes through the Administrative Rules Review Committee, which includes bipartisan members of both chambers. […]

“I don’t remember ever tax policy being made by the rules committee or being made by the executive branch without the consent of the Legislature,” Bolkcom said. “This is a huge tax policy change that (Gov. Branstad) has unilaterally decided.”

He called the move “illegal” and an effort to circumvent the checks and balances of the Legislature.

Most of what Pfannenstiel presents as the opinion of a Democratic lawmaker is verifiable fact. Administrative rule-making is a way to get around legislative opposition to this very proposal. The journalist could confirm that previous sales tax exemptions have been adopted through the normal legislative process. Instead, the reader learns that Bolkcom doesn’t “remember” tax code being changed without legislative consent before. Whether the Department of Revenue’s approach is truly unprecedented, we can only guess.

Immediately after describing Bolkcom’s case against the proposed rule, Pfannenstiel turns to the other side:

But Victoria Daniels, public information officer for the Department of Revenue, said this does not create new tax policy and the rules committee is an appropriate place to address the changes.

“We are not adding anything in these rules that is not already in the statute,” she said. “We are clarifying the statute and implementing it via this rule making.”

She said the Department of Revenue issued the proposed rule change on behalf of the Iowa Taxpayers Association.

Kudos to Pfannenstiel for relating an important nugget: the Department of Revenue is acting at the Iowa Taxpayers Association’s request. That “business-sponsored tax policy organization” represents “a broad spectrum of business taxpayers in Iowa.” We rarely see such direct evidence of corporate interests capturing state functions.

Getting back to the point of this post, the journalist could have asked Daniels to explain why the department has never submitted a costly sales tax exemption to the Administrative Rules Review Committee before now. She could have followed up by asking Daniels to square her comments with the reality that the department sought to enact this policy through legislation in 2013, and that similar exemptions have always been added to the Iowa Code through legislation signed by the governor.

Doing those things might appear to align Pfannenstiel with “critics,” however. She cannot be seen to have a dog in this fight, because the View from Nowhere confers authority by keeping the journalist apart from a controversial policy’s advocates and detractors. So the Register leaves Daniels’ statements unchallenged as the reporter moves directly from the Department of Revenue’s spokesperson to the governor himself:

Branstad also disputed Bolkcom’s claims, saying the changes are necessary to modernize current statute.

“First of all, Senator Bolkcom has also been the leading critic of one of the best economic development projects in the state of Iowa: the fertilizer plant down in Lee County,” Branstad said Monday. “And thanks to Senator Bolkcom I carried Lee County. So I hope he’ll just continue to attack the things that we’re doing to try to help grow the Iowa economy.”

Holy non sequitur, Batman! Branstad failed to address any of Bolkcom’s arguments. He pivoted to state and local authorities providing hundreds of millions of dollars in financial assistance to the Orascom company, then referenced his strong 2014 election showing among voters who live near the fertilizer plant. The reader is meant to see this new corporate tax break as an example of the Branstad administration trying “to help grow the Iowa economy,” while people like Bolkcom “attack” policies supported by ordinary people.

I happen to share Bolkcom’s view that Orascom’s huge tax incentives package was the “worst economic development deal in state history,” because evidence suggests the company would have built its fertilizer plant in Iowa without such handouts. But even if I agreed with Branstad, this supposedly great project in Lee County has no bearing on whether the Department of Revenue may enact a new sales tax exemption through rule-making. Surely Pfannenstiel understands the disconnect. Yet she declines to point out that the governor was non-responsive. Nor does she push Branstad to explain where his agency derives the authority to adopt supposedly “necessary” tax code changes through administrative rules.

The article jumps from Branstad’s unchallenged comments to a short final paragraph previewing the next step in the process: first consideration of the proposal in the legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee.

In keeping with the View from Nowhere stance, Pfannenstiel has done her job by presenting both sides: a senator’s “claims” vs. what an agency spokesperson and the governor said. The journalist has defended herself against changes of bias by not revealing sympathy for either position. Des Moines Register readers are left to sort out whose version of reality better fits the facts–or more likely, to conclude that this is another case of Republicans and Democrats arguing with each other.

THE STORY VIEWED FROM NOWHERE, PART 2

The first legislative hearing on the Department of Revenue’s rule took place the following week. The Administrative Rules Review Committee always has five members from each chamber. Because Republicans now control the Iowa House and Democrats the Senate, the committee is currently split evenly along partisan lines: three House Republicans, two House Democrats, three Senate Democrats, and two Senate Republicans. Under the opposite-of-clickbait headline “Committee considers millions in sales tax exemptions,” Pfannenstiel manages in fewer than 550 words to describe the gist of the tax break and the role of the committee, which “can’t block the proposed rule” but can “delay implementation to give the Legislature time to review it.”

Originally, the rule was set to take effect Jan. 1, 2016. On Tuesday, the committee asked that it be changed to July 1, 2016, giving the Legislature time to act.

That means once the Legislature is in session, both the House and the Senate could vote to nullify the change before it takes effect — an act that is immune to the governor’s veto.

However, it’s unlikely a nullification action would make it through both a Democrat-controlled Senate and a Republican-led House. If lawmakers can’t get that passed, the rule will take effect as planned on July 1.

Very unlikely. In early October, House Republican leaders praised the Department of Revenue proposal in their weekly newsletter, citing the “positive impact on jobs” and asserting, “Clarifying the rules eliminates a significant amount of unnecessary administrative burden for both manufacturers and the department while and providing taxpayers with more certainty and consistency.”

Pfannenstiel conveys another important point too: the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency “said they did not have enough information to determine” the accuracy of the department’s cost estimate.

It’s unfortunate the editors didn’t give her more space for this story, because a lot of relevant context was missing. For instance, during the hearing, Pfannenstiel tweeted, “Worth noting the most vocal committee member in support of proposed changes, [GOP] Sen. [Mark] Chelgren, also owns two manufacturing companies #ialegis.” That a rules committee member stood to benefit financially from this policy change should have made it into the newspaper. But Register readers did not learn about Chelgren’s possible conflict or even see his name in the piece.

Not long after this article appeared, the Register gave Pfannenstiel more than twice as many words for a curtain-raiser on “5 things to watch for” at the Iowa Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. That piece had a shelf life of a few days at most, whereas the sales tax exemption will constrain the state budget for years, becoming more expensive over time. But I digress.

Like the first Register article on this topic, Pfannenstiel’s piece on the October 13 rules committee hearing presents both sides. First, speakers at the hearing say the new exemptions “are necessary to add clarity to existing law by making it easier for companies to comply.” Next, Democratic Senator Bolkcom expresses the opposing view: Iowa can’t afford this policy, Branstad just vetoed $55.7 million for K-12 education, the state should prioritize school funding rather than corporate tax cuts, and the rules committee “is not the appropriate place to make policy changes with such hefty fiscal effects.” Then, Department of Revenue spokesperson Daniels asserts that “the changes only amount to defining words that need to be updated and clarified — a move that falls completely within the bounds of the rules committee.” The article does not inform readers that the department has never before attempted to adopt a new sales tax exemption this way.

The final two paragraphs are the most problematic:

Committee Chairwoman Dawn Pettengill, R-Mount Auburn, said she thought delaying the effective date of the proposed rule should be enough to satisfy those concerned the committee is bypassing the legislative process.

“The Legislature has had this issue up and nothing was done,” Pettengill said, noting that legislation outlining similar changes has previously gone to the Legislature. “So I think the Department of Revenue is within their purview to make a definition change. But if the Legislature wants to act on it, they have time before it goes into effect.”

One marvels that State Representative Pettengill, who has indulged in paranoid fantasies about the United Nations “Agenda 21” eventually forcing Iowans to leave their rural homes, is content to let the executive branch steal her tax-writing authority. The concept of reserving the “power of the purse” for the legislature is centuries older than the State of Iowa. To Pettengill, though, no big deal: “if the Legislature wants to act on it, they have time before it goes into effect.”

Either by the reporter’s intention or an editor’s intervention, Pfannenstiel’s piece ends there, leaving the reader with the impression that nothing important has changed. The legislature had a chance to vote on this proposal before and will have time to consider it during its 2016 session.

In reality, a power grab has occurred. Let’s say two homeowners disagree over whether to let me live in their spare bedroom. In scenario A, I can’t move in until both sign a rental agreement with me (which won’t happen, because they differ on taking in a boarder). In scenario B, I barge in while the homeowners are at work, unpack my things and tell them I’ll be happy to clear out as soon as both sign an eviction notice (which won’t happen, because one of them wants me to stay).

Scenario B exploits a stalemate and encroaches on the homeowners’ power to control who lives on their property.

Legislative allies of Iowa manufacturers tried and failed three years in a row to get a bill enacting the sales tax exemption through the state legislature. Now the Department of Revenue is forcing the same policy through by administrative rule, secure in the knowledge that House Republicans will not vote to overturn the proposal.

THE STORY VIEWED FROM NOWHERE, PART 3

Pfannenstiel returned to the sales tax exemption in a November 11 article announcing a planned public hearing for comments on the Department of Revenue’s proposal. I feel for any journalist expected to summarize this issue in fewer than 350 words. Inevitably, there will be no room to put the bare facts in context. Here’s how both sides appear in that piece:

Proponents say it’s wrong to tax materials used in manufacturing, and that only the finished product should be subjected to sales tax. They say the changes update current law and will lead to growth for the state’s manufacturers.

Others argue that the state can’t afford to give those tax breaks and that the state has bypassed the legislative process. […]

Democrats have criticized the Department of Revenue and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad for making the changes through that rules process. They say the move circumvents the legislative process and bypasses checks and balances.

Whether the new corporate tax break will “lead to growth” or be more expensive than Iowa can afford are matters of opinion. In contrast, that the state has circumvented the legislative process is not just something “others argue” and Democrats say. The View from Nowhere does not convey that reality to readers, though.

THE STORY VIEWED FROM NOWHERE, PART 4

In early December, William Petroski and Pfannenstiel covered an Iowa Taxpayers Association conference in a Register story headlined, “No big tax cuts in 2016 Iowa Legislature.” After a lede stating that new income tax cuts are unlikely to win approval during the coming legislative session, the article continues,

Both House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, R-Windsor Heights, and Senate President Pam Jochum, D-Dubuque, said Friday that major tax cuts will be difficult to achieve in the 2016 session because of limited growth in state revenues amid a slump in the farm economy.

“Obviously, when you are working on tight budget margins, the opportunity for tax reform becomes increasingly difficult,” Hagenow told the Iowa Taxpayers Association, which met at Prairie Meadows Conference Center in Altoona.

Jochum agreed, saying, “I am going to be very frank. I don’t see this session doing a lot of tax policy changes.”

How convenient that a state agency is carrying the Iowa Taxpayers Association’s water in what would otherwise be a lean year for tax-cutting. Remarkably, this article does not mention the detail Pfannenstiel reported two months earlier: the Department of Revenue is acting “on behalf of the Iowa Taxpayers Association” in its move to adopt a big sales tax break for manufacturers in 2016. On the plus side, the piece does eventually address the end-run around the legislature.

Branstad spoke later to the taxpayers association, and he praised plans to stop collecting a sales tax on certain items purchased for use in the manufacturing of other items. The change, which is effective July 1, is expected to cost the state treasury as much as $349 million over the next several years.

Two years ago, the Legislature rejected the idea. But the Branstad administration recently brought the issue before the Administrative Rules Review Committee, which gave its approval, prompting strong protests from Democratic legislators.

“I know that there are some politicians who like to play politics with this,” but manufacturing has changed and Iowa needs a competitive tax environment to spur the state’s economy, Branstad said.

Petroski and Pfannenstiel leave it there, ending the article without rebuttal to the governor’s framing of this dispute as a battle between those who want to “spur the state’s economy” and “politicians who like to play politics.” As if it’s not a political play to resort to rule-making after you couldn’t get your way in the legislature! In keeping with the View from Nowhere, the journalists’ job is done here, because the text nods to both sides (“strong protests from Democratic legislators”).

Incidentally, the governor’s claim that Iowa “needs” to enact more tax breaks for manufacturing is far from a consensus view. Iowa State University economist Dave Swenson pointed out at this blog that manufacturers “enjoy an advantaged position in Iowa regarding their production-related tax obligations as compared to other Iowa industries” as well as a “range of other lucrative tax-relieving benefits.”

THE STORY VIEWED FROM NOWHERE, PART 5

The Administrative Rules Review Committee considered the sales tax exemption a second time on December 8. Democratic Senator Tom Courtney offered a motion to object to the proposed rule. Predictably, it failed on a 5 to 5 party-line vote. According to Democratic Senate staff, that motion “would not have stopped the rule,” but had it passed, it would have changed “the burden of proof on a legal challenge to the department’s authority to enforce the rule.” The bottom line remained the same: to prevent this policy from going into effect on July 1, the legislature would need either to pass a joint resolution nullifying the Department of Revenue’s rule (requiring no action by the governor), or to pass a bill amending the law that the rule affects (which Branstad would need to sign). Neither scenario will happen in 2016, because House Republicans support the tax break for manufacturers.

Pfannenstiel’s story conveys that reality with the lede, “Unless the Legislature acts, Iowa manufacturers will see millions of dollars in new sales tax exemptions under a rule change advanced Tuesday by a legislative committee.” The rest of the piece sticks to the “he said/she said” format. First, advocates including the Department of Revenue’s spokesperson defend the policy on its merits, saying the new rule “will make it easier for companies to comply with the tax laws and for the state to process them.”

Then “others,” later identified as “Democratic lawmakers,” criticize the policy for cutting revenues too deeply as well as on process grounds (it “circumvents” or “supersedes the legislative process”).

Rather than introducing the proposal through legislation, the Department of Revenue is attempting to make the change through the rules process, which is used only to clarify existing law, not to enact new policy changes.

That agency says it is only making a definition clarification. That clarification, though, vastly expands the number of things qualifying for a tax exemption and could cost about $250 million over five years. […]

[Senate President Jochum] and others have criticized the committee and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, saying the changes are too big to be made through this process and reflect tax policy changes, not clarifications.

Rep. Dawn Pettengil, R-Mount Auburn, who chairs the committee, said she does not believe that is a concern.

“We have a whole legislative session to address this if we want to,” she said.

As explained above, Pettengill’s spin does not acknowledge the changed power relationship: instead of the executive branch needing both chambers of the legislature to approve a new tax policy, Branstad officials have unilaterally declared new tax policy, knowing a vote to stop them won’t clear both chambers of the legislature. Pfannenstiel has communicated to readers that the rule change will go forward unless the legislature acts to stop it, and she has communicated that Democrats are complaining about the process. But she still has not made clear that the Department of Revenue’s act, with House Republicans’ blessing, overturns the precedent by which all of the other 95 sales tax exemptions have become part of Iowa Code.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Rosen argued in his post about the View from Nowhere:

If in doing the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat–you develop a view, expressing that view does not diminish your authority. It may even add to it. The View from Nowhere doesn’t know from this. It also encourages journalists to develop bad habits. Like: criticism from both sides is a sign that you’re doing something right, when you could be doing everything wrong.

Pfannenstiel is doing a lot right. She’s following a important topic on her beat, a complicated issue that would be challenging to cover even in the absence of tight word limits. She’s trying to make the workings of a little-known legislative committee understandable to a wider audience. She’s doing all of the above knowing that none of these stories will go viral, in an atmosphere where management encourages reporters to be hyper-aware of how their work is performing and always on the lookout for ways “to entice and engage more readers.”

The problem is that “he said/she said” obscures too much, under the guise of being balanced and impartial. An expansion of executive power is unfolding before our eyes as the Department of Revenue uses rule-making to adopt tax exemptions that have always been understood in the past to need legislative approval. Des Moines Register readers have seen that point made repeatedly in recent months, but only as one side’s view.

I do not expect statehouse reporters for any mainstream media to editorialize about public policy as they cover this year’s legislative session, which is bound to stir up many partisan disagreements. I only ask that “critics say” be reserved for matters of opinion, such as:

The new sales tax break is “unnecessary, expensive and counterproductive.”

This tax cut “will continue to undermine our ability to educate our kids.”

“This is just the latest example of the governor’s severely misplaced priorities.”

• In addition to being a power grab, this proposal is a brazen case of corporate cronyism.

As for the Department of Revenue bypassing the legislative process? That’s a fact, just like the fact that no independent economist or labor market analyst would accept “gross over-the-month employment gains” as a meaningful statistic.

Iowans would be better informed if every journalist on the state politics beat abandoned the View from Nowhere. Reporters may feel more comfortable letting a “dubious truth claim” pass, since contradicting the point might “sound too partisan” unless the words can be attributed to a political opponent. But I believe many news consumers would value coverage that speaks with authority about what is happening, rather than calling it a day after writing up comments from both sides.

  • Amen

    And thank you for this detailed report.

    Republicans always tell us they oppose government power. But they lie. They are happy to enlarge government power when it enriches the right people, cuts the right taxes, or harms the right victims. You have shown us how they do it and how the press dissembles when it happens.

    • thank you for reading

      In fairness to Brianne Pfannenstiel, she recognized this as an important story meriting her continued attention. Most of the Iowa media dropped the ball on Branstad’s latest power grab. I am working on a follow-up post about that.

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