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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

So what else is new?

The Globe is out with a new poll that shows the public is smarter than many editors believe -- certainly those class warfare types at the Herald.

By clear margins, the public told pollsters that stories about drapes, helicopters and Cadillacs aren't that big a deal -- but that payroll padding and appearances of a conflict-of-interest is.

Those numbers parallel results from the less visible but respected Statehouse News Service poll (OK, they also polled on whether the Red Sox would win the World Series!) And both surveys reflect the reality that Deval Patrick is tarnished but still held in high regard by voters who put him into the Corner Office in November.

What I find frustrating about the Globe poll (and media coverage in general) is the focus on the personalities rather than the policies. Asked by the Globe what the most important issues are, respondents said, taxes, crime and health care, in that order.

Crime and health care are obvious from the headlines. But what about taxes? Are they too high? Or are people unhappy about the value they get for their tax dollars? Do they even know about what they get for those hard-earned bucks?

The News Service does a better job pinpointing the question -- focusing on business taxes as a means to close a budget gap:

There is no clear consensus concerning how to close the state budget deficit, and there is certainly no groundswell of support for balancing the budget on the backs of businesses. When asked what they think should be the first tactic employed to balance the state budget, tax increases on businesses, or tax increases on individuals, or cuts to state services, responses were almost evenly divided between business tax increases and state service cuts, fueled by a strong gender gap:

The SHNS survey found tax 36 percent of respondents favored increases in business taxes while 31 percent favored cuts in state services. Only 7 percent favored increase in personal taxes and 8 percent backed a combination of all three. Men were more likely to favor cuts in services than woman and the genders reversed on business taxes.

All this points to the theme I've been flogging for a long time: people don't know what their tax dollars pay for and the media fails miserably in telling that story. Drapes, Cadillacs, antiques and no-show employees are used as symbols to avoid the deeper and more complex examination of what our dollars actually buy.

The story is terrible television -- no fires, no police tape and a requirement for depth in a minute and 30 seconds (if you're lucky). The Herald model of "enterprise" reporting bumps up against the twin barriers of lack of staff and lack of space.

Which brings us back to the Globe. Admittedly now also facing shortfalls of both space and staff the local paper of record has failed to make a commitment to even a modicum of in-depth reporting.

The Statehouse bureau this year has been among the leaders writing in gaffe stories -- even where none exist. The departures of Walter Robinson, Steve Kurkjian and Bob Turner, to name a few, means that reporters and editors who knew the importance in-depth reporting are heading to the exits faster than TV cameras race to a fire.

The web remains the great untapped resource at the Globe -- databases waiting to be tapped and analyzed to show how our dollars are spent. And the failure to use this resource is not the result of waves of buyouts. The Globe has lagged in this area for as long as the web has been in business.

As long as this continues, it makes it a simple task for the Howie Carrs of this world to flog hacks in print and on the radio. And for the right side of the blogosphere to chime in mindlessly.

And the public to complain about "taxes" without knowing what's really at stake.

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