January 18, 2020
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The outrage of fodder creators

Outrage is in, with appeals to emotion and sharply drawn characters. While our new, wonderful range of media deliver so much content, some content creators would be better termed fodder creators.

Fodder creators are resolutely not interested in traditional journalism. Old-school reporting, in its best incarnation, delivers facts and gives enough context to explain what those facts mean.

No, fodder creators are not concerned with the who, what, when, where and how. Instead, they seek to promote outrage, by delivering details meant to look bad and turning the ordinary into something strange, even corrupt.

Take some content written by Leif Parsell in the press outlet of what is probably Maine’s most powerful conservative advocacy group. Before Mr. Parsell was fired for his writings on race and diversity crafted prior to his hiring, he wrote a story about the people who came to testify about the impact of DHHS cuts.

When the BDN covered the first day of those hearings, it included comments from patients, people with family members who received care, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, prominent members of the clergy and DHHS Commissioner Mary Mayhew. The story noted that one person had signed up to testify in support of the cuts, and reported there was a rally in opposition organized by a coalition “representing the elderly, children, the poor, and churches.”

No matter one’s view of the proposed cuts, there is nothing more usual in our democracy than people turning out to express their views. Yet Parsell wrote, “[M]any of these organizations have a vested interest in ensuring continued state funding of the programs that provide the bulk of their operational budgets … Patient Advocacy Groups, whether serving the elderly, disabled, the poor, the unemployed, or a variety of other Maine groups, seem intent on participating in the public policy debate regarding funding for their organizations.”

Parsell reported that, in planning the visit to the Legislature, “a strategy for the transportation of social services recipients was even discussed.”

You see, in the Parsell story, there was something not-quite-right with groups serving the poor, whose budgets to provide services which were to be slashed, attending the hearings and using their First Amendment rights to petition government. People who work with the poor and needy, whose salaries would be higher if they did the very same work in for-profit organizations, were portrayed as selfish. Traditional political efforts were transmuted into something between the nefarious and an outrage.

Now the same press outlet has targeted MaineHousing. Rather than tying down the details from 800,000 invoices over 13 years, these became fodder. After receiving a lengthy document listing expenses, there was no pause to find out or explain who, what, when, how and why.

Rather than reporting why and how much the federally audited MaineHousing paid for hotels on the list, the story included descriptions written by the hotels to entice customers. A reader would not know that some grants require organizations receiving those grants to send people to meetings so they are up-to-date on what has worked well and what has not, nor that conferences attendees pay negotiated hotel rates far below the usual price.

Nor would one know that costs portrayed as foolish luxuries were part of wellness programs that held down health care costs. The outrage machine thrives on crowing that MaineHousing’s payroll soared; how boring it is to explain that additional employees had to be added in order efficiently use new federal funds.

Real policy differences are at stake when it comes to low-income housing projects. And, with information about each spending item incomplete, it is impossible to know that every single item was proper. However, the tale told bears less resemblance to old-school investigative reporting than to fodder creation.

Good journalism can be lively or dull, but its commitment to accuracy serves the public more than ginning up outrage based on broad sketches and overwrought prose. Whether it’s the work of the political organization discussed above or the CutlerFiles, fodder creation is strategic politics, not journalism. Recognizing the difference is critical, as is demanding that the fodder creators tell the full picture about what they tell, who they are and by whom they are funded.

Amy Fried is a professor of political science at the University of Maine. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/ASFried and on her blog, pollways.com.

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