I had a lengthy phone conversation the other day with a legislator full of complaints about press coverage of a bill he had sponsored. What struck me was how unusual his type of complaint seems to be.
Colorado state Representative Mike Garcia sponsored a bill that would have made it easier for workers to choose to make their workplaces into all-union shops. The bill became hugely controversial, with the business lobby saying it would destroy economic development efforts while unions pushed hard for it.
Ultimately, Governor Bill Ritter vetoed it, disappointing the unions that had worked hard for his election. Ritter felt the whole debate surrounding the bill had gotten too partisan to allow it become law.
Garcia agrees. He said the governor did the right thing by judging the bill not on its merits but on the bad blood it had stirred up and the further trouble his signature would have caused.
But Garcia blames much of the rancor on media coverage -- the bill drew considerable attention both in-state and nationally. By his own count, about 75 stories were written, but "only a handful" were accurate. "The media has done an awful job in terms of reporting what the bill does," he said.
All the bill actually would have done is eliminate the requirement for workers to vote a second time to approve an all-union shop. The media, the business lobby and the unions all exaggerated its likely impact, Garcia says.
"The inept journalism had real-world consequences on this public policy outcome," he said. "The media play a very important role in the public policy process. When they repeatedly misreport the facts on a bill, eventually that has consequences."
I agree with Garcia that one of the dangers in journalism is that once a reporter gets things wrong, those errors get repeated as fact. Mistakes and misrepresentations can take on a life of their own as other reporters copy and spread them. While still sorting out the facts in this case, though, it strikes me that other players in the process had reasons to repeat and trumpet exaggerations of the bill's effects.
Garcia opened our interview by warning me that he was going to be "abrasive," because he felt that he'd been burned. Despite all the contemporary complaints about the media, I was struck by how rarely I had heard a public official make quite this type of complaint. Maybe it's different for daily reporters.