Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Indianapolis Star's Responsibility for Allowing the "City's Culture of Corruption" to Exist

It has been entertaining to watch.  As a result of the indictment of employees in the city's land bank yesterday, the Indianapolis Star has sharply reversed direction, suddenly deciding that alleged corruption in Indianapolis city-county government is worth reporting about.  In addition to an excellent main article by Jon Murray and John Tuohy, columnists Matt Tully and Erika Smith weighed in.

Karen Crotchfelt, Publisher, Indianapolis Star
I don't blame the reporters as they are constrained in the subjects they can write about by their editors.  As columnists though, Tully and Smith enjoy more freedom to opine about the issues of the day.  Tully and
Smith have been afforded numerous opportunities to write about conflicts of interest and self-dealing in city government.  Instead they chose to write nothing critical.  In fact, both columnists have praised Indianapolis' pay-to-play culture that has resulted in so much corporate welfare and drained the city of resources to pay for basic services. Their answer to the latter is not to constrain corporate welfare, but to advocate raising taxes.  With regard to Erika Smith, the Star's municipal columnist, her obsession with writing columns promoting mass transit has apparently impaired ability to notice anything else going on in the City.

Some specific examples.  The City simply gave $6.35 million of the public's money to Keystone Construction, a major contributor to the Mayor, and which company employs a former Deputy Mayor, to build the Broad Ripple parking garage.  Keystone and its corporate partners get 100% ownership, 100% of the parking revenue, and 100% of the commercial rents. We, the public, get nothing.  Did Tully or Smith ever pen a column criticizing this deal?  Nope.

Then you have the ACS parking meter contract which locks the city in for the next 50 years to giving away 70% of the parking meter and ticket revenue to ACS and its corporate allies, recast as "ParkIndy."  The Mayor's attorney, Joe Loftus, and Council President Ryan Vaughn, were both lobbyists for ACS when the parking meter deal was proposed. Vaughn even cast the tie breaking vote.  Did the Star report critically on those conflicts, as well as the important details of the deal, including the provision which made it impossible to ever exercise the every 10 year cancellation provision, a comprise city leaders claimed protected taxpayers?  No.  Tully, however, did discuss the ACS deal in his column.  Of course, he didn't mention any of the conflicts or troubling details of the agreement.  He said the deal, in which the City gives away an estimated $1 billion in revenue over the next 50 years to a private company all for the "risk" of fronting $8 million for new meters, "makes sense." 

Jeff Taylor, Editor, Indianapolis Star
Yesterday, U.S. Attorney Joe Hogsett, as he handed down five indictments, talked about Indianapolis having a "culture of corruption."  That culture only exists and grows when it is not exposed to the sunlight of public scrutiny. The chief source of that scrutiny is the daily newspaper.  While bloggers, weekly publications like the Indianapolis Business Journal and television stations can do some of the reporting on city government operations, there is no substitute for vigilant reporting by a daily newspaper acting.

The "culture of corruption" is a direct consequence of the Indianapolis Star choosing to abdicate its watchdog role to become a cheerleader for city government.  I reported on that troubling philosophy in February 2013 article I wrote:
In 2010, Star Media, owned by media giant Gannett, made what it claimed was a bold move
to shore up the falling circulation of the Indianapolis Star.  Karen Crotchfelt was appointed as publisher.  Earlier in the year, Jeff Taylor was appointed Editor in Chief.  Crotchfelt replaced Michael Kane while Taylor replaced long-time Editor Dennis Ryerson.

Under Kane and Ryerson's leadership the quality of the Star had declined dramatically.  In depth local reporting was dismissed. Most of the newspaper became AP articles seemingly published to fill out the every decreasing size of the newspaper. Instead of reporting critically, the newspaper had become a cheerleader for the local political and business establishment.   As the Internet boomed in popularity, people increasingly turned to blogs and other online material to find the objective, critical content about Indianapolis politics they so craved.

Enter Crotchfelt and Taylor.  From their opening comments it seemed they were oblivious to the Star's real problem - content.  Crotchfelt concentrated on improving technology while promising (threatening?) to continue with the content that the Star had been providing since before she took over.   She also talked about being a "partner" with the local community, a sign that she ascribed to the view that the role of the daily newspaper is to promote what the political and business interests of the City want, not to play the traditional role as a watchdog.

If the Star's leadership had allowed reporters to do critical stories on City Hall instead of using the paper to simply be a cheerleader for everything city leaders want to do, the environment that resulted in the Land Bank scandal might never have happened.


Flogger said...

I have lived in Indy since the mid 1970's and I was shocked at how partisan and slanted The Star was. I understand a Newspaper has an editorial point of view.

I did not understand the bias in reporting. The Star was a cheerleader for the Downtown Mall,the Sports Stadiums and various other Direct and Indirect Subsidies for downtown. I cannot recall a single article that ever questioned the wisdom of these projects. The Movers and Shakers as the Star used to call them wanted the Projects and that was good enough.

The Star has never printed an article that totaled up all these subsidies for down town and who they went to. Never was a linkage made to Campaign donations.

The Government has out picked the "winners." Crony-Capitalism. The Star does not report on this, instead we read fluff and puff, with no content.

I came across an excellent article today in the LA Times.,0,2096421.story

"Citadel founder Kenneth Griffin named and shamed local corporations that have taken tax incentives from the state’s financially strapped government in a Monday evening speech to a prominent Chicago business group."

"The last election cycle I called a local CEO to talk to him about supporting a pro-business candidate … ," Griffin, a billionaire and Republican hedge fund manager, told the Economic Club of Chicago. "And I asked straightforward and simple, and he said, ‘No. No. I’m not going write a check. You see, if Illinois is not hospitable to my business. We’re just going to move.’

"And then I learned what the word ‘hospitable’ meant. For a few weeks later, it was announced that his company received tens of millions of dollars in tax incentives. His silence was bought and paid for," Griffin said.

Griffin said the story was "sadly' not unique. Citing Chicago Tribune reporting, Griffin put logos of Illinois businesses that had accepted tax incentives on a large screen behind him.

"What is the cost of this cronyism?" Griffin asked, as the scrolling continued. "It is far higher than the lost tax revenue. It is the devastating loss of leadership from our business community."

Cato said...

Sorry, Paul, yesterday was nothing but a magic trick. Ballard steals millions of taxpayer dollars and hands it over to rich buddies, while Hogsett and the Star beat their chests over some small-timers.

If Ballard had left these kids on the vine long enough, they could have become Republican Party leaders and liaisons to Barnes and Thornburg.

Instead, with the Broad Ripple shopping-center-called-parking-garage really obviously telling everyone the corruption in Indy needs to be punished, out comes a bust of some sacrificial lambs.

Ballard knows it's better to take a small hit than a big one.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Cato, I agree these weren't the big fish. I don't agree that there was some strategy to throw a couple people under the bus as sacrificial mix metaphors.

Unigov said...

The Star's (Gannett's) transformation mirrors the sea change in major US media, which has (have?) become almost uniformly pro-government.

Big Media supports Big Government because if government stopped its deficit spending, the economy would contract like it did in 2008-2009. If that were to happen, consumers would have to cut back on spending, and the first thing to go would be non-necessities like newspapers and cable TV.

If the federal government reverted to balanced budgets, the economy would cool, and most big newspapers would go out of business. Gannett stock is about $20 now, but dropped to $3 in 2009.

Most people don't perceive that the US is currently in a depression, yet the labor participation rate (% of adults with full-time jobs) has fallen off a cliff. We have been in a depression for about 10 years.

all hear this said...

The IndyStar has the potency of a wet noodle. Take for example Tully's column about the FBI raid. It carries the same basic "logical" framework as all of his other stories surrounding Ballard's follies: oh yes there is something really bad happening here, but Ballard's basically a good guy so let's not give him too much trouble and ask too many questions, that would be rude to him and he obviously feels vewwy vewwey bad. That is not challenging the reader to think, in fact it's encouraging the opposite. I suspect that part of the problem is that paid journalists who would give that kind of commentary are harder to find, and are simply not willing to be complacent enough to deal with humdrum editorial leadership like what you see at the Star. Blessed are the bloggers Paul, Gary, and Pat!