We Need the Alaska Media to do Better
The August 28 primary happened.
As Alaskans brace themselves for the impending barrage of local political mudslinging that will accompany the national political mudslinging, a single desperate thought prevails: We need to do better. An instinctual red flag is impaled in all of our foreheads. We can’t escape from the notion that something is horribly stupid in our state discussion. Issues aren’t being talked about. Specifics are extinct. Ambiguity that shirks accountability rules the day when it comes to the people who want to get paid to make laws, the press who get paid to write about them, and We the People who live according to the results for free.
We all have a sense of the importance of this general election. 59 of 60 seats in our state legislature are up for grabs. The Governor has very specific oily things he’d like to do. The Senate bi-partisan working group hangs in the balance.
And a significant chunk of the free press tasked with supplying us with the best information about our electoral choices is, so far, kind of sucking.
We need them to step up. Desperately. We need them at the top of their game. Alaska needs Ray Lewis at his prime; not the Terrell Owens of today. It’s as though many in the press – not all, and that is an important distinction – have opted for a nice, softball-laden vacation in lieu of offseason training.
Here’s one specific example.
On August 20, KAKM broadcast its “Running” series, spotlighting local elections in the lead up to the primary. The following exchange took place between reporter Daysha Eaton of APRN and Rep. Wes Keller (R-Wasilla), and serves as a specific example of where our press is lacking in their coverage of local politics:
Eaton: Mr. Keller, many say charter schools are unconstitutional in Alaska. What makes you think they are, and why do you believe they are a good idea here?
Keller: I said they’re unconstitutional?
Eaton: Um, no. I said many – I said some- many. Um, I’ve heard a few people say that they believe they may be unconstitutional in Alaska. Are you for charter schools?
Keller: Well, absolutely. They’re a fantastic form of alternative education for parents… As parents, you know, we all have to – we need to – look at our children and get the best education possible, and any school district that provides alternatives for the parents to choose, um, you know, more power to them.
Eaton: So, obviously you support them, but I guess I’m asking how do you believe they are in line with the constitution?
Keller: Completely. I don’t understand any conflict. I mean, they’re fine. The constitution says we have to provide a free education to the children of Alaska and I believe we’re doing that and charter schools are a part of that program.
Rep. Keller was gifted with an inane question by a reporter who couched it in the most egregious phrase in modern political discourse: “Many say.”
You’ve heard it before. “Some people say…” or “Some say…” or “Many say.” It’s usually something a friend-of-a-friend on facebook pulls out after a couple too many drinks, after he or she has made a comment that probably shouldn’t have been made, and translates very easily to: “I’ve got nothing.”
When an actual reporter pulls out the phrase, the definition expands remarkably: “I don’t know what I’m talking about and can’t back my statement up, but I read or heard it somewhere and thought I’d ask it anyway – without any contextual background or pertinent knowledge to back it up, and without personally owning the charge.”
It’s that moment at your day job when you realize that you’ve screwed up massively. It slowly dawns on you that you’re going to compare all future massive screw-ups to this moment.
Peter Hart of FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) called out the “Some People Say” technique:
“Journalistically[sic], it’s a very peculiar technique, because, the idea behind journalism is that you’re sourcing who you’re referring to.”
Hart objected to the strategy as it was employed by Fox News – as a way of floating unsubstantiated rumors to serve a political agenda. But, in the case of APRN’s Daysha Eaton, one doesn’t have to risk so much as throwing a pinkie down a conspiratorial rabbit hole. There was no hidden agenda; she just didn’t know what she was talking about.
Eaton asked a question: Are charter schools constitutional?
Should we be funding – through public monies – charter schools, private schools, and parochial schools?
Finally, we arrive at a relevant, constitutional question… that wasn’t asked.
Article 7 Section 1 of our state constitution says:
“The legislature shall by general law establish and maintain a system of public schools open to all children of the State, and may provide for other public educational institutions.”
Alternatives may also be pursued. Alaska Statutes permit the establishment of charter schools upon the approval of the local school board and the state Board of Education and Early Development” [AS 14.03.250]. BUT:
“Schools and institutions so established shall be free from sectarian control. No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution.”
Public schools are institutions created to teach our children studies in English, math, science, history, etc., and should not stand to serve, at the taxpayer’s expense, any other agenda. If you are a Christian who objects to this, please recall that we have a free exercise clause in our national constitution. If we spend public monies teaching the Bible, we will also have to spend similar funds on teaching the Quran. Academics should be neutral on religious matters. Religious education is better served by free market principles, and not on backs of taxpayers.
Accordingly, Article 9, Section 6 emphasizes: “No tax shall be levied, or appropriation of public money made, or public property transferred, nor shall the public credit be used, except for a public purpose.”
Daysha Eaton alleged that a fictional character had a complaint about Rep. Keller, but missed entirely the legitimate controversy surrounding his actions in the House this past legislative session. The Wasilla congressman recently spearheaded an effort to upend our state constitution and will assuredly renew his efforts when he returns to Juneau. And the November election could swing the odds in his favor.
That’s worth knowing about. That’s worth reporting.
House Bill 145, introduced in 2011 by Representatives Keller, Johansen, and Millett, sought to dedicate public funds to private K-12 schools. Similar legislation has been pushed in the lower 48 by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conglomerate of special interest groups who craft legislation for politicians who’d rather do other things with their time. Keller is the Alaska state chair for the group, which has admitted that the approach taken by HB 145 would be “problematic” (p. 11 of the .pdf) because of our state constitution, as well as the Alaska Supreme Court’s decisions in Sheldon Jackson College v. State and Matthews v. Quinton. Each upheld that public funding of private institutions is unconstitutional.
Not to be deterred, Keller and co. authored a companion bill: House Joint Resolution 16. HJR 16 proposed a constitutional amendment that blew up the restriction on state funds being limited to public education. The resolution sought to strip Article 7, Section 1 – deleting the clause “No money shall be paid from public funds for the direct benefit of any religious or other private educational institution,” and attempted to hamstring Article 9, Section 6, by adding a section that specified that no existing laws regarding taxation should “prevent payment from public funds for the direct educational benefit of students as provided by law.”
That all sounds great, right? The term “school choice” was applied to these bills for a reason: it polls fantastically, because who doesn’t want parents to have choices in their children’s education? Except, this bill would commit our tax dollars to propping up everyone from Jerry Prevo to Louis Farrakhan, supporting their visions of how best to educate our children. Do you think the government should actively spend tax payer dollars to fund the Anchorage Baptist Temple?
That would have been a decent question for a journalist to ask.
On “Running,” we missed an opportunity to have an interesting dialog, between Daysha Eaton and Rep. Wes Keller, highlighting what education reforms would be beneficial to all Alaskans and what vehicles get us there; whether or not his failed bills would resurface in the next session.
This isn’t about Daysha Eaton. The situation she landed herself in, and how she failed to take advantage of it, necessitated attention. This isn’t personal: it’s a single example reflective of a bigger, systemic problem that needs addressing.
Journalists need to know the right questions to ask, they need to understand the background and context behind the questions, and they must challenge those candidates accordingly. It’s time for specifics. No more hiding behind undefined, partisan buzzwords like “Liberty and Freedom,” “Equity and Fairness.” The blind who lead the blind tend to walk us off cliffs.
Alaskans should never hear “Some People Say” again. We need to be done with that spineless faux-journalistic methodology.
We deserve better from a sorely needed press.