Category Archives: Local Government

The Journalism We Need

Yesterday”s post was about the conundrum posed by social media sites. But social media isn’t journalism–and even when it focuses on news items, it is no substitute for journalism.

The First Amendment protects freedom of the press for obvious reasons. When citizens are uninformed about their government, they are unable to ensure that it is acting appropriately, meeting its responsibilities. They are unable to cast informed votes.

The Internet and social media have dramatically changed the way in which citizens get their information, and we are still struggling to come to terms with the avalanche of news, spin, propaganda and conspiracy theories that populate today’s media. The ability to “choose one’s news”—to indulge our very human confirmation bias—has had an enormous (and I would argue negative) effect upon American governance.

An article from Resilience–an aggregator website–is instructive.The author was bemoaning, as so many of us do, the disappearance of the “journalism of verification.”

Our modern culture tells us that we have more information today than anyone in history, because of the internet – but that assumes that data that could theoretically appear on a screen has the same value as words read from paper. In truth, few web sites will cover the library board meeting or the public works department, and if they do they are likely to be a blog by a single unpaid individual. Yet these ordinary entities shape our children’s minds and our present health, and as such are infinitely more important than any celebrity gossip — possibly more important than presidential campaigns.

Even if a blogger were to cover the library board or water board, no editors would exist to review the material for quality or readability, and the writer would be under no social, financial or legal pressure to be accurate or professional, or to publish consistently, or to pass on their duties to another once they resign.

One of the most daunting challenges of contemporary governance–really, of contemporary life–is the pervasiveness of distrust. Americans no longer know who or what to believe, are no longer able to separate fact from opinion, and no longer feel confident that they can know the agendas and evaluate the performance of their social and political institutions.

We live in an era when spin has become propaganda, and reputable sources of information  compete with “click bait” designed to appeal to pre-existing prejudices. Partisans of all sorts play on well-known human frailties like confirmation bias. The result is that Americans increasingly occupy different realities, making communication–let alone rational problem-solving, negotiation and compromise–virtually impossible.

The problem is most acute at the local level.

What we lose when we lose newspapers that practiced the journalism of verification is our ability to engage in responsible self-government. Civic engagement and especially local governance suffer when local media fails to adequately cover government, and there is emerging research that bears that out. Studies of cities that have lost their newspapers confirm that the loss is followed by diminished civic and political activity. It also leads to higher costs of borrowing, because those who purchase the bonds issued by a city with no news coverage factor in the greater risk of malfeasance or incompetence when there is no “watchdog” around.

Those studies of places that have entirely lost their newspapers are now being supplemented by research into the consequences of the sort of situation we have here in Indianapolis. It’s a situation that is increasingly common–cities where a newspaper continues to publish, but no longer has sufficient staff to cover the affairs of government. A study from earlier this year, titled “Political Consequences of the Endangered Local Watchdog: Newspaper Decline and Mayoral Elections in the United States,” has sobering conclusions.

Emerging data shows that cities served by newspapers with relatively sharp declines in newsroom staffing have significantly reduced political competition in mayoral races, as well as lower voter turnout. Newspaper closures have been linked to increased partisanship–presumably because the remaining sources of local information tend to be from partisan sources and Facebook/Twitter “bubbles,” while national media focuses on America’s political polarization.

Newsrooms around the country have dramatically reduced their editorial staffs, and typically, higher-paid reporters with the most institutional memory have been the first to go.

When I taught my class in Media and Public Affairs five or six years ago, I used a textbook titled “Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights?” Those lights are pretty dim right now–and as the Washington Post banner puts it– democracy dies in darkness.

Incentivizing Appropriate Police Behavior

Many years ago, I spent three years heading up Indianapolis’ legal department. It was–among other things–my introduction to the way municipalities defended against (and far more often, settled) claims of police misconduct and/or brutality. I’d venture to say that very few taxpayers have any idea how costly those claims can be.

A recent post to Lawfare considered not only the dollars, but the sense.

On March 12, the City of Minneapolis agreed to pay George Floyd’s family $27 million for his wrongful death via the knee of a police officer. Despite being the largest pretrial civil rights settlement, it is only a fraction of the taxpayer money spent on settling police brutality. From 2015 to 2019, more than $2 billion, mostly taxpayer money, was used on civilian payouts for police misconduct in only the 20 largest police departments.

As the article points out, the way in which we currently address payouts for police misconduct operates to absolve officers from any financial culpability, no matter how egregious the behavior that triggered the settlement. This is mostly due to qualified immunity, which I have discussed previously. Qualified immunity is a court-invented doctrine that was originally intended to protect officers when they were acting in good faith, but actually ends up allowing police officers to escape civil liability for virtually any behavior, good faith or not.

While qualified immunity often shields government officials broadly from personal liability, it is particularly used with law enforcement. And though it is applicable only to civil proceedings, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and even jurors are often swayed during grand juries and criminal proceedings by the protection of qualified immunity.

Depending on the state, officers accused of misconduct might even keep their police pension and even be able to sue the municipality for back pay if they are fired and then found criminally not guilty. The money for civilian payouts for police misconduct does not come from police department budgets. Rather, civilian payouts overwhelmingly come from general funds, though some come from bonds and even insurance policies, particularly in smaller areas.

Between expansive doctrines like qualified immunity and a widespread social willingness to accord police officers–who have an admittedly difficult and dangerous job–the benefit of any doubt, holding an officer personally responsible for misconduct is an exceedingly rare event.

The Lawfare article suggests structural changes that would begin to redress the current imbalance. A number of legal scholars recommend abolishing qualified immunity, and there are other changes that would provide incentives for better monitoring of officer behaviors (and arguably, better training protocols) by police departments. They include moving payouts from city budgets to police department insurance policies and having individual officers carry liability insurance.

The costs of the current system are considerable, and it would be a mistake to shrug off the Chauvin settlement as an anomaly.

Besides the settlement for Floyd’s death, a series of notable civil settlements for police misconduct include $38 million in Baltimore County, Maryland, for the wrongful death of Korryn Gaines and the accidental shooting of her four-year-old son, Kodi; $20 million in Prince George’s County, Maryland, for the wrongful death of William Green; $12 million for the wrongful death of Breonna Taylor of Louisville, Kentucky; and $6 million in Cleveland, Ohio, for the wrongful death of 12-year old Tamir Rice, who was killed while playing with a toy gun in a park. All the people mentioned above are Black. These cases are not cherry-picked but, rather, are part of a much larger systemic problem in policing and municipal government. Black people are roughly 2.5 times as likely as whites to be killed by police. Blacks are 3.5 times more likely to be killed by police when they are not attacking or do not have a weapon relative to whites, like Floyd, Green and Rice. Black women are disproportionately more likely to be killed in their homes by police, like Taylor and Gaines.

There are also many incidents that do not end in death but will probably result in civilian payouts for police misconduct. Some of the most recent incidents include a five-year-old who was arrested and yelled at by police after leaving school in Montgomery County, Maryland, as well as Marion Humphrey Jr., a 32-year-old law student who was detained for more than two hours as state troopers in Arkansas searched his U-Haul. Humphrey, the son of a retired judge, has already sued the Arkansas State Police.

Reforming the way these settlements are funded would not only incentivize improved training, oversight and behavior, it would save taxpayer dollars that could be put to far more productive use.

Indiana’s Fools Aren’t Just For April…

When it comes to politics in Indiana, one of the savviest observers is Jack Colwell, who writes for the South Bend Tribune. A recent column documenting reasons the Indiana General Assembly still deserves to be called the World’s Worst Legislature is a good  example.

After reading it, I decided that a discussion of our legislature would be appropriate for April Fool’s Day.

Colwell’s list–while not exhaustive–is illustrative. He began by noting that Indiana’s legislature has historically been ridiculous.

Indiana’s legislature long has been the subject of ridicule, going back historically to a time 134 years ago when violence among members forced the end of a session.

Later came influence of the Klan, influence of money that brought scandals and prison and decades of influence by naysayers who found progress too risky.

Sometimes it became a national joke, as with a bill to establish the state’s own definition of pi. Not pie, as in apple, cherry or pumpkin, but Indiana’s own mathematical value of pi.
 
In 2015, there were all those jokes by comedians on national TV about Indiana’s Freedom to Discriminate Act.

Colwell then enumerates the disaster that is the 2021 session: in the face of Governor Holcomb’s largely effective measures to contain the pandemic (whatever your “take” on the Governor’s efforts, it is undeniable that he has been more decisive–and effective–than most Republican Governors), the legislature has moved to remove his authority to act in a future emergency.

Colwell notes that “pressure from the Freedom to Infect Caucus” also has pushed Holcomb to end the statewide mask mandate a bit prematurely.

Speaking of the pandemic, some businesses have acted in ways that endangered the health–and lives– of their workers and others. Our General Assembly to the rescue–of the businesses, not the victims. It passed a. bill awarding COVID-19 civil immunity for businesses and prohibiting class action lawsuits against them. 

Is climate change a looming danger? The General Assembly–especially members who  develop real estate–  wants further limits on the protection of wetlands. (Who cares about the world their grandkids will inhabit? Or the purity of the water we’re all drinking now?)

Speaking of the environment, replacing  a significant amount of emissions by encouraging and enabling mass transit is one of the many, many reasons such systems are important. So our legislature is trying to destroy Indianapolis’ belated effort to create a workable and environmentally-friendly mass transit system. 

Has the nation recently been stunned by still more mass shootings? Indiana’s General Assembly wants to eliminate the need for a license to carry a gun. As Colwell says,

Why require unnecessary cost and bureaucratic delay for someone wanting a gun? Some law-abiding citizen might want a gun quickly for a visit to a spa. A new recruit of the Proud Boys should not be inconvenienced.

And then, of course, there’s the persistence of the “White Legislative Caucus.” Colwell notes the ugly episode during the current session, where Republican legislators booed their Black colleagues.

Coincidentally, the same day his column ran, the Indianapolis Star had a front-page report about Representative Jim Lucas, Republican from Seymour whose Facebook page has been the subject of numerous accusations of blatant racism. (Our daughter has previously told us that she had visited that page, and was horrified by the “out and proud” bigotry she saw.)

The Star article reported on a conversation between Lucas and a Black surgeon, which the surgeon experienced as racist. Lucas evidently feels that any rhetoric or action short of lynching isn’t really racist, but as the newspaper noted

Lucas has a history of making troubling comments. The Indiana State Conference of the NAACP has called for his resignation after past actions.

Last year, Huston removed him from two committees as punishment for other controversial Facebook posts. On Twitter there’s a hashtag used by some critics, “#LucasMustGo.”

I’m clearly not the only Hoosier who is mortified by the people elected to “represent” me.

Gravity Makes Stuff Fall Down…

Academic studies often rigorously test a thesis that many people consider obvious. (There are good reasons for testing such assumptions, but such research gives ammunition to a lot of anti-academic critics.) Juanita Jean recently reported on a study conducted by scholars at Johns Hopkins and the University of South Carolina that confirmed something arguably as obvious as “gravity makes stuff fall down”: COVID  has spread more rapidly in states with Republican Governors.

As the researchers politely put it,

Governors’ party affiliation may have contributed to a range of policy decisions that, together, influenced the spread of the virus.  These findings underscore the need for state policy actions that are guided by public health considerations rather than by partisan politics.

Ya think? The research confirmed that states with Republican Governors had both higher case rates and higher death rates.

One of the most depressing aspects of this incredibly depressing pandemic has been the number of people who have rejected medical science and demonstrated their utter lack of concern for other human beings. The sheer number of such people, and their belligerent refusal to take even the most reasonable steps to avoid infecting others, has been unsettling, to put it mildly.

As reprehensible as these individual actions have been, the decision to pander to them–to politicize a medical pandemic in order to curry favor with unreasonable voters–is worse.

Other studies have found evidence that Republican governors in 2020 were broadly less strict than their Democrat counterparts in setting policies on mask-wearing, social distancing, and other pandemic-related measures. The researchers say that those studies, along with the links they found between Republican governorship and greater COVID-19 impact, are consistent with the idea that the political polarization of the COVID-19 response has contributed to less effective COVID-19 policies and worse case-related statistics in some states.

“Despite a more coordinated federal response this year, governors still play a key role in the pandemic response,” says Benjamin-Neelon. “As we’re seeing, several states have lifted mask requirements even though we have yet to make substantial progress in controlling the spread of the virus.”

Florida is a good example of a state that has flouted medical advice in order to curry favor with a Republican base unwilling to accept constraints on dangerous behaviors.

As the Guardian previously reported, Governor Ron DeSantis and his administration ‘suppressed facts’ and ‘dispensed dangerous misinformation’-it was the third US state to record a million coronavirus cases. An investigation found that, especially in the run-up to the presidential election, the DeSantis administration lied about the extent and dangers of the pandemic. (In fact, the Florida department of health’s county-level spokespeople simply stopped issuing public statements about Covid-19 between September and the  November election.)

After the election, headlines like this one from the Orlando Sentinel accused the Governor of being missing in action in the fight against COVID, reporting that “Cases are surging, people are waiting hours to get tested and Ron DeSantis doesn’t appear up to the job.” That disinterest in public health characterizes much of the GOP base that applauded the lack of a vigorous state response to the pandemic.

More recently, NPR reported on accusations that DeSantis was “playing politics” with COVID. Not only did the Governor “open” the state more quickly than epidemiologists thought safe, vaccine distribution was originally limited to areas populated by DeSantis voters and donors.

DeSantis certainly isn’t the only Governor who has routinely elevated political goals over duty. It should be obvious that when elected officials take their cues from the subset of voters who prioritize being able to do whatever they want whenever they want, rather than from medical science, public health suffers.

These days, as the research demonstrated, that subset and those Governors are Republicans.

 

 

From Hudnut And Lugar To…Pathetic

In a recent post, I explained my long-ago departure from the Republican Party by sketching the GOP’s transition from a political party into a ragtag collection of culture warriors, con men and moral pygmies.

I’m certainly not the only person who’s noticed: David Brooks–a conservative-but-not-insane columnist for the New York Times recently bemoaned the fact that Republicans have abandoned principled policy debate in favor of fighting culture wars. And Yuval Levin of the American Enterprise Institute has wondered whether we may see a “policy realignment without a partisan realignment” because Republicans have found so many “cultural ways” to attract votes.

One of the many problems with Republicans’ metamorphosis from political partisans to culture warriors (a nice word for White Supremicists)  is the quality–or, more accurately, the absence of quality–of the political figures the party elevates.

Here in Indiana, the GOP is no longer  the party of able, principled people like Bill Hudnut and Richard Lugar. Besmirching the legacy of Lugar’s long and honorable Senate service, we have Mike Braun enabling the worst of Trumpism, and Todd Young obediently protecting billionaires from taxation and gun crazies from regulation.

Both have voted  in lockstep with other Trumpian “ditto heads” in the Senate–against the recent COVID relief package, against confirming Merrick Garland as Attorney General… essentially, against anyone or anything a Democratic President wants.

Neither of them can point to anything positive or important that they’ve accomplished. Their sole “platform” is that they have faithfully enabled  the GOP descent into Trumpian bigotry and culture war. 

Dick Lugar is rolling over in his grave.

And then we have Todd Rokita. I have previously posted about his effort to hold a second, well-paid job while purportedly acting as Indiana’s Attorney General–a full-time job. After the media highlighted that particular scam, Rokita quit that particular private-sector job–but it turns out, that wasn’t the only con he was running.

According to the Indiana Star

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita is getting paid $25,000 a year for advising a Connecticut-based pharmaceutical company on top of being compensated by at least one other company for similar work, IndyStar has discovered.

On Wednesday, Rokita filed a financial disclosure form with the Indiana inspector general’s office in which he described his ongoing involvement in 2020 with various companies. He acknowledged being paid by these companies, but his office declined to tell IndyStar how much. 

“We have provided all of the information required to be in compliance with the law,” spokesperson Molly Craft told IndyStar over email.

The financial disclosure comes weeks after Rokita faced scrutiny when it was reported that he was still working for the health care benefits firm Apex Benefits despite taking public office.

The paper reported that Rokita is being compensated by business accelerator Acel360, the Indianapolis-based transportation and logistics company Merchandise Warehouse and a pharmaceutical company, Sonnet BioTherapeutics. It was also able to confirm that he is being compensated by another pharmaceutical company called NanoViricides that he began working with in 2020 (in anticipation of his winning his campaign for AG?). 

Democrats have labeled Rokita a “walking conflict of interest,” and pointed out that–as a “well-known opponent of the Affordable Care Act”  he’s in position to place not just his political ideology but the interests of his private-sector benefactors ahead of the duties his office demands.

Thanks to the fact that the Indiana General Assembly is part-time, members are allowed to keep their “day jobs.” (That situation has pluses and minuses–members arguably bring  deepened understanding of many issues to legislative discussions, but the potential for conflicts of interest is greatly enhanced.) That same permissiveness doesn’t apply to statewide elected positions. Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, Superintendent of Public Instruction and Attorney-General are intended to be full-time jobs.

It would seem obvious to principled people that if they can’t “make it” on the state’s salary, they shouldn’t run for the office. Of course, it would also be obvious to principled people that throwing  dishonest red meat to voters terrified of losing cultural hegemony is a dishonorable way to win an election.

But then, these aren’t principled people.