by Howard Stephenson

Having lobbied the Utah Legislature for 15 years as a taxpayer advocate and then having served 14 years in the Utah Senate I have never been more concerned about the effect of the media on public opinion than I am today.

In enumerating the divisions of society, Edmund Burke described the fourth estate – the reporters – as “more important than they all.” In the days of newspapers and authentic, ethical journalists the fourth estate served a critical role in informing the populace about happenings and issues in a way Jefferson said informed the discretion of the people in whom the ultimate powers of government must always lie. With the advent of mass media and the multiplicity of news outlets, however, news today is more about entertainment than information.

One would have expected today’s overabundance of media outlets to have produced an even more informed public than when newspapers were all that was available. However, due to stiff competition between print, broadcast, and web-based news types and even greater competition among countless “news” companies, the media have become highly competitive businesses with the focus on the bottom line of the business, not the bottom line of the news story.

In order to survive, each news outlet must produce more sensational and controversial stories than their competitors. Otherwise their advertisers would not be willing to pay for the dissemination of boring news which nobody watches, hears, or reads. Your father’s news wouldn’t survive in today’s marketplace.

Despite this trend, the public seems to eat it up and most people believe what they see on TV, hear on the radio, or read in the newspaper or the web. Too few realize that if the news they consume were food, they would have a steady diet of Twinkies, soda pop and candy bars. When the news is somewhat accurate, the food comparison would be upgraded to fast food.

Accuracy in the Media

News reports about the legislature this year are a perfect example of this hyped-news-that-sells phenomenon. The media has decided that the major theme of the 2006 legislative session is a “power grab,” saying we are “drunk with power.” The reports are filled with inaccuracies and mischaracterizations about the legislation in question.

For example, when reporting on a bill to provide formal communication between U.S. Senators and the Utah Legislature, KSL falsely reported it as “repealing the 17th Amendment . . . so they, not voters, can determine how Utah is represented in the United States Senate.”

The Deseret Morning News published false statements that a bill to ensure state government can continue to operate on the previous year’s budget when the Governor and the legislature are unable to pass a new budget, “. . . removes the power of veto from the governor.” The News also published a false claim that my waste-site permitting bill, which restores the legislature’s Constitutional 2/3 veto override prerogative “would allow the Legislature to have the only say in granting a license.”

Drunk with Power?

Legislators this year are accused of arrogance and “blatant power grabs” because that’s what sells.

Most of the legislative arrogance I’ve seen in this so-called “power grab” debate has been contrived by various news people whose agencies seem to be desperate to make a buck.  Many reporters are uncomfortable with the pressure their editors or business managers place on them to sensationalize stories. I am aware of four reporters this session who have apologized to legislators for unfairly reporting their stories saying their owners or editors made them do it. Two of them apologized to me personally, saying the slanted reporting was out of their hands.

You may have also seen the Deseret Morning News article a week ago on the legislature entitled “Poke ‘em Yokum” wherein the legislature is supposedly getting even with County Attorney David Yokum through consideration of legislation to provide legal counsel for the county council and another to restrict politically motivated investigations.  Neither of the bills in question is mean-spirited.  They simply respond to the need to prevent witch-hunts by the County Attorney’s office and the need to respect the separation of powers doctrine by giving the County Council independent legal counsel.  The newspaper sensationalized the story giving the impression that an arrogant and retaliatory Republican legislature was smacking a Democrat who had smacked them in the investigation of former County Mayor Nancy Workman who was found not guilty on the charges brought by Yokum.

It’s too bad the public is not generally aware of the truth concerning controversial issues apart from what has been reported in our National Enquirer type newspapers and media outlets. While I’ve cited examples from KSL and the Deseret News, they are not the worst offenders. This session the Ogden Standard Examiner and the Provo Herald have issued the most unfair and scathing indictments of the legislature. Citizens are made to believe that legislators have approached these issues with arrogance and power mongering. Little do they realize that each legislator is one of 104 and must convince a majority of his colleagues in each house to support the measure. I have observed during this session the sponsors of the list of “power grab” legislation in question to be very humble in their approach, methodical in explaining the reasons for the legislation being the protection of the people from unbridled government power and a return of the founders’ intentions, and civil in their demeanor toward those opposing.

For example, there is legislation this year to overcome the property rights violations of local planning and zoning commissions and city councils.  During the debate on SB 170 and its two successor cities and the media have gone ballastic with name-calling and sky-is-falling claims while the sponsor Al Mansell has been nothing but a gentleman in return.

Knowing the care legislators have taken with these controversial subjects, I have winced each time I have seen a media report on these issues.  Without exception, they have been factually incorrect and seem to have distorted the stories intentionally, often impugning the motives of the sponsors.

Local Control is Best?

Some of the media criticism of these controversial measures focuses on the concept that local control is best and the legislature ought to butt out. I believe this argument stems from a lack of awareness of the vertical checks and balances established by the founders of our nation and our state. The checks and balances between the states and federal government and between the state and the local governments created by state government are just as essential as the horizontal checks and balances between the three branches.

It is my belief that despite being “closer to the people,” local governments have a tendency, if unchecked by their creator, the state, to rob the liberties of the people more than the state or federal government.  This is especially true when it comes to taxpayers some of those in county government view as deep-pockets “outsiders” such as centrally assessed taxpayers for whom the legislature has had to step in repeatedly to protect.  While some in county government work to “soak” big business, some city fathers give over $100 million of our tax dollars annually to developers in a war among the cities over retail. The legislature has appropriately stepped in to check the power of local governments on these issues.

Thank heaven that the legislature has also restricted the powers of local government to prevent, for example local income taxes, local gross receipts taxes, runaway impact fees, closed meetings, and eminent domain for private purposes.

If the media reports of these checks of power make the legislature appear arrogant in spite of all we do to be civil, we’ll just have to accept that as part of the heat associated with the kitchen.

Our generation is afflicted with critics in the media who think they do a great and clever thing in mercilessly attacking men and women in public office and in other positions of leadership. They are prone to take a line or a paragraph out of context and pursue their prey like a swarm of killer bees. They lash out with invective and snide innuendo against those who have no effective way of fighting back or who, in the spirit of the teachings of the Master, prefer to turn the other cheek and go forward with their lives.

President Gordon B. Hinckley, “Blessed Are the Merciful,” Ensign, May 1990, 68