Newspaper folks know they need to be on their guard around politicians, who tend to spin information to suit their self-interest. That’s why good journalists – the watchdogs for the public interest — come equipped with a crap detector. They sift through the verbiage and try to assess the accuracy of what they’ve been told. Their credibility, as well as that of their newspaper, depends on separating fact from fiction.
Given that, I was a bit surprised this morning to see Sacramento Bee sports columnist Ailene Voisin regurgitate some outlandish statistics provided by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s office.
Steinberg has taken to strutting around New York and telling NBA folks how important it is to keep the Kings in Sacramento. Voisin has matched Steinberg’s home-town cheerleading by chronicling little ol’ Sacramento’s valiant battle against the goliaths who would snatch away the home team.
In today’s column, Voisin quotes Steinberg as saying: “It would be a huge blow, a body blow, to lose an asset like the Kings.”
To bolster that quote, Voisin writes: “Losing the Kings would cost 4,000 to 6,500 jobs and eliminate $7 billion in investments, according to Steinberg’s office.”
Wow! Those are huge numbers, and wildly different from others I’ve seen printed in the Bee. Last year, in the Bee’s Forum section, Tom Friery, a former city treasurer and a member of Mayor Kevin Johnson’s booster squad, Think Big Sacramento, said the loss of the Kings “will take 800 to 1,200 quality jobs and $100 million in annual economic impact somewhere else.”
Friery, who died last year, may have exaggerated. The Bee itself reported in 2011 that the Kings employed 773 workers, of which only 239 were full-time. The $100 million figure is elusive, but a big chunk of it likely reflected salaries paid to Kings players, little of which is spent locally.
Given these conflicting figures, a good journalist would have gone to Steinberg and asked a lot of hard questions. This is serious information to present to the public as the arena drama heads into a crucial stage.
Alas, Voisin did not clear up the confusion. She simply printed the wild figures, attributed them to Steinberg’s office and continued on with her puff piece.
Columnists, while free to voice their opinions, have a responsibility to get the facts right. If the facts can’t be pinned down, the inconsistencies need to be addressed. If a politician insists the world is flat, a columnist needs to do more than add an attribution phrase to the claim. At the very least, a columnist should note that reputable scientists contend the Earth is round.
Even with all the staff reductions at the Bee in recent years, I’m sure there must be some reporters who still have a crap detector they could lend to Voisin. It’s a useful tool for maintaining journalistic credibility.