Media culpa: we gave government a bad rap

Filed under: Opinion |

I’d like to offer a journalistic confession of sorts. Here it is:

As a political and government reporter in the mainstream media around here for some years, I helped create the false impression that Colorado government is a bloated, unmanageable mess that does the citizens no good.

Stories I’ve written through the years about government waste and mismanagement, while all true, apparently helped give people the impression that all government is fraught with waste, not just the programs I’ve written about.

I feel badly that I’ve contributed to the widely held but ridiculous notion that our government is unnecessary, that it provides no value to the society.

The truth is, Colorado’s state and local tax burden, as a percentage of personal income, is among the lowest in the nation. Compared to almost every place else, state and local government stacks up pretty well in terms of efficiency, even if sometimes things go awry in individual programs.

I’m not alone in this guilt, of course. My colleagues, especially in the broadcast media, are equally to blame for creating a mindset that all government is evil, wasteful and unnecessary simply because this program or that one was badly run.

We reporters did these stories hoping the government would improve, become more efficient and more responsive to the people.

We assumed people could keep things in perspective. It never occurred to us that many readers and viewers would leap to the conclusion that because a few government programs were wasteful or mismanaged from time to time, that all must be bad.

We certainly didn’t envision a situation where big chunks of the electorate would be unable to fathom why they need any government. None of us could have predicted that the rantings of an anti-government zealot such as Douglas Bruce would be taken so seriously.

But that’s what’s happened.

The entrenched anti-government attitude in this state led to the adoption of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in 1992, which took budget and spending decisions away from elected officials and put them on auto pilot.

Unchanged, TABOR will ultimately dismantle most of the government. That’s what Douglas Bruce wants.

We’re paying the price already with eroding schools, colleges and transportation infrastructure.

The anti-government mindset is what’s fueling opposition to Referendums C and D on the November ballot, the proposed budget and spending solutions backed by nearly the entire business community and political leadership of both parties.

The letters page of almost any newspaper contains examples of how ingrained the anti-government sentiment can be. Typically, they grump about how things were sure better back in the early 1960s, when $20 bought a lot more groceries.

Jon Caldera knows this. And, as the bellicose head of the conservative Independence Institute, which is leading the opposition to Referendums C and D, Caldera’s milking it for everything.

Caldera is promoting a series of media stunts about “pork barrel” projects that include just the kind of “grandiose projects” Mr. Becker refers to in his letter.

Except that if you total up the cost of all the “grandiose projects” and pork barrel waste, it doesn’t amount to much compared to the rest of the state budget. It’s small potatoes.

It’s symbolic, though, which is about all many people need these days to be persuaded – about anything. The right symbols and imagery often win out over truth and logic.

Is there waste in government? Of course there is. Can government do better? Absolutely.

But does any level of waste, no matter how small in relation to the whole, justify the dismantling of our roads, schools, colleges, medical programs for the poor, safety and security, and prisons – especially when Colorado already is near the bottom of the states in terms of tax burden?

No, it doesn’t. But that’s what a lot of people think.

I blame myself. Please forgive me.

Neil Westergaard is editor of the Denver Business Journal. Reach him at (303) 837-3520 or via e-mail at nwestergaard@bizjournals.com. Copyright, American City Business Journals, reprinted by permission.