Tom Butt
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  Fake News and Alternative Facts Right Here in Richmond
February 21, 2017

Who will police the press?

It all started with a story on Richmond first published by the LA Times (Cutting jobs, street repairs, library books to keep up with pension costs, Generous retirement benefits for public safety employees could help push the Bay Area city of Richmond into bankruptcy) authored by Judy Lin, a reporter for CALMatters, which describes itself as a “a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture dedicated to explaining California policies and politics.” In fact, CAL Matters is largely funded by rich right wing silicon valley Republicans and foundations, including Greg Penner, grandson-in-law of Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, Condoleezza Rice, Helen and Chuck Schwab and George Shultz.

Without checking the facts, major newspapers around the state picked up the story, which was really about exploding pension plans statewide, a legitimate subject, but inaccurately invoked the prospect of bankruptcy in Richmond to make a point.. Invoking old news from 2 ½ years ago, Lin wrote, “When the state auditor gauged the fiscal health of California cities in 2015, this port community on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay made a short list of six distressed municipalities at risk of bankruptcy.” What she neglected to add was that the state auditor later met with Richmond officials and was satisfied that the city was not at risk after all.

Then, Lin found the only source she could to reinforce the bankruptcy theme, quoting ousted City Councilman Vinay Pimple, ’I don’t think there’s any chance we can avoid it,’ said former City Councilman Vinay Pimple, referring to bankruptcy.”

Then, Lin quoted me out of context, “’It’s a huge mess,’ said Mayor Butt. ‘I don’t know how it’s going to get resolved. One of these days, it’s just going to come crashing down.’” I was clear that I was talking about the entire state pension system, not Richmond.

After the LA Times published the story, newspapers statewide picked it up, including our local Bay Area News Group. None of them fact checked it. City Manager Bill Lindsay responded (City Manager Bill Lindsay's Response to Richmond Bankruptcy Articles, February 11, 2017), “The issue of municipal pensions, including escalating costs, the need for reforms, proper management of the CalPERS system, and other related topics have been discussed and written about a great deal over the past several years, and, especially, in recent weeks.  But, to my knowledge, never has the word ‘bankruptcy’ been used to describe the effect of pension costs on the City of Richmond, and, frankly, it is inaccurate, irresponsible, and reckless to do so now,” but he got no coverage.

Even squeaky clean KQED republished it without fact checking it. Then I got a call from John Sepulvado of The California Report who asked for an interview. If I had known he was from KQED, I would not have talked to him. But I did ( I thought I did a pretty good job of debunking the bankruptcy theme, but he persevered and finally cut me off when he wasn’t hearing what he wanted to hear. His teaser for the interview stated, “The Bay Area City of Richmond is the latest city to face the grim reality that bankruptcy may be in the cards. Rising pension costs are the big culprit just as they’ve been in other cities forced to reorganize their finances through bankruptcy proceedings. Host John Sepulvado spoke with the Mayor of Richmond, Tom Butt, about the situation. Reporter: John Sepulvado.”

I just don’t understand why the press continues to pick on Richmond. We have the same challenges that most cities have, and in many respects, we are handling them better with fewer resources. Maybe we are just the Rodney Dangerfield of cities. And, as they say, any publicity is good publicity.