Media have gotten so streamlined that only one newspaper wrote a story last week when the S.C. House Ways and Means Committee approved a $9.8 billion budget.
That’s billion with a “B.” And that “B” means that it matters. But without reporters meticulously covering what’s going on with your state tax dollars throughout the whole process — and not just at the end when all of the deals have been cut — then there’s a better likelihood that someone will stick a pet project or two in the budget.
“When every daily newspaper had a Columbia bureau, competition was fierce,” recalled Sid Gaulden of West Columbia, who staffed a bureau with me years ago. “Everyone wanted to beat everyone else on just about every story — big or small. Unfortunately with the demise of The State, coupled with the lack of bureaus from Spartanburg, Greenville and even Myrtle Beach, no longer does that competition exist.” (Note: The State was the newspaper that wrote the 2021 budget story!)
It’s a sad state of media affairs, but it should be expected as newspapers cut budgets and people to cover the Statehouse. There may be another reason too — a new breed of editor has probably bought into a long-held belief that people don’t care about stories with numbers in them, which is something also perpetuated by some lazy reporters who don’t like math.
What’s even more disconcerting about the whole mess is press officials across the country celebrate Sunshine Week starting March 14 to pay tribute to the importance of free public information at a time most outlets aren’t covering the budget, one of the biggest and more important bits of free information there is.
In the old days of 30 years ago, a phalanx of reporters covered the Statehouse with a thirst for breaking news and beating the other guy. There were budget stories all over the place. Yes, they were hard to put together and often, there seemed to be no need for them. But it was important to get legislators on the record to make sure they had the people’s interest at stake.
“I also remember being competitive with the other reporters to be the first to find suspicious line-items [in the budget],” said former Associated Press reporter Trip DuBard. “They were like loose strings — if you pulled them, the seam came undone and someone’s pants fell down. And yet, every year they’d slide another one in.”
Budget-related stories can have impact. Remember when cell phones were all the rage? It was a status symbol for someone to have a car phone or a bag phone. After churning out dozens of Freedom of Information requests to state agencies, it was easy to spot abuse — officials who were spending thousands of state dollars on cell phones, including one guy who spent beaucoups of state dollars calling his wife many nights on long drives to his home.
“While I can’t claim to have inside knowledge, I get a strong impression the TV stations here are not staffing legislative coverage on a sustained basis,” said retired TV reporter Jack Kuenzie of Columbia. “Management had zero interest in process/policy stories with sound from suits. Bad TV.”
Gary Karr, who worked for The Greenville News before going to the AP, said he recalled sitting in the House Ways and Means committee room for hours as lawmakers plowed through the various departments.
“Budgets are the main way governments express their priorities, so it’s sad to see that the day-in day-out government process stories get such short shrift,” said Karr, who later worked as a spokesman for David Beasley when he was governor.
DuBard enjoyed the “treasure hunt (that) it was to find the baloney in the budget.”
At one point, two senior Democratic state Senate budget writers, both of whom are dead, blocked DuBard from attending a budget subcommittee meeting
“When it was finally released, there was — as I remember — a tax increase [Sen. James] Waddell had slipped in … Robert Ariail had a great cartoon showing Waddell and [Sen. Jack] Lindsey feeding the taxpayer into a sausage-making machine. The result was that they had to back down and retract the tax increase.”
Budget stories matter. Let’s demand more so we can all follow the money.
Andy Brack is editor and publisher of Charleston City Paper. Have a question? Send to: email@example.com.