Tuesday, May 17, 2005

WTTW, Giving you a Left Perspective

Now, if a commercial television station put on a panel discussion that was supposed to be a balanced discussion of education and the panel consisted of two conservatives and one far right panelist, and the moderator was at best in the center [or perhaps right of center], would anybody call that a balanced discussion of education? Of course, not.

We hear constant complaints from the left about what they call the horrors of the consersative, slanted Fox News Channel. They find the purported conservative, slant of FNC offensive, but not the less blatant, but still omnipresent, left bias on CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC and, of course, the currently topical PBS.

And, there are daily complaints from the left, including an occasional one from the Chicago Tribune’s erudite and often balanced columnist and blogger Eric Zorn, about right wing talk radio, including much, but not all, of WLS here in Chicago. Indeed, being a fair guy, Zorn even objectively notes the ineptitude of Air America, which has attempted to provide an alternative to right wing talk radio, i.e., left wing talk radio. What right wing and left wing talk radio have in common is that both make little, or no, attempt to present balanced discussions.

WTTW, Chicago’s public TV station airing on Ch. 11 in the Chicago metropolitan area, on the other hand, makes every effort to describe itself as balanced, with respect to public policy programming. And, this is especially true with Chicago Tonight’s or Chicago Week in Review’s self-description.

Yet, balance is generally not the watchword at either program on WTTW. Joel Weisman, who leans left as the host of Chicago Week in Review, almost never has more than one conservative in his panel of four guests and often has none, with the panel being rounded out, at best, by two liberals and two centrists—and often with four liberal points of view, including the sports guy-or woman, and even the business guy [oddly, the business person is almost never a woman].

Chicago Tonight, a program which used to seek some ideological balance, now seems to have thrown in the towel. Tonight’s panel discussion on education spending, finance and reform in Illinois is a good illustration of the program’s generally left, or liberal, bias. It is as if Chicago Tonight said, “Let’s give Berkowitz some good material for his blog.” And, boy, did they.

The panel included (a) Gery Chico, former President of the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education, a U. S. Senate Candidate in the 2004 Democratic Primary and now Chairman of the Governor’s Task Force on Education, (b) Linda Lenz, Publisher of Catalyst Chicago [described by host Phil Ponce as “an independent,” news magazine on “School Reform.”] and (c) Ralph Martire, Executive Director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

Now, Chico, Lenz and Martire are all nice, bright and articulate [and I have been honored to have Chico and Martire on my show, and I would hope they will continue to come on and I would hope to have Lenz on as well]—but, they are all to the left of center, with the only question being how far to the left. Martire certainly is considerably so; Chico is fairly so—as is Lenz.

I have no complaint with Chico, Lenz and Martire. Indeed, I admire all three. These folks are forceful advocates for their positions and their opinions. It is not their job to provide balance, or to challenge themselves. On the other hand, that is supposed to be the job of WTTW, its host and its producers. I would imagine that the host/moderator and the producers have something to say about producing balanced shows, or at least they should.

Ponce is represented to be a centrist. However, he led off tonight’s program, with this: “According to some rankings, Illinois is 49th in the nation in the proportion of education funding it provides. [Interestingly, a large number of states, in addition to Illinois, can claim the 49th slot. How convenient]. There appears to be a consensus that something needs to be done about that, but no apparent consensus yet on what that should be.”

Consensus? Doesn’t that mean general agreement among all concerned? I don’t know any conservatives who agree with Ponce’s statement. And, there are some centrists who might dispute it as well. The people to whom I refer think that local control over education is good and any effort to put more power over education in the hands of the state government would lead to a lowering of the quality of education in Illinois. Of course, they might like to see various reforms, e.g., school vouchers allowing parents to send kids to the school of their choice, perhaps even the progressive vouchers of Joe Lieberman, with kids of low income parents getting larger monetary vouchers than those of higher income parents, but none of that came up tonight from the lefties on the panel, or from the host.

No matter. WTTW apparently does not consider conservatives people. So, why should they be consulted when discussing consensus or placed on a WTTW panel. No, no-- WTTW says, KISS--keep it simple, stupid. So, nobody on Ponce’s panel objected to Phil’s statement. Why should they. It was, like the rest of the statements made on the twenty, or so, minute program-- of, by and for the Left.

Chico touted how much Governor Blagojevich has increased education spending in Illinois in the last three years. Martire promoted House Bill 750 because “it increased taxes on affluent folks,” and “puts more money into low and moderate family income schools.” Lenz touted HB750 because it “wasn’t a simple swap,” but was a “nice Christmas Tree bill with a lot of people [schools, Universities, counties, municipalities] getting money out of that.”

Lenz emphasized that the only way to begin to equalize that [school funding inequity] is to reduce [school funding’s] reliance on the property tax. Well, in the tightly constrained, homogeneous world of Linda Lenz’s reform, that might be the case. But, in the real world- the world outside of WTTW, there are tens of millions of education reformers who see it differently. Perhaps WTTW could find room for one on its next education panel.

Lenz and Martire decried the number of schools engaged “in deficit spending,” making no discrimination between levels or rates of growth of education spending in the school district so characterized. For reasons I don’t understand, Ponce did not raise such issues.

However, Ponce, unfortunately, did see fit to resurrect the cliché that the Governor’s program amounted to a “stop gap,” measure and threw it at Chico, to which Chico responded predictably by referring to how much money Blago is throwing at education, including trying to get more money for school construction out of the state legislature. Basically, this was an internal dispute within the left. “My big education spending is better than your big education spending.” Balance? I don’t think so.

To his credit, Chico tried to remind the lopsided panel and host Ponce about the dangers of doubling the corporate income tax under HB750. Martire countered Chico by saying HB750 is a net decrease in business taxes because business gets a cut in real estate property taxes.

There was no response from Chico, host Ponce or Lenz to point out what any conservative would: the income tax increase for business is a promise for a permanent increase; the reduction in the business property tax is at best an initial cut, with no controls to see that business, say, two years later doesn’t face an increased corporate income tax and a return of their property taxes to their old levels. That, of course, is one reason why business has not yet fallen in love with Martire’s proposal.

Martire made his usual deceptive statements, e.g., even after HB750 becomes law, “Illinois remains in the bottom third in the nation in total tax burden, bottom third.” What did Martire mean by total tax burden? Total taxes paid by Illinois residents? I don’t think so. Illinois is in the bottom third of total education spending? Don’t bet your house on it. Essentially, this argument of Martire went unchallenged. The most Chico could muster was, “that logic is simply not making its way through.” Lenz, nothing. Ponce, nothing.

Ponce is advertised by WTTW as balanced, and Ponce often does a great job as a host/moderator. I have very much admired his handling of the political candidate debates. For example, several that come to mind as good examples of how challenging and balanced he can be are: Rod Blagojevich-Jim Ryan in 2002, the Democratic and Republican Senate Primary candidate discussions in 2004 and the Obama-Keyes discussion last fall.

But, when you have a lefty panel in front of you, even if Phil is not responsible for assembling it, I am sure he knows that he shouldn’t challenge from the Left. Yet, Ponce spent time throwing out such “lefty questions,” as his argument to Chico that it must be unconstitutional for the state to fund only 35% of the total cost of education [with the remainder being left to the Feds and the local governmental units in Illinois to take care of].

Now, there is nothing wrong with the Host playing devil’s advocate in his questions. Indeed, I do that on my show. With a conservative in front of me, I try to challenge from the left. But, given that Ponce had three lefties in front of him, why was he challenging from the Left? Why not from the right? Moreover, why were there three lefties in front of him? Why? Why, indeed.

Just another day at the office on Public TV in Chicago: A Chicago left perspective.You don’t think it happened this way. Don’t take my word for it. Chicago Tonight, which airs every night on Ch. 11 from 7:00 pm to 8:00 pm, is also repeated tonight at midnight [sometimes the time for this airing varies] and it is always repeated at 1:30 am and 4:30 am in the morning. The education discussion occurs in the first half hour of the program.
Jeff Berkowitz, Host and Producer of Public Affairs and an Executive Recruiter doing Legal Search, can be reached at JBCG@aol.com