St. George, Bad Journalism And Destructively Irresponsible Baton Rouge Pols

Yesterday, the St. George incorporation effort hit the Huffington Post, which offered up what might be the worst article mathematically possible on the effort.

The headline: Richer White People In Greater Baton Rouge Seek To Secede From Poorer Black Neighbors.

There was, of course, no support given for this allegation that St. George represents an effort to secede from much of anything in the article. There wasn’t much of anything in it, period, as the entire piece was a regurgitation of articles on St. George from the Advocate and Times-Picayune.

Other than this brilliant piece of editorializing, that is…

But the campaign has not met with universal support. It taps into longstanding divisions of class and race. East Baton Rouge Parish is also home to the state’s second largest city and capital, Baton Rouge. Many people are suggesting that the real goal of incorporation supporters is to put some distance between the better-off, mainly white, suburban St. George and the financially struggling, mainly black, urban Baton Rouge.

That piece has set off a flurry of discussion about the St. George effort, which most recently has manifested itself in a Times-Picayune article suggesting that all the bad national media attention will give Baton Rouge a black eye and ruin the city’s reputation…

Whether the stories are an accurate portrayal of the quest to create what would be Louisiana’s 5th-largest city is debatable. Regardless, this has become an issue of national perceptions — which don’t necessarily require facts — and the potential impact on the future growth of East Baton Rouge Parish. As you might expect, those who oppose incorporation say the controversy will have a chilling effect; those supportive of the St. George effort suggest the new city will become a recruiting mecca.

Opponents of the incorporation are concerned the attention will hurt Baton Rouge’s reputation nationally, especially as it relates to the Capital Region’s efforts to both recruit new businesses as well as attract and retain young, educated professionals.

“Our ability to recruit businesses from across the country, as well as residents, is hampered by even the perception that divisions in our schools and our city lines are driven by class and race,” said Belinda Davis, president of One Community, One School District, which opposes the new city.

Diana Samuels’ piece also had the St. George people making the case that it’s something new, that it will be an economic driver for the area and that it will create more good schools in East Baton Rouge.

She even had this…

Many of the national stories describe the St. George effort as trying to “secede” from the city of Baton Rouge, while the St. George area was never part of Baton Rouge — it is in unincorporated East Baton Rouge Parish.

Quite so. The Huffington Post story depicting the St. George incorporation as a “secession” is a flat-out lie, and its author Shadee Ashtari owes a retraction and an apology to the people of South Baton Rouge for having written it.

As Samuels notes, St. George is the unincorporated area of East Baton Rouge Parish OUTSIDE of the city of Baton Rouge. It is not part of Baton Rouge and is by definition not capable of seceding from the city.

And St. George’s incorporation does not affect the area’s status as part of East Baton Rouge Parish. It will remain part of East Baton Rouge Parish, just as Zachary and Central remained part of the parish when they incorporated.

A minimal understanding of these easily-recognizable facts should have prevented Ashtari from issuing such a flat-out falsehood in a national media article, but the narrative of racist rich white people trying to break from poor innocent blacks was more important than accuracy.

Similarly terrible journalism on the issue can be found at Al-Jazeera, Salon and the UK Daily Mail. The first two of those were predictable; the last, more disappointing – particularly as it presents the whole controversy as a product of some 200,000 black Katrina refugees taking up permanent residence in Baton Rouge, which is thoroughly inaccurate.

After the media blitz calling St. George a “secession” blew up this week, St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey gave us this quote…

Multiple national blogs and media outlets have portrayed this movement as a group of wealthy white citizens looking to secede from “poor, black” Baton Rouge.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

This is about working class people standing up and taking responsibility of their community and schools. Race baiting is what people do when they have no logical argument left and need to sell newspapers or generate traffic to their website. They invoke race and socioeconomic circumstance in an attempt to demonize and belittle a courageous effort.

We’re not seceding from the city Baton Rouge. We are incorporating an unincorporated area of East Baton Rouge Parish. St. George is about creating a safe, modern, efficiently run city and a world class, globally competitive school system.

The interesting thing about this is, Rainey and his compatriots in the St. George effort don’t have to convince the world that they’re not a bunch of racists or secessionists. They merely have to convince the majority of the people of St. George, who are being called racists and secessionists, that the Huffington Post and Al-Jazeera are wrong about who they are. Which is not all that hard a job.

Most of the time when you tar an entire group of people as something they aren’t, particularly in retaliation for those people doing something they can reasonably see as in their interest, you’re going to harden their perceptions of your hostility toward them and dissuade them from listening to what you have to say.

Which is precisely what the downtown Baton Rouge crowd has done. From the start, they’ve attacked the St. George effort as racist and played up its effect as creating the “new Detroit,” as though the governing elite in Baton Rouge would bear no responsibility to keep the city from declining in political, economic and demographic terms regardless of what an unincorporated area outside the city limits might do.

That inflammatory rhetoric inevitably attracted the attention of mostly left-wing media sources which are always interested in furthering the narrative of racial divisions in Southern cities, and the predictable characterization of the St. George effort as Klansmen-vs-Katrina refugees has followed; mind-bendingly stupid though that characterization might be.

Samuels catches the “shocked” and “concerned” reaction to the inevitable. Here’s John Fregonese, the city planner from Portland the East Baton Rouge government paid $200,000 or more in consulting contracts and who last month made a wildly inaccurate, unsourced and irresponsible charge that St. George would blow a $90 million hole in the EBR budget…

“No one wants to go into a situation like that,” Fregonese said. “You don’t want to go into the next Detroit and invest in the next Detroit. You don’t want to go into a place where people are splitting along racial lines. That’s something that I think sends up a lot of warning signals to people, and the in the Deep South it plays toward stereotypes.”

It never occurred to Fregonese that rather than the “next Detroit,” people might choose to invest in the next Highland Park, Sandy Springs or Mandeville – or if it did, he obviously didn’t think mentioning as much would help him score his next $200,000 consulting contract from the EBR government.

And then there’s the chief of administration for mayor-president Kip Holden, who is throwing everything he can in the path of the St. George organizers in an effort to stop the new city from forming, with a quote just as laughable. Here comes Bill Daniel…

William Daniel, chief administrative officer for Mayor-President Kip Holden, said “it’s certainly going to hurt” the city’s reputation if people see the issue as a group of wealthy, white residents trying to split off and leave a poor, black city behind.

Daniel said that’s not an accurate depiction, but businesses should be more worried about other consequences of the proposed incorporation.

“They should be thinking about the additional taxes they’re going to have to pay, whether they’re located in the city of St. George or in the city of Baton Rouge,” Daniel said. “You’re going to have to cut services or raise taxes.”

Daniel doesn’t explain how St. George walking away with either $90 million (Fregonese’s idiotic claim) or $53 million (the claim made in a study commissioned by the anti-St. George Baton Rouge Area Chamber) per year of EBR’s budget means that businesses in the new city would have to pay higher taxes. Either way, it’s not a very convincing argument – and it’s certainly not indicative of strong strategic thinking.

Making overheated and debunkable claims along fiscal lines about the “devastating” impact St. George will have on EBR, when the usual response is “wait a minute; this is 107,000 people you don’t have to provide services for anymore – doesn’t that mean you can cut your budget?” and then doubling down by openly fretting about all the racism involved in the incorporation will do two things – neither of which serve to slow St. George down.

First, making the people in the southern part of the parish the villains – and a bunch of Klansmen at that – for considering self-governance will only make them less interested in foregoing that self-governance. It solidifies for them that people outside of St. George not only don’t understand and respect their concerns but actively dislike them. Folks who feel themselves despised by those in power will naturally seek to escape from the powerful. Continue the disdainful lecturing, and watch the list of signatures grow.

And second, pleading poverty with grossly-inflated numbers only serves to prove to the people of St. George that the downtown crowd has not been a good steward of their tax dollars – and worse, those numbers confirm the perception long held in St. George that EBR has used them as a cash cow for decades, without much to show to St. George in return. As an example, the warning to St. George that there are some 10,000 public-school students living there and only 5,000 spots in current schools encompassed within the new city’s borders, coupled with the BRAC study’s claim that a St. George incorporation would wipe out a net of $53 million per year in tax revenue the parish makes off the area in return for not locating schools in those neighborhoods, serves as a signal to St. George that its proper role within the parish is that of a sucker. And any effort to escape that role is to be pilloried with grievance-based rhetoric in an effort to cow it into submission. Since no one likes to be a sucker, it ought to be little surprise if the St. Georgians wouldn’t be swayed by the poverty argument.

Let’s recognize once again that it makes no difference what anyone thinks about the St. George effort outside of the borders of what is to be St. George. When that petition reaches 18,000 signatures out of the 107,000 citizens there, an election will ensue in which the electorate will consist of St. George residents – and St. George residents only. So to attempt to alienate them and guilt-trip them into doing something they may be predisposed to believe is in their interest is not smart politics if you’re trying to stop the effort.

Because of that, we’re struggling to come to a conclusion about what the downtown crowd is really doing in ginning up all the ill will and overheated rhetoric. We’ve been comfortable thus far in believing this whole episode is an example of the incompetence that pervades city-parish government; all they know is the race card and the Washington Monument Syndrome, in which the prospect of the slightest budget cuts has to be magnified into an unspeakable calamity, and thus when St. George appears on the horizon that’s what you can expect to get.

But now we’re starting to think something else. We’ve been told the downtown crowd is in a panic at this point about what they see as a potential lost cause and the impending drawdown in folding money they’ll have to play with in the future, and as a result we’re considering the possibility that the ramp-up in rhetoric about divisiveness and the attraction of bad press is really a face-saving measure. In other words, it’s not the failure of the political class to hold St. George which led to all the bad fiscal effects; rather, it’s the evil of the St. George people in incorporating which destroyed Baton Rouge. The latter interpretation absolves Holden’s gang of blame; it makes St. George almost like a natural disaster they had no part in creating, and everything that goes wrong in Baton Rouge in the future can similarly be blamed on those racist white people to the south.

And while that might make the downtowners feel better about themselves, St. George is still going to be part of East Baton Rouge Parish. It’s still going to be necessary for the two cities – not to mention Zachary, Central and Baker to the north – to work together. What basis for such cooperation does this set?

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