Louisiana’s Legacy Media Might Be Its Single Worst Problem

We’ve hinted at this repeatedly, particularly after the shockingly one-sided treatment the New Orleans Times Picayune and Baton Rouge Advocate rendered in the 2015 gubernatorial campaign, but things seem to be getting worse.

Let’s recall that two major election-eve stories which were over-reported, not to mention misreported, by those papers in 2015 likely played a substantial part in moving the needle right before the primary election, embedding John Bel Edwards as the favorite in that election and paving the way for his rout of David Vitter riding in no small part on a massive advantage in early votes for the runoff coming less than two weeks from the day of the primary.

The first was the “Spygate” incident, in which the media narrative was that the Vitter campaign was dispatching investigators to wiretap conversations against Vitter’s political enemies and had been caught red-handed. What had actually happened was that then-Jefferson Parish sheriff Newell Normand, who had a habit of holding court at a coffee shop on Metairie Road each morning and loudly boasting about political shenanigans with which he was involved, was meeting with John Cummings, a key backer of Edwards, about the election at that coffee shop. The Vitter campaign sent an opposition researcher to the coffee shop to find out what machinations were being discussed, and that researcher turned on the “record” app on his cell phone to overhear the conversation in a public place. Normand noticed it, became enraged and when the researcher attempted to beat a hasty retreat sent every available JPSO deputy on a manhunt to track him down. The recording was then destroyed.

Media narrative: Vitter was sending spooks out to spy on Louisiana’s citizens. Truth: a private citizen had his civil rights violated by a corrupt law enforcement officer despite committing no crime, and for nakedly political purposes.

And then there was the reportage of a car accident Vitter was involved in just before the primary. According to news reports, Vitter left the scene of a car accident in Jefferson Parish – and an unidentified female was in the car with him. Given the stories of his past sexual indiscretions, that was a juicy tidbit solidifying the perception in many minds that he hadn’t changed in the 15 years since those old stories and wasn’t fit to be governor. Except what actually happened was that Vitter’s fundraiser Courtney Guastella was driving him to a fundraising event and got in a fender-bender; another campaign staffer was dispatched to collect him and bring him to the event on time, while Guastella waited for the police.

Media narrative: Vitter was continuing his dalliance with women not his wife – and in the middle of the day, no less! – and was consequently a public danger on the state’s roadways. Truth: Nothing happened.

We could chronicle almost daily the skewed narrative coming out of the Picayune and Advocate on matters related to state politics – another good example being the Advocate’s characterization of Attorney General Jeff Landry’s objections to convicted bribe-taker Larry Bankston’s appointment to the State Licensing Board for Contractors as its executive counsel as part of a petty political squabble before that appointment resulted in an embarrassing blow-up of a major flood recovery contract and a national embarrassment for the state – but in the interest of brevity we’ll skip ahead to a pair of patently false bits of reportage from the Picayune’s Julia O’Donoghue, who seems to be the worst and most dishonest reporter in the state at present (and so naturally is covering the state politics beat for the paper).

Since Laura Ingraham spoke at LABI’s annual meeting Feb. 8, O’Donoghue has characterized the reaction in the room to Ingraham’s speech at least twice as chilly, suggesting Ingraham bombed.

When she finished talking, about two dozen people got up to give her a standing ovation, but well over a hundred others stayed in their seats. LABI then quickly sent out their statement claiming that they didn’t agree with all Ingraham had said once the event wrapped up.

And then this, which appears in a piece billing itself as objective journalism and not an opinion piece…

That Ingraham made such provocative statements shouldn’t have come as a surprise to LABI. She’s known to be a verbal bomb-thrower with nationalist views that closely align to those of Steve Bannon, Trump’s former political strategist who also ran the right-wing site Breitbart News. She goes out of her way to make comments that offend Democrats and less conservative Republicans.

The second excerpt should inform the first as to O’Donoghue’s objectivity, but the characterization of the reaction is simply wrong. For one thing, “well over a hundred others stayed in their seats” would indicate that’s a majority of the room. It isn’t – the speech was made in front of a full audience in the main ballroom at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Baton Rouge, with the better part of 1,000 people in attendance. The vast majority of those there gave Ingraham a quite warm reception. She wasn’t booed and she certainly didn’t bomb. And yes, LABI did put out a mild statement of the obvious – that a few of Ingraham’s political barbs weren’t reflective of the thinking of LABI’s full membership, which is a diverse group of people – but given the talk of the room was that Gov. John Bel Edwards (who actually bombed when he spoke just before Ingraham did) had left midway through Ingraham’s speech and LABI will have to attempt to deal with Edwards in the current special session, it’s dishonest to characterize a bit of diplomacy as a repudiation of a popular speaker.

Which brings us to O’Donoghue’s characterization of Edwards’ opening address to the special session yesterday, which is as patently slanted and dishonest as anything in the Picayune’s pages in recent years.

Here’s a paragraph from O’Donoghue’s piece on Edwards’ speech

The latest iteration of Louisiana’s fiscal crisis comes to a head on July 1, when a large tax cut is scheduled to take place. If it happens without the Legislature offsetting the revenue reduction, Louisiana will be short $994 million to provide services at a similar level to what it does now. That likely means the state could not afford to offer health care services to as many people with disabilities and would have trouble funding programs like the TOPS scholarship, which pays for 50,000 students to go to college.

Got that? A billion-dollar temporary tax increase is expiring this summer and it’s now a “tax cut.”

And Edwards’ patently dishonest narrative about how Louisiana can’t provide essential services to its people without the preservation of the current level of taxation, when the $30 billion state’s total budget is the highest in its history and the state funded budget is $9.4 billion, also the highest in its history, is reported as fact. This, when those essential services were maintained in previous years at much smaller levels of funding – something O’Donoghue neglects to mention.

Want some more? How about this…

Edwards and lawmakers have had a hard time reaching a compromise in part because the governor is a Democrat and the Legislature is controlled by Republicans. The GOP is looking to take out Edwards — the only statewide elected Democrat in Louisiana — in the 2019 gubernatorial election.

The Louisiana House has shot down all permanent tax solutions the governor has proposed the past two years. The conservative House leadership has said it wants to do more to control government spending. Yet so far, the Republicans haven’t offered substantial budget cuts or other solutions to make a dent in the state’s $994 million shortfall.

So it’s political partisanship which explains why Edwards can’t get a majority for a billion dollars in new taxes. Nowhere is it mentioned that new taxes consistently poll like poison with Louisiana’s electorate or that a majority of the legislature was elected on an anti-tax platform, or that Edwards himself ran on a platform of opposing a tax increase.

Remember this?

It’s OK if you don’t, because nobody at the Times-Picayune has bothered mentioning Edwards’ anti-tax campaign promises during the current debate. Edwards was in the very same House of Representatives his political opponents currently sit in now; he had access to the same information they did.

And by the way it’s a lie to claim the Republicans in the legislature don’t have any ideas on spending cuts. They cut spending in the House Appropriations Committee every time there’s a legislative session, and when they do Edwards and his staff go ballistic about all the horrendous consequences to those cuts, and then the Senate puts the money back into a budget which turns out not to be in balance. The House has been attempting to impose a standstill budget without annual increases for years, to not much avail, they’ve proposed co-pays and work requirements for Medicaid, they’ve demanded the elimination of funding for hundreds of state government positions which go unfilled each year, and on and on.

As Stephen Waguespack of LABI has noted, Edwards hasn’t exactly covered himself in righteousness here, either. The governor’s proposed tax increases, none of which he stood by during his speech opening the special session yesterday, are pipe dreams and will not pass. But worse, even if he got them all through the Legislature their combined fiscal notes would come up short of the billion dollars he says he needs. So Edwards himself doesn’t have the solution – which is something O’Donoghue refuses to report.

This is what passes for objective reporting in Louisiana’s most prominent newspaper. If you want to know an important reason why Louisiana’s electorate doesn’t vote on policy but instead decides elections on scandals and slick marketing, you have it right here. The state’s legacy media fails to inform, or misinforms, the public about what’s actually happening with its political leadership.

And until that changes, or there are at least some significant consequences for it, there is no reason to think the public will be able to produce leadership capable of lifting Louisiana off the bottom in the rankings of all the public policy metrics.

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