Civics

A shrinking press corps can still shape a session

"..be able to swat down a bad-faith argument before it begins can go a long way in centering the most important topics." ~ Senator Owens Brown.

A shrinking press corps can still shape a session

One of the most notable features of the 2022 West Virginia Legislative session has been its historically slow start.

Republicans are testing out a turtle-paced strategy this session. This is opposite the case of 2021, where a public-free Capitol complex had both chambers flying through red-meat issues. But bills like a 15-week abortion ban, a haphazard attempt at combatting “Critical Race Theory,” water quality regulation trimming and a criminal fentanyl exposure bill are being championed by Republicans in the supermajoirty.

Meanwhile, working-class West Virginians continue to wait for substantive change in their daily lives. Food, utility and education costs continue to rise, but Gov. Jim Justice’s administration continues to paint rosy pictures of the state’s economic standing. Not all lawmakers under the dome are comfortable with the budget the governor is pushing.

Sen. Owens Brown, D-Ohio, said there is such a thing as being too conservative with a budget. He credits a good chunk of Justice’s recent financial highs to federal coronavirus relief money – not as much to his economic policy. Brown said the biggest issue lawmakers and the administration haven’t addressed this session is decades of stagnant wages for workers – even more so the case in state agencies.

“In almost every area of employment across the state, there's numerous unfilled positions,” Brown said. “The issue is low wages. They cannot find people to take these jobs.”

Brown, West Virginia’s first Black male senator, said if the state is doing so well, why haven’t those good fortunes yet trickled down to working families? This session, Brown has floated the idea of using surpluses to create more tax breaks for people and families, not corporations, as a way to spur economic growth. Those comments have fallen on mostly deaf ears.

“The wages are not competitive here,” he said. “Until you get competitive wages here, you're going to continue to lose people. ”What has happened over the years – they've kept wages so low – it's sort of hard to dig out of this hole.”

Inflation, which has become a problem globally, “is that boogeyman they always use” to keep progressive policy out of the mainstream, Brown said. It’s a right-wing buzzword that can be used to bury almost any tax break for low-and-middle-income earners.

“The more money you put into people's pockets, the more they will spend outwardly,” he said.

West Virginia’s deteriorating press corps is also apparent this legislative session. So how can reporters and editors – how many are left of them – work to shift the public narrative from GOP supermajority talking points to what’s really happening out there?

Phil Kabler, the Charleston Gazette’s long-time statehouse reporter and columnist, said as the faces in the Capitol basement press room get younger, the harder it is for media outlets to keep lawmakers honest on these important issues. Some of it is due to the confusing nature of parliamentary procedure, he said.

“It takes a few years to get where all the rules and procedures and protocols kind of become second nature,” said Kabler.

A media outlet’s overall attitude toward its coverage is more impactful than a lone reporter can be, Kabler said. While reporters are busy tracking the politics and gossip of a session day-in and day-out, if media outlets continually center the important issues, even when they’re not being discussed, it helps get things going in the right direction.

“A lot of covering a session is reactive,” Kabler said, “but you could probably have more influence back then – as a paper – not necessarily as a reporter.”

Tim Irr, a WSAZ-TV anchor who has spent nearly 30 years reporting in West Virginia, said the Mountain State is lucky to have as strong a press corps as it did during his early years here. A lot of local reporting in Irr’s home state didn’t include coverage of the statehouse, he said, which leaves out critical information for viewers.

“I noticed that when I first moved here to West Virginia years ago, the news was different than it was in Pittsburgh,” Irr said. “There was more legislative coverage.”

Irr’s news station is responsible for covering counties across Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. With that size of coverage, “to try to do justice is sometimes very, very difficult” when reporting on these issues. But in recent years, Irr has hosted a no-time-limit, deep-dive interview program that allows him to center the issues that a 20-second cut just can’t do.

“I don't have to worry about advertising. I don't have to worry about producers in my ear telling me to wrap. I don't have to worry about time constraints,” Irr said.

Brown said he wants to see the press come to meetings with the facts already in hand. To be able to swat down a bad-faith argument before it begins can go a long way in centering the most important topics, he said.

Irr said his advice to young reporters is to never stop working sources. You must find the people under the dome who fill in the blanks, he said, because good journalism does not develop on its own.

Kabler, who said heightened polarization was one of the main reasons he wanted to leave news reporting, said he could use his column to center important issues – a luxury most reporters in the new age don’t enjoy. But regardless of his work over the years, he has a bleak outlook for the future role of the press if the extremist end of the GOP continues to push moderate Republicans out of office.

“Legislatures of the 90s or 2000s, might be more receptive to what the media was saying, and saying ‘yeah, you're right, we need to look at this. The current leadership doesn't really care what the media thinks,” he said. “I'm afraid the media could be almost irrelevant [after the next election] if certain people get into control.”

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