May 1, 2016
Dear Mr. Matt Porter and WCIA news editor(s),
I viewed, and read, with dismay the recent reporting by Mr. Matt Porter aired on April 28 and posted on your web site titled “You paid for it.” (Porter, 2016)
Before I begin addressing the factual errors and presentational biases, I want to make clear that this piece of reporting violated the most basic tenet of journalistic standards, which is to include sources of opposing views in presenting a controversy. Throughout the segment, Mr. Porter used only one source, Ms. Rasmussen, representing the Illinois Policy Institute. It should not be news to Mr. Porter, who covers Springfield politics news, that the IPI has a clear ideological bend of being against public employee unions and pensions in general. For those of us who have read their press releases and articles, it should also be clear that IPI plays fast and loose with statistics and facts in their material. In omitting a counterview from the reporting, Mr. Porter became, willingly or by accident, a spokesperson for the IPI, rather than as a journalist reporting on news material. It is a disservice to your station and a disservice to your viewers to present this type quality of journalism.
I will refrain from speculating on why Mr. Porter has demonstrated such a lapse of reporting professionalism in this article. Did he contact other sources and none of them responded? If so, then why didn’t he state that in the reporting? If he didn’t, then why not? Which part of the information he presented was from his own investigation and which part was from the IPI? I hope he will come forward to answer these questions and to explain to his viewers why he made the reporting decisions that he did.
But beyond Mr. Porter’s decisions in writing this story, I call into question the judgment of the editing team at WCIA for allowing this type of reporting to come through in that format. Did any news editor review the segment? If so, who? On what ground was this story deemed to have met the basic standards of reporting journalism? I hope the WCIA reporting team will be able to provide some answers to these questions.
Regarding the actual content of what’s being reported, there are many serious problems as well. The following is an incomplete list, referencing only the most glaring and troublesome mistakes:
- “Taxpayers are paying for the salary as well as the pensions, so it’s a double whammy.” – Ms. Rasmussen
Illinois public employees are forced to use the pension system instead of Social Security. Whereas in private employment, workers and their employers both contribute to Social Security, public employees and the state government of Illinois both make contributions to pension funds instead. The way that Ms. Rasmussen presented the information made it appear that pension is on top of and in addition to regular compensation packages for employment. That is highly misleading, because we will never present private employment situations by saying “John is employed by Walmart/Caterpillar/H&R Block and the company is paying both his salary and his social security.” We take it for granted that Social Security is part of the compensation plan for employment, just like sick leaves and health insurance. To make the case of presenting Illinois pension as a separate entity is nothing more than an ideologically-motivated ploy to demonize public sector employees.
Many residents of Illinois still do not know that Illinois public employees are forced to replace Social Security with our state pension plan, but surely, Mr. Porter, who covers Springfield, should know this? To let Ms. Rasmussen’s statement go without challenge or fact-checking reinforces a false narrative and goes against the ideal of journalism, which is to inform citizens, not to mislead them with sensationalistic and inaccurate information.
- ” ‘Right now we see public sector compensation exploding while they retain the great benefits,’ Rasmussen said. ‘So there really is an imbalance between public sector workers and private sector workers.’ “
At best, the conclusion is a mixed bag. In a report by the Congressional Budget Office, a bipartisan research organization of the Congress, data showed that federal public employees get paid more than their private sector counterpart in some cases, but not in others (Congressional Budget Office, 2012). Specifically, for individuals with no college degrees, public sector jobs do pay better. However, for jobs that require college degrees, the government pays less well than do private sectors. If Ms. Rasmussen has data that showed that this is not so in Illinois, let her provide those sources.
This error is doubly relevant when the centerpiece of the reporting was on the high wage earners within public employment where the individuals being examined have college degrees or more (college presidents, school district superintendents, county judges). In these cases, they are paid less in comparison to their private counterparts. As an example, if we look at college presidents, 23 presidents in private colleges earn more than a million dollars a year, whereas only 1 public university president (in Ohio) does (Carew & Fain, 2009). In addition, the median income for private college presidents was over $600,000 in 2009 when the median income for public university presidents was around $400,000 (Chronicles, 2015). For the largest university in Illinois, in the 2009 figure available, President Wise’s base salary of $530,501 placed her at number 27th, behind our neighbors in Minnesota (UMinn-Twin Cities $610,000) and Indiana (ISU in Bloomington at $555,745).
In further comparison, UIUC enrolls about 44,000 students each year (UIUC, 2016). The only private institution comparable to the scale is the University of Phoenix system (Wikipedia, 2016). Since the University of Phoenix is a private for-profit organization they are not required to post their salaries publicly. But my search showed that one of their team leaders, President Slottow, earned a combined salary and bonus of $944,584 in addition to stock and award options that total to another $900,000+ (Atlas Equilar, 2016).
Therefore, in the context of higher education administration, the pay scale for Illinois schools is not above national trend.
Furthermore, it is important to remember that Presidents of universities are tasked with managing public assets that number to the tens of millions, even for medium sized schools. If we look to compensation packages for CEOs of private companies with comparable assets, we will probably see that public university presidents are not making more than they should.
Nevertheless, you will get no argument from me that higher education administrators are over-compensated in general, and that presidents’ and chancellors’ salaries could be taken down a few tens of percentage points, i.e., Illinois schools are within national trend but the national trend itself is problematic. However, that was not the point of the numbers being used in this article. If we are advocating controlling the cost of higher education by reining in compensations of university administrators, you will have my support. But to single out Illinois among the entire country and to use the sheer dollar amount outside of the context of the entire public education landscape to condemn public employees is both contemptible and misleading.
- “’Presumably we’re paying them for some great talent, but [college administrators] can’t make their own budgets balance so they come to the statehouse and ask for more taxpayer subsidies,’ [Ms. Rasmussen] said.”
The business world is not a magical place where all budgets are balanced, either. But setting that aside, it is misleading to say that college administrators are asking for taxpayer subsidies to help fund the public institutions when the government of Illinois has been cutting support to public universities over the past 14 years, each year, regardless of enrollment numbers, as well as failing to deliver the promised amount of appropriation to public universities in the past 5 years. If the government promises $40 million dollars to a public school and only delivered $32 million dollars, asking for the remaining $8 million is not asking for “subsidies,” no more than a contractor asking for the unpaid balance for their work is asking for a “subsidy.”
Take for example Eastern Illinois University – we have balanced our budget each year, in the face of shortfall from promised state allocation, through various means, including cutting staffing levels and reducing expenses. If we had not, we would have been held accountable by IBHE and other relevant oversight organizations. If Ms. Rasmussen has data showing that public universities have failed to work out a balanced budget, she is welcome to share that data with us. I am highly doubtful that she has that data to support that claim.
- “Illinois State Justices should not be making more than United States Supreme Court Justices, right? But that’s where the trend line is taking us.”
If I adopted 1 cat last year, and another cat this year, then the trend line will predict that I will have 6 cats by the year 2020. Right?
Anyone with a cursory exposure to the pitfalls of statistics should be aware of this common fallacy, and I am sure that Ms. Rasmussen is already aware of the danger when she presented this misleading conclusion.
- “And again [increasingly high pay for public employees] is a problem because every dollar we’re spending comes from private-sector workers.”
I am a public employee. I just recently filed my Illinois state income tax form and I paid my share of the Illinois income tax. I also pay sales tax when I purchase items from local stores. Further, I pay property tax on my house. Clearly, Ms. Rasmussen’s statement is false.
It is not odd at all that Ms. Rasmussen misspoke so severely on the issue because thinking of working families in the public employment sector as leeches is common among people of her political ideology, but it is rather jarring that Mr. Porter took no action to alert his viewers that the person whose interview he was quoting made a factual mistake. It’s almost like Mr. Porter agrees with Ms. Rasmussen and is willing to trade facts for political demagoguery.
All told, this reporting segment has failed to hold the interviewed person accountable, as well as fell short of providing due diligence in fact-checking. At best, it is a rushed and shoddy piece of journalism; at worst, it can be considered a free propaganda piece. If Mr. Porter didn’t have the time and/or resources to properly fact-check and source the material, he should have opted to publish it as an OpEd piece instead of a reporting piece. The viewers and audience of your TV station deserve better than this quality of work.
Atlas Equilar. (2016). Timothy P. Slottow – Executive Bio, Compensation History, and Contacts – Equilar Atlas. Equilar Atlas. Retrieved May 1, 2016, from http://people.equilar.com/bio/timothy-slottow-apollo-education/salary/868756#.VyZ2kD9s9AM
Carew, E. L., & Fain, P. (2009). Paychecks Top $1-Million for 23 Private-College Presidents – The Chronicle of Higher Education. Chronicles of Higher Education. Retrieved May 1, 2016, from http://chronicle.com/article/Paychecks-Top-1-Million-fo/48983/
Chronicles. (2015). Executive Compensation at Private and Public Colleges – The Chronicle of Higher Education. Chronicles of Higher Education. Retrieved May 1, 2016, from http://chronicle.com/interactives/executive-compensation#id=table_public_2014
Congressional Budget Office. (2012). Comparing the Compensation of Federal and Private-Sector Employees. Retrieved May 1, 2016, from url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cbo.gov%2Fpublication%2F42921%3Findex%3D12696
Porter, M. (2016). You Paid For It. Retrieved May 1, 2016, from http://www.illinoishomepage.net/news/capitol-news/you-paid-for-it-who-makes-the-most-by-county-in-illinois
UIUC. (2016). Student Enrollment. Retrieved May 1, 2016, from http://www.dmi.illinois.edu/stuenr/
Wikipedia. (2016). List of the largest United States colleges and universities by enrollment. Retrieved May 1, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_the_largest_United_States_colleges_and_universities_by_enrollment