It’s always a little disorienting as a writer when my work becomes part of the story. On the one hand, it’s encouraging to know people are reading my stories and they’re having some effect. But that soupcon of satisfaction is usually overwhelmed by the anxiety over whether the publicity, however faint, might give people the impression I’m taking sides in a debate. Of course, nowadays, that’s exactly what many journalists want, which is why media seems increasingly partisan. But a good writer’s calling card is a reputation for giving readers all (not both) sides of a story, and if readers start to smell bias, not only does that cast suspicion on your stories, it also makes it harder to get people from all sides of the story to talk to you. So, I was a little alarmed when a couple of my stories recently became part of the debate.
The first example was when my February story on the unfunded liability at the State’s Employee Retirement System (ERS) came up during a recent mayoral debate. In the debate, Caldwell used my article to buttress his claim to indict the former governor’s fiscal responsibility, pointing out that ERS administrator Wes Machida said his administration had raided the ERS to balance its budgets. That led to a debate in the press about what Machida actually said and what he meant.
According to a story in the Hawaii Reporter, Machida immediately wrote Cayetano after the televised debate to say the former governor wasn’t responsible for the unfunded liability because he was only following a law that had been in place for 65 years. He points out that every governor prior to 2003, when the law was changed, used the excess earning in the ERS as revenue. This is true, as far as it goes.
Machida also lamented that his quote was taken out of context:
“My quote was meant to be applied to the following:
“Over a 36-year period since 1967 through 2003, excess earnings of approximately $1.7 billion was used to credit the employers’ contributions.”
All the hubbub was over a section of my story where I describe an old law that allowed the state to raid the ERS each year for any interest earnings exceeding 8 percent. The problem with that is that the system counts on average returns of 8 percent; if you take the excess earnings in prosperous years, there’s no buffer for lean years. In other words, in order to average 8 percent, you have to have some years over 8 percent to offset those under 8 percent. By scooping up anything over 8 percent, the State made its 8 percent target average impossible to achieve. As my story shows, we’re not talking small change either:
“He (Machida) ascribes most of the increase to an old rule that allowed legislators to seize any annual earnings over 8 percent and apply them to the state’s ARC (Annual Required Contribution). In 2001, the worst year, the state used approximately $150 million of these “excess” earnings to help balance the budget. Between 1999 and 2003, according to Machida, more than $350 million in excess earnings were diverted from the pension system. “In 2004, with the assistance of (then) Governor Lingle, we introduced legislation to take that away,” Machida says. But the damage has been done. “If that money had not been taken,” he says, “the system today would be almost fully funded.”
For the campaigns, of course, the key issue is that the most egregious raiding of the ERS, from 1999 to 2001, happened during Cayetano’s terms as governor. That’s why Caldwell brought it up in the debate. But there are a couple problems here. First, Machida is right (partly): Cayetano was only doing what every other governor before him did. Second, the Legislature controls the state’s purse strings; if anyone is to blame for the process, it’s the knuckleheads who wrote the enabling legislation in 1966. Finally, as my article pointed out in detail, the annual raid of the ERS was only responsible for part of the current unfunded liability. If we’re looking for scapegoats, there’s a lot of blame to go around.
But that doesn’t mean Cayetano and Machida are completely off the hook. At best, Machida’s defense of Cayetano only partly mitigates his culpability. There’s no escaping the fact that the worst raiding of the ERS happened in the Cayetano years. Machida may quibble that he didn’t mean to focus on the period between 1999 and 2003 – and, to be fair, that section of my story is paraphrased, a fact that should be obvious from the lack of quotes – but the materials he provided Hawaii Business, and that he used in his presentations at the Legislature are pretty unequivocal. Particularly damning is his PowerPoint slide comparing the State’s required contributions to the ERS with its actual contributions. In that chart, the only years showing a significant discrepancy are the years from 1999 to 2003. It may well be there were significant shortfalls in earlier years, but they weren’t included in Machida’s presentation.
In any case, as this little brouhaha happened in the media, I found myself wondering about my role in the discourse. Should I chime in? Did I have anything new to add to the debate? Was it my job to fact-check the politicians or the ERS administrator or the other media? In the end, I decided to stay out of it. No one accused me of bias or misstating the facts , so I concluded readers could take a look at my story, read what the politicians said, and draw their own conclusions.
Recently, though, I was confronted with a similar dilemma. In our July issue, I wrote a story about Kamehameha Schools development plans on the North Shore. Although the story largely focused on KS’s project to rehabilitate the area around Matsumoto’s in Haleiwa, part of the main theme of the story was how they engaged the community during the planning process. One part of the plan I didn’t focus on was KS’s proposed wind farm project in Kawailoa. Although it was clearly going to be an enormous undertaking for such a rural area, all I wrote about it was:
“This summer, construction will begin on KS’s ambitious Kawailoa windfarm, which will be the largest on Oahu.”
In retrospect, I should probably have dedicated more space to the project. Interestingly, though, only a few people mentioned the wind farm in interviews, mostly surfers who worried the big wind turbines would spoil their view from their favorite North Shore surf break. No one, though, made much of a stink, although a couple people did say they thought there would be more controversy after the windmills were constructed.
That turned out to be an understatement.
And it’s easy to see why. A couple months after my story hit the news stands, John Bain, a North Shore reader sent me a photo of the finished windmills taken from Kamehameha Hwy. at Waimea Bay. He was appalled that the wind farm was visible from one of the most scenic spots on Oahu. (When I drove past a couple weeks later, it turned out to be even worse than was obvious from the photograph: from the beach at Waimea, several windmills are visible running along the Haleiwa rim of the valley.)
At the time, I wrote back to Mr. Bain in a way that conveys my basic equivocation about these sorts of projects. First, I pointed out, if we’re serious about alternative energy, we better get used to wind farms and solar arrays turning up in places where we would rather not see them. Wind in particular is only viable in a few sites, so it’s unlikely they can be moved to less visible locations. It’s also worth remembering that our aesthetic distaste for things like windmills is a little arbitrary. The windmills overlooking Waimea Valley, for example, might be ugly to you and me now, but if the oil tankers quit delivering our fix of low-sulfur petroleum, I suspect those white behemoths would start to look pretty good. Even now, they’re better looking than the power lines stretching across the mouth of the valley.
But I can be just as NIMBY as the next guy, and I said as much to Mr. Bain. First, I noted that it was surprising the wind mills had made it through the permitting process without significant protest from the community. Then, I added that if it were my neighborhood, I wouldn’t have voted for them, or for the ones in Kahuku, for that matter.
I thought that would be the end of our correspondence. Once again, though, events contrived to pull me into the story. A few weeks after our original exchange, Mr. Bain wrote back to update me on the growing discontent on the North Shore regarding the windmills. He also asked if he could forward my letter to some of the people on his mailing list. Much like the mayoral debate, the windmill controversy – and my personal correspondence with Mr. Bain – seemed like it had the potential to paint me as a partisan in the debate. In my response to Mr. Bain, I expressed my discomfort with this prospect:
“Indirectly, though, you do raise another issue: What is the role of a reporter in these kinds of political issues? My view is that, whatever his own opinions might be, a reporter best serves the public interest by remaining as invisible as possible. That’s really the only way to preserve the appearance of objectivity. If people begin to suspect you favor one side of an issue, it becomes harder to get the other side to cooperate on future stories.
Becoming part of the story also subtly affects a reporter’s own sensibility. Part of being a good writer is the ability to empathize with different kinds of people, to see both sides of a disagreement. The world is rarely black and white, so it’s important that a reporter appreciate the many shades of gray if he wants to write about the world as it is, rather than how he wishes it would be. In any case, this is the approach I prefer and that suits my temperament best. I tend to play Devil’s Advocate rather than hold forth with my own opinions – which, at any rate, I always view as contingent.”
I did, however “turn the tables” on Mr. Bain by offering to publish his letter and his growing catalog of photographs and weblinks to Neighborhood Board testimony et al. I also offered to allow this blog to become a kind of home base for the North Shore controversy. I wrote, ” …people can simply use the comment feature of our blog to communicate with each other. As long as they remain civil and the discourse is polite, we’d be happy to host the dialog. If there’s enough of it, I’ll talk with our IT people and the editor about the possibility of a guest blog or some similar arrangement.”
So, there it is. One reporter trying his quixotic best to remain invisible, and yet still accommodate the perfectly reasonable demands of readers and the people he writes about. Check back to see what the good people of the North Shore think of the effort.