Letters to the EditorOpinion

Referendum story obscures reality

As a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology who studies the politics of ballot initiatives in Oregon, I am very familiar with how spokespeople for and against various measures use slick talking points and evocative media imagery to make their cases to a larger public. But while it is true that initiative activists are quite adept at manipulating media outlets, it is also rare to read actual news reporting on the initiatives that obscures more than it illuminates. Unfortunately, this was the case with CJ Ciaramella’s article entitled “Tax increase may hurt University funding” (ODE, Oct. 20).

The actual wording of the tax measures is still being debated by legislators, but both measures are expected to include the statement that the tax increases will “Maintain Current Budget for Education, Health Care, Public Safety, Other Services.” This was legislators’ main reason for passing the targeted tax increases in the first place, and remains the primary message of the Defend Oregon campaign, the organization representing a coalition of advocates for the tax increases.

Of course, it is good politics for anti-tax advocates like Pat McCormick to attempt to divert voters’ attention from Oregon’s present revenue problems by concocting hypothetical future ones: constructing and circulating this type of “straw man,” among other things, is McCormick’s job.

But Ciaramella (and the ODE)’s job is to report the facts, and Tuesday’s fanciful headline literally elevates McCormick’s imagined potential crisis over the very real one facing students and families in the University community at this instant: “University Vice President of Finance and Administration Frances Dyke said the minimum loss for the University (if the increases are defeated) would be $3 million.”

Anti-tax activists have every right to tell us why they think tax increases could hurt Oregon’s economy in the future, but the ODE should work harder to balance these scenarios with descriptions of the crisis in higher education that we know would ensue immediately if the increases are overturned.

Both Oregon’s Legislative Revenue Office and a group of 30 Oregon economists have written in favor of targeted tax increases. In addition to these publications, and the projections of UO administrators like Vice President for Finance and Administration Frances Dyke, the Defend Oregon campaign suggests that overturning the measures will result in $1 billion in cuts to education, health care, and public safety in the current budget.

As a UO student, I cannot help but wonder: don’t these more immediate concerns deserve mention alongside Pat McCormick’s longer-term fears? Don’t the revenue projections of economists and legislators deserve the same attention afforded to a campaign spokesperson’s talking points?

Oregon voters are used to watching the major questions of their day reduced to a drone of sound bites and attack ads as elections intensify. Frustrated, we often look to news institutions to provide more substantive accounts of the players and the stakes. With this expectation in mind, we can see how Tuesday’s article reflects more than just bad reporting on Ciaramella’s part. The article also reflects a failure of ODE editors to distinguish between political rhetoric and economic reality.

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