Two articles about Utahns for Responsible Public Spending - a group originally formed to oppose use of public money for the Olympics - recently appeared in the Deseret News.
The first, written by reporter Robert Rice, was somewhat unfavorable to URPS. The second was a "Media Monitor" column written by Professor Milton Hollstein, in which he very ably noted the local media's reluctance to report in unbiased fashion the views of groups opposing the prevailing "party line." Hollstein characterized Rice's tone in his URPS stories as "critical" and "pejorative." He was right. May I add to the list venal? petty? self-serving?Far more chilling than Rice's use of the medium to serve some unstated agenda was a comment by managing editor LaVarr Webb contained in Hollstein's column. Webb stated, "People highly critical of government open themselves to scrutiny." This statement is disturbing coming from a senior member of the press and may explain much of what appears daily in the Deseret News and in the Salt Lake media generally.
What exactly does Webb mean in saying government critics open themselves to scrutiny? Scrutiny by whom? The Deseret News? The government itself? The Thought Police? To what end does Webb invoke such scrutiny? Are we to understand that Webb views such a function as the privilege - nay, the duty - of his newspaper? Should those Deseret News readers who still think the purpose of non-opinion pages is to report the news be informed that the paper instead sees their role as screening dissent by "scrutinizing" critics?
And what about the notion that criticism of the government opens one to scrutiny? One of my colleagues dryly noted that this should come as no surprise, since any savings and loan president could tell you that the right kind of "support" (i.e. a fat campaign contribution) has long been the most effective means of avoiding governmental scrutiny.
Still, the Deseret News must read the Federalist Papers regarding the First Amendment differently than we do. Perhaps Webb could enlighten me on which constitutional precepts governing a free press in a democratic society must underlie his novel contention.
And what are we to make of the term "highly critical"? Is there a level of dissent the Deseret News will tolerate, beyond which it will begin to "scrutinize" the dissenters? Would the paper's management mind publishing the scale so that we dissenters can pace ourselves so as not to offend?
Webb's attitude is merely reflective of a rather pervasive problem. URPS has declared no candidacy, advocated no overthrow and endorsed no subversive philosophy. We have simply stated that, in our opinion, Utah's state and local governments are extremely cavalier in endorsing and funding costly projects of questionable value to the general public.
Further, they often do so without the burden of careful and prudent analysis of the need, the cost and the benefit to all parties concerned. That is, beyond the narrow special interest of those clamoring for public dollars.
If this is what the Deseret News sees as radical political dissent, it speaks volumes on the pathetic state of true political dialogue in Utah.
I know I am being hard on LaVarr Webb. While not acquainted with him personally, by reputation I know he is generally well-meaning and open-minded. Given the chance, I'm certain he would qualify his statement. But the fact remains he said it, and such unvarnished comments often project most accurately one's deeply held views.
In truth, the local elite booster groups that so often form the nucleus of such schemes as public funding of the Olympics, the Salt Palace convention expansion, and the light rail have learned and then modified an old truism of commerce. They have evolved "You have to spend money to make money," to "You have to spend someone else's money to make money."
For pointing this out, we of URPS are branded as "highly critical" and subjected to Webb's "scrutiny."
Perhaps the day will come when the government is forced to be as accountable to the taxpayer as the taxpayer must be to the government. If so, all the scrutiny will have been worth it.
Webb evidently prefers his publication police critics of the government rather than the government itself. Until that changes, groups such as URPS are forced to take on the role a free and open press might otherwise be expected to fill.
We say, "People highly dependent upon public funding to finance speculative ventures profiting small groups of favored individuals open themselves to citizen scrutiny."