Planet Money misfires on local economic developers

Having to meet a payroll focuses the mind. When I launched a chain of Spanish-language daily newspapers in Texas eight years ago, one of the first things I did was contact economic development officials in San Antonio and Houston to see what help I might get.

Years earlier, at The New York Times, I was the New York City economic development reporter, and heartland agencies like the Greater Houston Partnership were the city’s enemy that kept poaching businesses and jobs. But in Texas, as a CEO, I was responsible for paying the salaries of 160 people in my own business and there was no room for old grudges.

I got no money in the end. But the experience did leave me primed when in this, my new job as ombudsman at NPR, my first complaint arrived and it was from the nation’s association of economic developers. What I wasn’t prepared for was how gut-wrenching the complaint would be.

Planet Money is a joint venture between NPR and This American Life.
NPRPlanet Money is a joint venture between NPR and This American Life.

“I feel even more hurt by the piece as I rolled out the red carpet for you guys,” Jeffrey A. Finkle, president of the International Economic Development Council, wrote to NPR reporter Adam Davidson, copying me (and pasted below). “It is as if I held a dinner party, invited you as guests, told everyone how important you were and then had you insult all of my guests.”

“I do not think anyone anticipated that NPR would make fun of them,” Finkle said.

The complaint had to do with a Planet Money report, “Job Fairies,” based on a visit to a council convention in San Diego. “Cynical”, “sarcastic”, “preconceived notions” and “hidden agenda” were some of the accusations leveled by Finkle in his pained four-page letter, single-spaced.

The thrust of the radio report was that local and state economic developers across the country actually do little to create jobs for the nation as a whole; that they largely “steal” jobs from one another; that they are “lying” or at least “spinning” in selling their communities; that even their local impact is negligible; and that their real interest may be to protect their own jobs.

Heavy stuff. All presented in Planet Money’s breezy, conversational style.

But Finkle was presenting me with my own institutional pain. Planet Money is a joint venture between NPR and This American Life. The 15-minute report—part of a one-hour show on jobs—aired May 13 on This American Life, which is produced by Chicago Public Media (station WBEZ) and distributed by Public Radio International, not NPR.

Such joint ventures are increasingly common as news organizations seek to manage costs, but the arrangements raise sticky issues. Reporters from both outfits did the economic development report, but as it was produced for This American Life, NPR editors were not involved. I have no purview to address the other company’s editorial decisions. Yet, I do have a mandate to review Davidson’s work as an NPR staffer.

Fortunately for me, This American Life is exceedingly professional. Asked if he wanted to comment, Ira Glass, the show’s host and one of its editors, said he did. He lamented that the tone in “Job Fairies” had gotten out of hand.

“After this story was broadcast, when we went back and listened, we realized that the tone was a bit snarky,” he wrote to me (also below). “Striking the proper tone is something we devote a lot of time and care to on our show, and in fifteen years on the air there’s only one other story where I think we dropped the ball like we did here. We all regret this, and we’ve communicated that to the IEDC [Finkle’s group].”

NPR’s Davidson partly apologizes, too.

“IEDC’s critique—and yours as well—is that the story had an unfairly unbalanced negative tone,” he wrote to me. “I think all of us involved agree with that. I don’t know that any one line in the story is out-of-bounds, but taken together, there is a relentlessness in our criticism untempered by moments of sympathy for the hard challenges that economic development people face. We normally go out of our way to find those sympathetic moments, even when portraying true villains (and economic development folks are certainly not villains). Those sympathetic moments create a more well-rounded and satisfying story even if the ultimate conclusion is fairly critical.”

So far, so good.

But it’s not enough. I have a problem with more than tone, and there already was plenty of sympathy in the story. Davidson defends the facts, but in my view many of his key conclusions were left unproven. The usually effective and entertaining back and forth conversational structure between Davidson and his co-reporter Julie Snyder went awry this time because the journalism was sacrificed to style.

This is a double shame because Davidson is an accomplished economics reporter. He helped create Planet Money in 2008 after sharing in a prestigious Peabody Award for “The Giant Pool of Money,” a multimedia series he co-reported with This American Life that brilliantly deconstructed the global financial crisis. He simply misfired on this one, which can happen to any reporter and, as Glass gracefully acknowledges, editors are supposed to prevent.

A central example is seen when Davidson said: “This is what drove me crazy about this conference, actually about the whole profession of economic development. They are not creating jobs. They are just moving jobs around.”

This is an underlying theme to the whole piece and leads Davidson to observe about communities across the country: “Now we have this race to bottom: Who can cut back government services the most? Who can eliminate the most regulation?”

These are breathtaking conclusions. But they were unsupported by the story. My experience is that most economists would say that Davidson’s sweeping statements are critically insightful, but only partly true. And indeed, in other contexts, the story alluded to the work of economic developers in attracting foreign companies, in attracting expansion of domestic companies and in nurturing start-ups—all of which sprout jobs. To the extent that companies improve their productivity by moving from one locale to another, jobs also can be created.

Whether a “race to the bottom” is really underway, meanwhile, was only glossed over. Something like that seems to be happening, but unmentioned was whether the process also forces an opposite, positive reaction. The competition may be forcing communities to improve schools, technical training, parks, transportation, land use and the like in order to foment business, to wide benefit.

Davidson, instead, extended his criticism. Aside from the national level, he said, economic developers were largely failures at the local level, too. He told Snyder: “I didn’t think they were like evil or anything. I just thought they’re, like, not making a big difference.”

He made an example of Greater Houston Partnership, which is touted for its jobs success. Accepting the partnership’s claim that that it has created 14,000 jobs a year over the last five years, Davidson found that this is an annual rate of only one half of one percent of all the jobs in Houston.

“Oh, that does seem kind of low,” said Snyder.

“So, it just shows you that economic development, even when it’s at its best, even when it’s really, really successful, it’s just not going to solve the fundamental problems of our economy,” Davidson concluded. “And maybe that’s just asking too much anyway.”

But no one claims that local economic developers will solve the fundamental problems of the economy. Additionally, as Patrick Jankowski, the vice president for research at the Houston partnership, wrote to me through Finkle, the local Houston numbers can be put in another context. Jankowski said that measured against all jobs created in Houston, the 14,000 represented a rate of between 23 percent and 28 percent in a typical year. If true (and the measures are based on many assumptions), this is no mean accomplishment and may be a more appropriate comparison.

Still, we all know that in today’s environment, few jobs are being created across the country, by anyone. The economic developers at the conference told Davidson as much. But there is a flip side. Keeping the jobs that communities have may be at least as important a mission of the economic developers as creating new ones, but this is ignored in Davidson’s story.

What Davidson did explore were possible personal motives behind the marketing and development strategies of the developers. He attended conference sessions on how to measure job creation and manage political expectations. In discussing a strategy called “economic gardening” that encourages local start-ups, he said that what the speakers really meant were: “It’s not just how do we count the jobs we create through economic gardening, but perhaps more importantly, it’s how do we convince our bosses that we are creating jobs.” [Paragraph edited for clarity after publishing.]

He continued: “And you better hope that your bosses, your leadership, are OK with (low expectations), or the job that you will have to worry about the most will be your own. I found this session to be the most revealing of the whole conference.”

I wasn’t there, but didn’t hear anything in his report that supported that there was anything more insidious than the sort of career-related advice that is standard stuff at professional gatherings. As I write, I am missing a panel discussion at a think tank in Washington on how to convince the nation that journalists are necessary. (They are!)

In many of his past reports, Davidson has been very effective in allowing us to follow his incremental thinking, pulling us in as listeners. But this time it is not clear that his statements are anything less than hard conclusions. He throws in expressions of sympathy for his subjects—they’re not evil, times are hard, etc.—but without refining his blanket conclusions, the sympathy doesn’t help us understand the real facts.

To be fair, it is impossible in one report to explain all the economic ramifications. But in this case, the analytical support for many of the main points comes up way too short.

Something else altogether comes into play over use of the loaded word “lying.” Davidson technically proved his case here. He just didn’t prove it enough to cross the bounds of civility that I feel journalism should uphold, as antiquated as that might sound in this age of shouting editorialists on cable television, talk radio and the internet.

The “lying” reference came as Davidson quoted a series of economic development professionals who claimed that their communities escaped the recession. He showed that the communities had not. With a justifiable tone of surprise, Davidson said on air:

“Everybody, every single person, told us about their great, great economy. The moment for me, when I realized ‘Oh, they’re lying’ or at least ‘Oh, they’re spinning,’ was when the economic development person from Saginaw, Michigan, was telling me how great things are going there. At that moment, Saginaw had an unemployment rate well above 13 percent. That is way worse than the national average. The FBI says Saginaw is the number one most violent city in America.”

By using the word “lying” as part of a clever interior monologue, he is not making a direct accusation about the person from Saginaw, but the smear is there for all to hear.

Davidson defends his language: “I disagree with you that reporters should never say someone is lying or should apologize for doing so. I think it’s perfectly appropriate for a reporter to call a lie a lie, or a spin a spin. And, in this case, they were clearly spinning.”

He is right about “never.” But when does salesmanship cross into lying? Everyone will have their own opinion on this. One rule might be that journalists shouldn’t use the word unless it’s associated with a proven crime; the perpetrator has already forsaken civility. Another might be that a journalist shouldn’t report something he won’t say to someone’s face. I suspect that Davidson would have been decked had he done so at the conference.

Finkle, the economic development council official, however, is wrong to think that the journalists should have acted as dinner guests. Their allegiance is to their listeners. The economic development officials I have known are savvy in the ways of the media and know this.

Finkle also objected to Davidson’s use of the word “stealing” in reference to the efforts by local communities trying to entice away each other’s companies. I side with Davidson on this one, too. To me, it’s a common tongue-in-cheek characterization and not offensive. Runners “steal” in baseball. “May I steal your salt and pepper,” you might say to the occupants of the restaurant table next to you.

Calling the meeting a “convention of incredibly collegial pickpockets” was endearingly funny. I suspect that there would have been little objection from Finkle and his colleagues had the overall tone of the piece been similar. Certainly Davidson quoted a number of attendants who admitted to doing just that.

A final note: This is my first column for NPR. I can only promise you over these next three years that I will be independent and call them as I see them. I also will be humble. I have no monopoly on the truth, and in many, if not most, instances, there is no one truth. I welcome your own suggestions, opinions and disagreements. I also hope that future columns aren’t as long and difficult as this one!

This column was originally published on on June 22, 2011.


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