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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Not Ready To Make Nice

I'm hearing from a whole bunch of people that Oregonian reporter Betsy Hammond is blaming my blog entry on October 26 ("One Track Mind") for the spate of nasty phone calls and emails she's gotten about the piece she wrote earlier in the week about a PERS legal case. In writing about the latest news on the Robertson case (the PERS Coalition appeal was denied by a 3-member panel of the US 9th Circuit Court), Ms. Hammond could not resist repeating the correct, but highly irrelevant, fact about 30-year retiree benefits under PERS. PERS retirees rightly take umbrage with the continued repetition of that fact, not because it is incorrect, but because it isn't really very meaningful when the group of retirees about whom Ms. Hammond writes represents a very small fraction of all retirees in that period. They resent this characterization because the Oregonian has been reporting that same fact since 2002, but never placing it in its proper context. To be honest, I retired after 32 years of public service and I receive considerably less than 100% of my Final Average Salary. And the vast majority of PERS retirees I know receive less than 100% of their Final Average salary. Yet, each of us has been accused by god knows how many people of ripping off taxpayers for more than our salaries when we worked. It ain't true, but the Oregonian's continued repetition of this same isolated fact has persuaded the typical Oregon taxpayer that "the typical PERS retiree earns more in retirement than he/she did while working". I understand quite clearly that the Oregonian has chosen its words carefully and I've not accused Ms. Hammond or anyone else of incorrectly reporting the fact. But biased reporting is, among other things, when reporters write correct facts but fail to put them in their proper context. By failing to point out that 30+ year retirees represent only 8.9% of the retiree pool, and that the average retiree pension from PERS is considerably less than the amount she reports for this one cohort, she effectively distorts the picture and leaves readers with the impression that her isolated fact has more importance than it really does.

As for Ms. Hammond's source of angst, I'm flattered that she thinks my blog is so influential that it inspired all those not nice emails and phone calls. To be honest, I don't know when Ms. Hammond's article appeared in the Oregonian as I refuse to read its coverage of PERS issues any more. I learned about it on Wednesday and saw an emailed copy of it the same day. I started getting copies of other people's emails to Ms. Hammond long before I wrote my blog entry so it is hard for me to connect the two. Nevertheless, I'll take it as a compliment that Ms. Hammond is perturbed by my blog. The purpose of my blog is to inform and to piss people off. One of my agendas is to call out the media every time I think they distort issues. And I think the Oregonian is the worst offender of all the papers, followed closely by the Salem Statesman Journal. The Oregonian has had a particular chip on its shoulder about this small group of PERS retirees for a long time. I've lost count of the number of times this one fact has been inserted into a story about PERS. The Oregonian has repeated it so many times that it has become a catechism for the electorate and a flash point for me. Let me say this one more time: approximately 9% of ALL PERS retirees between 2000 and November 2004 retired with 30 or more years of public service. The average member of that particular cohort does, in fact, earn a pension greater than their salary. But the fact omitted is that 91% of all PERS retirees between 2000 and November 2004 retired with less than 30 years of service and earn a pension significantly less than their salary. The fact that the Oregonian continues to report is quite irrelevant in the larger scheme of things - it didn't drive the PERS crisis, which, by the way, has long passed.

If Betsy Hammond is upset with my pointing out that the Oregonian has no clothes, tough beans. If she repeats this fact again without properly contextualizing it, the next blog post will be far less temperate than "One Track Mind" was.

P.S. The Associated Press report that was fed to other papers around the state doesn't bother to include the canard in Hammond's article. Since it was irrelevant to the content of the article, they obviously and correctly omitted it.

P.P.S. I'm also aware that Ms. Hammond has actually confounded two different elements of the PERS report to write what she wrote. In fact, the number of 30+ year retirees is less than the number of retirees earning more than 100% of FAS. Ms. Hammond has equated 100%+ with 30+ year retirees. This just makes an even greater mess than reporting the data correctly. But I don't even want to bother going there. I'm willing to accept Ms. Hammond's "fact" as correct even though, as reported, it isn't technically true.

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