Last week there was plenty of upbeat journalism about Nevada’s economy, much of it built around coverage of a “summit” meeting of officeholders, businesspeople and others called “Recharge Nevada.”
The tone on those stories was set by terms in news stories about the meeting like “springboard of optimism” and “path toward recovery.
But deeper down in the stories where those phrases appeared, there was little support for the notion that recovery is anywhere near. The term “path toward recovery” was followed by several paragraphs of bleak and dismal statistics on the state’s economic problems. But the upbeat terms at the top of the stories set the tone.
They were published during a week in which the Western Casino closed in Las Vegas, a major wildfire was battled in Reno near a fire station that had been closed by revenue shortfalls, and Massachusetts made gambling legal, further tightening the noose around Nevada’s principal industry.
“It’s chamber of commerce, Kumbaya journalism,” said Guy Louis Rocha, a critic of officeholders and reporters who incessantly put an upbeat spin on the state’s downbeat economic news. Rocha, a historian, has said Nevada is going down the same road it took so many times in the past when its economy collapsed. He said the Nevada public is not served well by boosterish reporting.
“There’s nothing wrong with hope,” he said. “But it needs to be grounded in reality, and I’m seeing a lot of reporting that is not.”
State Controller Kim Wallin agrees. She notes that a Brookings Institution report on Nevada last week was cherry-picked by some people to get the positive news out of it.
“Brookings said—and this is what we rest our laurels on—that our core strength on economic development has been and will remain our business-friendly environment, low taxes, low cost, light regulation, and ease of business start-up and permitting,” Wallin said. “But then they go on to say that key challenges include spotty economic planning and cooperation, weak innovation and technology commercialization enterprise, and substantial workforce skills shortfalls.”
In September 2009, Rocha wrote in an essay in the Las Vegas Sun, “Our state is at an economic crossroads requiring leadership and planning, driven by a sense of urgency. The old way of doing business won’t cut it for the rest of the 21st century. Nevada must reinvent itself economically.” (Emphasis is added.)
“There is a sense of urgency,” said Nevada’s new director of economic development, Steven Hill, at the summit conference last week—an assertion that drew skepticism from Rocha.
“We needed a sense of urgency in 2008,” Rocha said. “It didn’t happen,” in part because of cheerful news coverage and bubbly rhetoric from politicians. “Now? People use the term now, but is there a sense of urgency if people don’t recognize that we have not turned the corner to recovery?”
Both statements of elected leaders and news coverage by journalists tend to overemphasize momentary signs of recovery, such as slight improvement in jobless numbers, while more long term trends—which are mostly negative—are deemphasized, according to critics. University of Nevada, Reno journalism instructor Jake Highton said this means that reporters are not doing their jobs of keeping the heat on political leaders.
“It’s part of the job of the press to hold [Gov. Brian] Sandoval’s feet to the fire,” he said.
Out of touch?
Economist Glen Atkinson said that in spite of the happy talk of politicians and journalists, the public understands how grim things are in Nevada.
“Well, I think the public clearly understands that we have a real problem with the unemployment rate at the level it is and the foreclosures at the level they’re at,” he said.
If that’s true, then the politicians and journalists may just sound out of touch to the public when they report that things are getting better when they aren’t. But while the public understands economic conditions, Atkinson said, they still need to be alerted to the state’s difficult choices.
“However, I do think we need to have a real sober diagnosis of where we are and how we got here before we can fix it,” he said. And like Rocha, he thinks it needs to happen yesterday. The next Legislature meets in February 2013, he said, but both public and politicians need to be prepared for it: “It is urgent. Things need to start because this stuff takes a long time to put in place, and the strategy for economic development needs to be laid out clearly, quickly.”
Wallin said she understands that there is a risk in a demoralized public, but that state leaders still need to be able to give bad news to the public.
“It’s easier to go and tell everybody, ‘Hey, when the national economy gets going, we’re going to be OK’ instead of sitting down and figuring out what we need to do to change the paradigm here,” she said.
“Until we start talking about it, they’re not going to know,” she added. “They’re not going to understand. … We have to start talking about it.”
Atkinson said there is always concern about the psychology of the public—what is usually called consumer confidence. But he suggested that there is a difference between demoralizing members of the public and alerting them.
“There are people who think all this is psychological,” he said. “If you are pessimistic, then everybody just walks away, you know, and kind of gives up. However, if you have a medical problem, you want to get a good diagnosis to know what the problem is and what the treatment would be. So I think we need that sober analysis along with some action.”
The upbeat chatter of some politicians serves their own agendas because if they were to describe the dire state of Nevada’s economy, they would be expected to fix it. And that raises policy choices that scare political leaders.
Nevada is not in the same league with some other small Western states when it comes to luring businesses. That’s particularly true of Utah, which has some world class higher education institutions and has been willing to lay out funds for things like light rail to assist energy and high tech corporations. At the same time, Nevada has been sharply cutting its higher education system, even while claiming that it wants to attract renewable energy firms.
“The campuses in Nevada are bruised and bleeding,” one Republican legislator said. “That does not send a message that we are open for business.”
In a speech to the Nevada Women’s Lobby this month, Wallin argued that while in some ways Nevada shows some strength, it is vulnerable because the recession is hitting women harder.
“Women didn’t lose as many jobs during the recession, but employment numbers for men continue to grow as we’re coming out [of the recession] and however slowly, women’s employment numbers continue to fall,” she said.
More than 100,000 households in Nevada are headed by women, and 23 percent of them live below the poverty level. Women working full time in the state are paid an average $35,691 per year compared to the $43,425 per year a man receives.