Do Your Own Digging

David Crane
Nov 27, 2019 · 2 min read

Some Americans yearn for what they believe were the good old days of journalism when — so it is believed — citizens could rely on journalists to uncover lies. But for every Watergate, multiple events went undiscovered.

Vietnam is one example. While the New York Times and the Washington Post published the Pentagon Papers in 1971, seven years earlier they failed to uncover, much less report, the lie about a supposed attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that President Johnson used to justify US troop expansion in Vietnam. Over the next four years journalists buried or failed to discover more information. Not until 1968 — after the death of 30,000 American soldiers and countless Vietnamese — did the country’s leading journalist, Walter Cronkite, start telling viewers the truth.

Another big lie not uncovered by journalists took place in California in 1999 when state officials passed a bill (SB 400) granting a massive retroactive increase in pension benefits to government employees and temporarily hid the consequences through the use of a deceptive accounting technique. Over the next two decades, pension liabilities quadrupled:

To meet those liabilities, schools, local governments and the state have had to lay off teachers, understaff police, fire and other departments, and seek higher taxes. Meanwhile, other pension plans without similar liability growth that have participated in the same investment markets as California’s pension funds — including the recessions of 2001–3 and 2008–9 — are doing fine, exposing yet another lie that pension costs are rising as a result of market declines or Wall Street shenanigans. The shenanigans behind California’s exploding pension costs are SB 400 and deceptive accounting.

Of course, some journalists are excellent at digging but citizens should get in the habit of doing their own digging too. It’s not just tweets and posts that deserve skepticism.

Govern For California supports lawmakers who legislate in the general interest.

Written by

Lecturer at Stanford University and president of Govern For California

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