The Washington Post’s Lurch Toward Developers

According to The Washington Post’s editorial board, “balance…has eluded” Marc Elrich, the Democratic nominee for county executive in Montgomery County, Maryland whose campaign I managed during the primary. This allegation is based largely on Elrich’s written commitment, if elected, to “invite the [president of the county’s major labor union] to the interview and selection processes for all of [the county’s] department heads,” which the Post calls “an extraordinary promise, even for a pro-labor politician — and one without precedent in any area jurisdiction, as far as we can ascertain.”

It is true that local officials do not typically give labor a voice in government decision-making. But it is strange to say the promise to do so is less “balanced” than the more common practice of giving employees no input whatsoever on the managers who will be overseeing their work. In fact, giving workers substantially more control over private companies’ operations by allowing them to elect a portion of a company’s board of directors may be “among the most broadly popular ideas in American politics” right now. That practice, called co-determination, is already widespread in Germany and Western Europe. Elrich’s proposal, like co-determination, would help ensure that employees are assigned productive work that advances the mission that both managers and workers share.

Perhaps the Post’s confusion about the meaning of the word “balance” stems from the complete absence of it in their coverage of the Montgomery County executive race. “Marc Elrich’s lurch toward labor” was not the first, not the second, not the third, but the fourth explicitly anti-Elrich piece the editorial board published. They even wrote a fifth piece about ranked-choice voting (a policy that Elrich strongly supports) that subtly attempted to delegitimize Elrich’s primary victory before the votes were officially counted. While the Post’s editorial board is of course welcome to support or oppose whomever they please, the sheer volume of negative copy they’ve devoted to Elrich appears to be without precedent in their commentary on previous Montgomery County executive candidates (not to mention executive candidates in other area jurisdictions) – at least, as far as I can ascertain. The editorial board also violated some basic journalistic principles in their anti-Elrich advocacy.

Even more concerning, the Post’s anti-Elrich bias and journalistic malpractice weren’t confined to the editorial pages. The paper’s news coverage also suffered from a serious slant, casting a misleading narrative pushed by a few powerful developers and their allies as objective reporting.

Between when I started as Elrich’s campaign manager in October of 2017 and early February of 2018, the Post reported on pretty much every major event in the executive race and did so more or less neutrally. They covered county executive forums in October, November, and December, the decisions of former Rockville mayor Rose Krasnow and Potomac businessman David Blair to enter the field, the first major campaign finance filing in January, and the organizational endorsements of CASA in Action (Elrich), SEIU Local 32BJ (Elrich), the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO (Elrich), the Montgomery County Sierra Club (Roger Berliner), and Progressive Maryland (Elrich). In stories about important county issues like the government’s budget shortfall, the minimum wage bill Elrich co-sponsored, and the departure of one of the county’s major businesses, the Post also quoted Elrich and the other sitting members of the county council who were running for county executive while mentioning their candidacies.

In February, a new reporter took over the Post’s Montgomery County beat. And as major endorsements for Elrich continued to roll in, the Post stopped covering them. They did report on a racial justice forum on February 25, their piece on the crowded field in the county council race a few days later mentioned the county executive candidates in passing, and their article about whether to prioritize funding for the school system’s proposed capital budget or for road projects noted the candidacies of Elrich and Berliner, who were on opposite sides of that debate. But the Post mostly went silent on the executive race for a while, not carrying another news story about it until April 19.

That story, entitled “In Maryland’s largest jurisdiction, contest for county executive seen as anybody’s race,” quoted two “experts,” both of whom – Keith Haller and Steve Silverman – sat on the four-person candidate interview committee for a group called Empower Montgomery. Purporting to “effectively represent all Montgomery County residents – and avoid having political decisions influenced by narrow special interests,” Empower Montgomery actually represents the county’s most powerful special interest group: wealthy developers. Blair has been listed among the organization’s co-founders (Silverman has, too, though neither man currently appears on the Empower Montgomery website) and Elrich was the only county executive candidate who refused to take developers’ campaign contributions, insisting he would hold them accountable for paying for the school construction and transportation infrastructure necessary to support new development. So it wasn’t too surprising when Empower Montgomery launched a series of attack mailers against Elrich right before the election.

While calling Haller and Silverman election experts, the Post’s April 19 article did not mention either of their affiliations with Empower Montgomery or the county’s developers. The article did, however, give Silverman space to downplay the significance of Elrich’s endorsements and characterize his candidacy as occupying “the far-left, pro-union, anti-development lane.”

Then, on April 27, for the first time in two months, the Post finally covered another candidate forum. This forum – the last the paper would cover before the primary election on June 26 – was co-hosted by none other than Empower Montgomery. Referencing the report Empower Montgomery commissioned to be unveiled and discussed at the forum, the Post’s title warned that the “Montgomery Co. economy is stagnant, and leaders are ignoring job creation.” Among the solutions Empower Montgomery recommended to this ostensibly dire situation? As the Post summarized: attracting Amazon’s second headquarters (that “would help to solve pretty much every many [sic] of the economic problems the county faces,” the Post gushed); “reduce energy taxes and impact fees on new development; and increase economic development resources” (emphasis mine). The article referred to Empower Montgomery as a “nonprofit advocacy formed by business leaders,” making no mention of Blair being listed as a co-founder or the very narrow business interests – developers – that the organization actually represents.

When the Post’s editorial board endorsed Blair on May 12, they linked to this April 27 news article as justification, calling the Empower Montgomery-commissioned report “the unsettling backdrop for the June 26 Democratic primary…The central question is which of the candidates for county executive is most capable of juicing a sluggish commercial environment — the only way to broaden the local tax base so it can sustain the county’s excellent schools and progressive services.” In addition to endorsing Blair, the editorial board made sure to note that four of the other candidates would be acceptable. The only exception was Elrich, “whose popularity owes much to his reflexive opposition to innumerable local projects — including the Fillmore, a beloved live music venue in Silver Spring. Mr. Elrich would be the wrong person to broaden the county’s tax base and revive its prospects.”

This editorial prompted a flurry of angry letters to the editor from Montgomery County residents, one of whom reminded the editorial board of something they should have already known: “Mr. Elrich was not opposed to the ‘beloved’ Fillmore music venue but to the $11 million in public funds given to Ticketmaster.”

In an apparent attempt to justify their pro-Blair, anti-Elrich position, the Post’s editorial board doubled down with a follow-up piece on June 5. This second editorial inaccurately accused Elrich of “declar[ing] he’d rather divert jobs to neighboring Frederick County than attract them to Montgomery,” relying on a dishonest claim from a developer-funded blog that proudly asserts: “[d]evelopers are part of the solution and we welcome their support.” Elrich wrote a letter to the editor to correct the record, and the Post published it on June 10. But less than a week later, the Post highlighted the allegation again in a feature on Elrich that they published as part of a series on all six of the Democratic candidates. The feature linked the inaccurate blog post and – until I emailed the author and the piece was edited post-publication – failed to include a link to Elrich’s response.

Unlike the features on the other candidates, which focused on why those candidates were running and what they wanted to accomplish, the Elrich feature centered around criticisms and Elrich’s responses to those criticisms. “Marc Elrich is tired of being called a socialist,” it began, following up with “rumors about a Che Guevara poster on his office wall” and claiming that “business leaders” felt “unease” at the prospect of an Elrich-led county government. Whereas other candidates’ endorsements were all described positively, Elrich’s much more extensive and diverse endorsements list was mentioned briefly and then qualified with a less overt version of the critique in the Post’s most recent anti-Elrich editorial (see below). Prior to my email to the author, the feature didn’t even mention that Elrich would appear on the teachers union’s “apple ballot,” which is quite possibly the county’s most coveted endorsement prize.

Endorsement Paragraphs - Post Features

Though it’s hard to fully appreciate how much of an outlier the Elrich feature was without reading them all (those interested can do so here), the graph below provides a quick illustration. Each bar represents the percentage of paragraphs in the feature that paint the candidate in a positive light minus the percentage of paragraphs that portray the candidate negatively. As the image shows, Elrich is the only candidate who received a net negative portrayal. (The categorization scheme is somewhat subjective, of course, but I tried to categorize conservatively; anybody interested can download and play with the categorizations here).

Positivity - Post Features

To be fair to the Post, they did cover the teachers union’s endorsement on June 6. They also covered candidates’ and progressive groups’ attacks on Blair for trying “to buy the election” in two separate pieces. Yet even there, the paper was less credulous about attacks on Blair than it was when evaluating attacks on Elrich. For example, the paper asserted that the Progressive Maryland Liberation Alliance super PAC “does not offer any proof that its accusations [about Blair’s business record] are true.” Not once did a Post news article put a similar note after “business leaders’” unfounded critiques of Elrich.

The combination of the bias in the Post’s main feature, their elevation of developers’ narrative without proper citation, and the editorial board’s blatant mischaracterization of Elrich’s positions surely influenced the primary vote. While Elrich won anyway and we’ll never be able to quantify the impact the Post’s misinformation had, it’s hard to imagine Elrich wouldn’t have won by a larger margin if residents had received more accurate information.

Moving forward, Montgomery County residents can feel confident that they’ll continue to get balance from Elrich. It would be nice if they could also expect balance from the paper of record.

6 Comments

Filed under 2018 Elections, Media

6 responses to “The Washington Post’s Lurch Toward Developers

  1. Bobby

    This is a good report! However, the report makes the same mistake that the media repeatedly makes — its uses the word “developer” without the essential pre-fix “real estate” — the right term is “real estate developer” or “real estate development.”

    I say this because real estate developers either intentionally or unintentionally cause the media and voters to confuse true “economic development” (increases in businesses, jobs, tax revenue) with “real estate development” (which needs to be regulated carefully lest it cause significant collateral damage in terms of school over-crowding, road congestion, a drain on the County’s budget, etc.).

    The media and others should never, ever use the word “development” without one of the essential pre-fixes — either “real estate” or “economic.” And should never use the word “developer” without the essential prefix “real estate” — lest the term be confused with someone who creates meaningful “economic development “and all the good things that go with true “economic development” (businesses, jobs, increased tax revenue). Real estate developers and real estate development, if insufficiently regulated, can do permanent damage to a community — and, therefore, need to be clearly distinguished from true “economic development.”

    Failure to do so leads to the issues highlighted in the report.

    • Strong points, Bobby. I think there’s an important difference between “developer” and “development,” and that it’s harder to get confused about the former, but I agree that the “real estate” modifier is helpful in general and will think about using it next time!

  2. thausner

    Would like to see a much briefer version. One friend who was a newspaper writer says it does not pay to directly criticize a newspaper. They are in too strong a position to respond. Also, focus on the challenge created by current policy which has ignored our adequate public facilities ordinance resulting in very overcrowded schools and overly congested roads.

    • I’m not sure I understand the feedback, Tony – is it that one should never directly criticize a newspaper? If so, I strongly disagree with that. I think it’s useful for people to understand the bias, even if the paper itself is unwilling to respond (as I suspect the Post is). An additional hope is that the folks at the paper will at least think twice about a critique they might be facing before employing shoddy journalistic practices in the future.

  3. Once again, excellent piece that cannot be shared enough. What great context to note here that in last week’s interview on The Kojo Nnamdi Show, Nancy Floreen was asked about how she was being seen as in the pockets of developers – to which she immediately turned the question onto Elrich being at the behest of labor unions, then in the same breath saying that we should not “dump on developers” who “build nice places to live.” I’m not sure if she was trying to make a false equivalency between Elrich’s support from labor unions and her bankrolling by real estate developers, or to actually go right out and say that developer support is ok, and labor union support is not. Either way, it kind of shows that she is lacking in substance.

    • Thanks, Helen! The good news is that I doubt Floreen will convince many people with this sort of response; unions are deservedly popular in Montgomery County, and developers deservedly not so :).

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