Expense report

3.25.09 by Bill Richards, The Red and Black

3.25.09 by Bill Richards, The Red and Black

WSB has a strong and peculiar history of attacking the spending of colleges.   It plays into the hands of demagogue politicians who find seemingly-absurd instances of government-funded scientific research (“volcano monitoring,” say), then decry the waste of money.

Justin Farmer tapped into that journalistic / audience-pandering lineage with a report on March 5.  Farmer documented overseas travel by professors at Georgia State and the University of Georgia “to play the trumpet in Italy or study films in France.”  UGA objected, but not very strongly.   The script is very carefully written.  At first blush, it appears to be a clean hit on ridiculous college spending.

UGA’s protests got louder this week in a detailed story in the Red and Black.

In particular, the student newspaper reports that the two France-and-Italy professors were never contacted by WSB.  The trumpet-playing professor says a music festival in Italy paid his entire travel bill.  The film professor says he raised the travel money through endowments.  Both say they used no tax money for those trips.

Farmer’s story notes that much of the travel occurred in years past, and that UGA has significantly tightened its travel budget in light of the sour economy.  But then Farmer tries to have it both ways.  He uses Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle as his main  mouthpiece– a guy with gubernatorial ambitions and who won’t hesitate to talk on TV about seemingly-extravagent state spending.  Cagle happily takes Farmer’s bait, decrying specific trips in 2006 / 2007, and doing so in light of recent layoffs — disingenuously overlooking the fact that the trips and the layoffs occurred in different time periods.

And then in his script, Farmer reports that “all this travel comes as families are asked to pay more, students face new fees, possible tuition hikes and core class restrictions.”  UGA told Farmer that it had cut its travel by more than thirty percent.  This leads Farmer to tag his story thusly:  “We’ve confirmed that 69 percent of the travel budget it still intact.”  At this point, Farmer is implying that all academic travel is wasteful.

Though he didn’t talk with the professors involved, he spoke with their supervisors.   UGA wouldn’t release more recent records.  It’s legitimate to scrutinize all areas of state spending, including universities.  But Farmer’s piece carefully uses the facts he finds, and shapes them to suit his storyline.

Farmer’s sleight-of-hand combined past travel, current economic conditions and never-fully-explained sources of funding for specific, seemingly-outrageous trips.  It’s the type of story that makes educated people suspicious of TV news.  It’s also the type of story that draws cries of “huzzah!” from the cheap seats.  WSB knows its audience.

Farmer implied that the trips to Italy and France were state-funded.  Casey Cagle squawked about them as state-funded trips.  If they weren’t state funded, then Farmer has some ‘splaining to do.

It’s worth noting that WSB has removed the piece from its web site.  The Red and Black reports that Farmer told the newspaper the story disappeared because of “corporate policy.”  Perhaps WSB has a policy to remove pieces that are having trouble withstanding scrutiny.  The Red and Black found a copy and uploaded it to Youtube.

One can only imagine the kind of academic travel Casey Cagle would approve in advance:  None.  It’s worth noting that WSB’s main critic of “elite” academic spending never graduated from college.   Nothing wrong with that — but Cagle is spouting as an expert on academic spending.

Cagle probably watches local TV news every night.

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About live apt fire

Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

21 thoughts on “Expense report

  1. LBJ

    That piece bothered me on a different level. Supposedly the news business has credibility due to the experience of the people covering and managing the news. They use that experience to put a story into context. When someone does a story that suggests that international travel for university employees is a waste of money, they miss one of the elements that distinguish the best institutions of higher education. The best institutions are connected to other researchers and cultures around the globe, and that requires travel. If you really want to send your kid to a university that stays at home, you are going to get a crappy education. Shame on WSB for pandering to the masses and diminishing the quality of education in Georgia. I’m sure none of the Cox family’s kids got a degree without studying abroad.

    Reply
  2. Jim

    I think what bothered me about this the fact that it wasn’t just sloppy or lazy reporting, it was shaping the facts to fit the story, which should never happen. If the facts don’t fit, the story is what should change-or in this case, die quietly.

    I’m thinking he probably got some info about this, maybe from a jealous faculty member, or someone else who only knew part of the story. He starts looking, and, sure enough, there’s some nice change being spent. So he goes full throttle, but sees one or two things that don’t quite fit…Oh well, twist them a little, they’ll still work…then one or two more things, but with one more twist, they work too. By the end of it, he’s twisted the story almost inside out trying to make facts fit his perception, and he may have done it so gradually that he didn’t see it until it was too late. Either that, or he just doesn’t care.

    Too bad no one else involved called him out before it aired.

    Reply
  3. Wes F. in Hapeville

    I’m a musician and a college music teacher, and this commentary is spot on.

    We want our kids to study with the best, most well-rounded musicians and performers. How does one become a part of this elite group? Playing your instrument, and lots of it. The professor who played the festival in Italy was doing his students – current and prospective – a huge favor by continuing to stay active in his field.

    If the festival paid for it all, that’s great, but this would have been a good and fair use of university resources regardless.

    WSB just lost a viewer.

    WF

    Reply
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  5. English major

    It’s a shame. Most of what I’ve seen Farmer do has been good, but he sure went for the cheap shot this time. This conditions caused by this economy have sprouted lots of uninformed finger-waggers, and he just joined them.

    Reply
  6. Justin Farmer

    What the Red and Black has reported or said is misinformed. Let’s go point by point.

    1. Our EP asked to contact the aforementioned professors, but UGA said the dean of the Franklin College would be the one to speak to us.

    2. We did a 41-minute sit down with that dean. At that time, we specifically mentioned the two professors, mentioned their locations, gave her the numbers and asked her about the travel. She knew well before we got to Athens exactly what we were going to ask her and the professors in question. She responded over and over by saying their travel is crucial to their jobs. We spent a good deal of time discussing this and she offered nothing about their trips being fully paid for by other means, until after the story aired. After. We have not seen proof of this, nor seen the 08 travel numbers as requested.

    3. During our 6p intro to the story, I said on-air that, “Clearly, some enrichment travel is worthy.” This is no attack on an A&S education, it’s a look at how state-funded schools run a travel budget. I have received a number of emails from students and even other professors saying, “It’s about time. Thank you.” I have received many from professors saying we are unfair.

    4. I personally spoke several times with 2 PR people from UGA the day the story aired, prior to its airing, and told them exactly what we were going to report. As you know, this is hardly procedure, but I wanted to quadruple check our numbers and our facts. UGA’s president wrote our big bosses trying to quell the story. What a disservice if we had cowed to that.

    5. Why wouldn’t we report that 69% of the travel budget was still intact? That is up-to-the-moment information. That fact is what infuriated the Lt. Governor and taxpayer watchdog groups. Other state-funded agencies have cut far more than 31% of their travel budgets…some as much as 90%.

    6. All of our stories are removed from wsbtv.com after a period of time as is policy, for legal reasons. It has nothing to do with the content or reactions of various stories.

    Justin Farmer, WSB-TV

    Reply
  7. live apt fire Post author

    @Justin Farmer–

    Thanks for the perspective. Welcome back to Atlanta. I’m not going to dispute anything you’ve written (nor withdraw any of my comments), except this: Somebody is pulling the wool over your eyes about WSB’s site. Here are links to stories that are still on WSB’s site. They all pre-date yours. I’m sure there are others.

    http://www.wsbtv.com/video/17766002/index.html
    This is a Richard Belcher story from October about faulty toilets in a state building (featuring the Hon. Casey Cagle).

    http://www.wsbtv.com/video/18450011/index.html
    A Mark Winne story from January on the murder of the Standard bartender.

    http://www.wsbtv.com/video/17766002/index.html
    A Mark Winne story from December about DeKalb PD and taser guns.

    It would be helpful if UGA released its 2008 travel records and documentation of the France and England trips. It would also be useful to know which state agencies have cut their travel budgets by more than 30 percent so that one might be able to compare the varieties of apples and oranges involved.

    Reply
  8. Justin Farmer

    Thanks for the welcome back. Next time, just buzz me first, if you would, and we can chat about whatever. About postings, and I could be wrong, I think there’s a different policy here regarding daily turns v. special reports. And seriously, the UGA story sure changed once we got close to air date.

    Reply
  9. live apt fire Post author

    And here’s a special report from February 2008. It’s Tom Regan’s story about Georgia Tech supposedly wasting a bunch of tax money by researching walking habits.

    http://www.wsbtv.com/video/15347515/index.html

    Nothing personal, but I don’t normally phone folks prior to writing about the stuff they’ve put on TV or in the newspaper. That would ruin the fun. But call anytime.

    Reply
  10. Newster

    If I were Justin, I’d be pretty offended by that cartoon from the Red and Black. But I’m not Justin, so I found it pretty damned funny!

    And thanks, Doug, for the service you do in holding journalists’ feet to the fire.

    Reply
  11. burke brennan

    I’m guessing the “truth” is somewhere in the middle, between WSB/Farmer and UGA/Red & Black.

    I gotta give Farmer props for showing up, and attempting to answer the criticism. That doesn’t happen too often, does it?

    Reply
  12. josephine

    Justin –

    a word of advice.

    First, as you should know, it doesn’t make sense to take on the person who holds the mike or the keyboard and unless you’re right.

    Second, make sure you’re right.

    LAF gotcha

    Reply
  13. newzfinland

    Give Farmer props for showing up? Maybe… But his arguments listed above are weak. Judging by his itemized list of ‘points,’ they should have killed the story or stopped all promotion for it until they at least had PART of the goods. Talking to a couple of PR hacks and the Dean, without ANY of the real facts and figures on the travel was just weak journalism. It’s practically a step away from TMZ or The National Enquirer. I loved the part where he tried to make it sound like some sort of big Cover-Up with the line about El Presidente trying to get WSB brass to quash the story. Oh, and BTW… ‘El Presidente’ is Spanish. I learned that on a college trip to Spain.

    Reply
  14. ignatius

    Good Lord. Heavy lies the crown!
    I came across this little site by accident. You all (well, I count about 12 out of the WWW) sound like bitter competitive journalists or over-excited ugly, smash-face dog lovers. Or both.
    C’mon….admit it…you…know…who…you..are…

    Farmer got the goods. Do you really think a station as big and powerful and dominant as CH2 would not vet every fact?
    It shows the flagrant waste of ego-maniacal profs. I pay tuition so they can learn from them, not show up to absent “teachers” that are out on some boondoggle. Sit at home at night on your own time and write a book to feed your pretentiousness!
    Further, times are different. live in the now. We need to analyze every tax dollar spent. Why should universities avoid scrutiny?

    Sounds like your anger should be directed at the person the university supplied to answer the questions. I’m sure they wouldn’t let Farmer get anywhere near the professors to ask questions. Or maybe they were out of town “doin’ stuff”

    [[ “over-excited, ugly, smash-face dog lovers”? Wow. That’s breathtaking. Welcome, Ignatius! – LAF ]]

    Reply
  15. atlbigear

    Every investigative journalist knows that a station is 50% more likely to get sued over the promotion of a story, rather than a story. I think this is one of the instances where the promotion and the lead up didn’t do the story justice. Keeping an eye on spending of government funded agencies is commendable, but I think the story fell short of the hype. I also have very basic problems with people not realizing that universities are NOT just schools. They are harbors for research and knowledge. Unfortunately, the way the story was approached lacked that certain viewpoint. What seems like frivolous spending could lead to distinction. It is bad enough that UGA is talking about furloughing professors and time off for research. It is distinction that draw students and funding. I am by far NOT a UGA fan, but I believe that the story helped kill a little bit of that distinction. Not necessarily because of the actual story, but because of how it was sensationalized to be something more than it was. Justin, I personally would have held off on airing that story because I honestly believe they played you a bit and made you lose a bit of your distinction in the process.

    Reply
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