The editorial boards of two large Kansas newspapers have shown how little effort goes into forming the opinions they foist upon our state.
Here’s a quote from a recent opinion piece in the Topeka Capital-Journal, the second-largest newspaper in Kansas: “If the past year is any indication, Totten is right about the harmful effects of KDOT sweeps on the construction industry in our state. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between July 2015 and July 2016, Kansas lost 4,400 construction jobs — a 7.3 percent decline. This means Kansas ranked 49th in the country for construction job growth.” 1
Here, the newspaper argues that transferring money from the state’s highway fund has led to a loss of construction jobs in the state. Fortunately, there are some institutions and people in our state that will actually look at statistics to see what they mean. And if the editorial board of the Capital-Journal had done this, they would have realized they were fed a line of hooey by a self-interested lobbyist. You see, the “Totten” the newspaper cited as an authority is Bob Totten, Executive Vice President of Kansas Contractors Assocation.2 His job is to agitate for as much spending as possible to benefit his members. It matters not if the spending is wise or needed. The members of Kansas Contractors Association would happily build the proverbial bridge to nowhere, as long as they were paid.
The Capital-Journal was not alone in believing what Totten told them. The editorial board of the Wichita Eagle did, too. It wrote a similar editorial, telling Kansans “Over the past six years, Brownback and the Legislature have taken $2.7 billion in transportation funding to help pay other state bills, Totten said. The loss of this funding has meant fewer projects and fewer jobs.”3
The statistics that are cited deserve further investigation, which is what Kansas Policy Institute did in its article Media and highway contractors mislead again. KPI’s Dave Trabert reported this:
Had the *Eagle* bothered to examine Mr. Totten’s claim, they would have learned that only 2 percent of the construction job decline was attributable to highway construction and that the loss of 100 jobs is less than 1 percent of total highway jobs.
In addition to learning that Mr. Totten was grossly exaggerating, they would have learned that employment for construction of new homes and non-residential buildings showed very nice growth and the real problem is in specialty trade contractors for non-highway projects.
I verified these statistics and reported them in my article Kansas construction employment. I built an interactive visualization that anyone can use to explore this data.
The upshot is that Kansas highway construction jobs declined slightly, but the bulk of the job loss in construction was in other types of construction. Not in highway construction, as the highway construction lobbyist told Kansas editorial writers.
This is a sad episode in Kansas newspaper journalism. The editorial boards of two newspapers — one the state’s largest — accepted as true the claims of a lobbyist, apparently without spending a moment in verification. Both newspapers have staffs of reporters, some of which I’m sure are capable of accessing the Bureau of Labor Statistics to gather a few statistics and perform an independent investigation.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, it appears that these two newspapers accepted the claims of the Kansas Contractors Association at face value because it fit the editorialists’ world view — that view being that Sam Brownback is bad, state spending on everything has been slashed, and the only thing to do is raise taxes.
That’s an opinion, which is what newspaper editorial boards produce. Now Kansans know just how uninformed are these opinions.