Slusher: Trying to do our job when pols don't do theirs
No news, we note in this business, is not good news.
That twist on an old maxim is particularly relevant, and on many levels, as it pertains to coverage this week of the impasse between the Republican governor and Democratic legislative leaders over the state's budget. It was prominent in the minds of Political Editor Mike Riopell and Deputy Managing Editor Diane Dungey as they pondered how to prepare a reporting plan for Tuesday's so-called budget summit involving Gov. Bruce Rauner and the legislative "Four Tops" -- Democrats House Speaker Michael J. Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton and Republican leaders Christine Radogno in the Senate and Jim Durkin in the House.
What, Riopell and Dungey wondered, is the objective and meaningful news angle to pursue when all indications are that the meeting is just a political show? That it will not likely produce serious movement or even statements from the central players that are any different from what they've been saying for the better part of the past year?
How do you write and play such a story? The budget quagmire is unquestionably the most important issue in state government. A meeting finally takes place that all sorts of good government groups and newspapers, including the Daily Herald, have been urging for months. It has to be covered. It has to be given attention commensurate with its weight. But what to do when nothing is likely to happen and when, in fact, nothing does?
How do we as a newspaper avoid being just a conduit for tired, partisan political themes or a stage for cynical faux negotiation posing as serious statesmanship? How do we describe the non-news of the event yet avoid plunging into speculation, more likely though it may be, that the real agenda here is merely to keep the stall going until at least January, when a new legislative session can convene and legislative action can be accomplished with a simple majority rather than the supermajority forced by the legislature's and governor's inaction in the previous session?
Ultimately, there was nothing to be done but shrug and present the non-news story for precisely what it was -- a predictable public preface filled with all-too-familiar accusations from both sides about the other's insincerity followed by a private meeting out of which the only potential agreement produced involves giving money to local governments that's already theirs and paying Lottery winners.
In such circumstances, we are left to count on readers to see through the political charades. Whom you choose to side with on the larger question of responsibility for the budget standoff will no doubt depend on your personal political leanings, but we hope that at least you recognize the pretenses of both sides.
Yes, as we hoped they would, the leaders met. But contrary to our and everyone else's hopes, they weren't really serious about it. They ended the week, as they'll likely end the month, no further ahead than where they were at the beginning. They produced no news.
And that was not good news, neither for those of us in the business of reporting it nor, more importantly of course, for the many interests in the state suffering for their lack of action.
Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is assistant managing editor for opinion at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.