The media as a tool

Perhaps for the first time in my adult life I’ve really paid close attention to local affairs. In Boston, it’s apparent that we rely on several services that are irreplaceable, most notably the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA), who among other things is responsible for our heavily used public transportation system. This year, I’ve noticed that the media has picked up on two different, relatively large organizations in Boston who have painted a grave picture of their current financial situation in hopes of mobilizing public outrage against governmental inaction.

The first time I noticed this was the MBTA’s recent public threat that service would be cut unless the state stepped in and offered support. The details of the cuts were incredibly dramatic, and I admit that I had a knee-jerk reaction to cry out, “This is ridiculous! Shocking! This cannot happen!” Blah, blah, blah. It took me about a day of outrage to come to the conclusion that there’s no way that this level of service cuts could ever be allowed. For better or worse, the economy of Boston and surrounding area is inextricably dependent on the smooth functioning of the MBTA. Cut service drastically, and you sever the ability for many workers to get to their jobs. It would be, admittedly, a mess. In this case, the MBTA used the Boston Globe and other local news services in effectively rallying public outrage, making political non-action about the worst thing that could be done by the elected members of the state legislature. Sneaky, I thought, when this first dawned on me.

I was pretty surprised to see the Franklin Park Zoo follow suit in a perhaps even more sinister move. Because of budget deficits, they have recently threatened layoffs, closure, and potentially killing animals. Killing animals! This time when I read this story, I knew I had seen this kind of scare tactic before. It’s one thing to paint a grim but honest picture of the state of affairs. But to use live animals, the very animals who are entrusted into your care, as political capital seems to be quite despicable. And this coming from someone who doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for animal rights activists. Again they managed to plant in the story that this whole, ugly matter could be deftly avoided with more state funding.

The message in the published stories was clear: either the government must support these organizations financially or massive cuts or closure would be necessary, at a huge detriment to the public. These two cases of public whining appear to be attempts at drumming up political capital by turning taxpayers and voters against the government, villainizing anything short of drastic allocations of public funds for these causes.

What is the appropriate response from the state legislature? On one hand, especially with the MBTA, the financial assistance is probably prudent, considering the effect it has on the proper functioning of so many businesses. In addition, the case could be made that Franklin Park Zoo is a wonderful educational resource for the city, and in many ways it is a classic Boston institution with a long history in this city. However, the message must be made clear that this use of the media is not a reasonable way to voice these budget requests. I’m not sure how long this practice has endured. It’s also unclear what the media’s role is in all of this. They love the dramatic story, of course, but we have an unreasonable, naive expectation of neutrality in the media that is damaged when two public entities have their budget arguments in the middle of the town square.

I think that it is clear to me that these organizations have not been effective at communicating needs to the state legislature. It could be that their meetings did not go well and that the government is truly the villain in these cases. However, it must be considered that these scare tactics are coverups for gross mismanagement, which has been shown to be the case on several occasions with the MBTA. I think that with great public financial assistance should also come massive organizational restructuring of any of these organizations. Those who have mismanaged the organization and allowed these poor financial scenarios should be removed from their positions and replaced by more competent personnel. This would hopefully move toward better fiscal management in the future and send the clear message that the onus of financial responsibility is on the organization and not on the people as taxpayers — the revenue should be from the people as consumers.

While it’s not a perfect solution, I certainly find it hard to support the management of organizations that would resort to this kind of manipulation. It’s too bad that the organizations they are in charge of have to suffer because of their incompetence.

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One thought on “The media as a tool

  1. Callie Durbrow

    I agree with you about the scare tactics. The MBTA will get funding somehow, probably with another increase in fees or taxes, but the zoo may not be quite as lucky. Resorting to talking about killing animals is strictly for the media hype and hopefully the people in charge can get their act together.

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