By David Loomis
INDIANA — This could be a good year for reality in Washington.
Congress has recalled that it is a co-equal branch of government. News media over here and over there are fact-checking official pronouncements and tweets. Presidential lawyer/defender Rudy Giuliani is increasingly regarded as a court jester. White House spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway’s persistent “alternative facts” have earned her a nomination for a ban from news media devoted to traditional truth-seeking.
Coming this week, another tell-all promises more looks behind the leaky curtain around the White House. Disinformation both foreign (Putin) and domestic (Trump) is a matter of public record. And even Fox News, a Trump toady, has turned to what the president calls “fake news.”
Fortunately, citizens are catching on, according to this week’s Washington Post-ABC News poll.
DATELINES FOR DISINFORMATION are not limited to D.C. Beyond the Beltway, citizens are drowning in it.
It’s “raining down on them everywhere they turn,” Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote last month.
What about Indiana County?
A Jan. 27 local letter to the editor expressed opposition to property taxes and asserted: “every year 10,000 Pennsylvania homeowners, young and old, lose their homes because they can no longer pay their school taxes.”
Wow. That number sets off an alarm, what fact-checkers call a “smell test” — something that seems unbelievable.
Helpfully, the letter writer provided a source — a video recorded by property-tax opponent David Baldinger, who displays what he says is a full page from the Reading Eagle showing sheriff’s-tax-sale listings. Baldinger says “about 1,100” properties are listed in just one of the commonwealth’s 67 counties.
“Multiply that by 67 counties,” Baldinger says. “You’re looking at about 10,000 homes each year that are sold at sheriff’s sales in Pennsylvania.” The big number appears at the top of the screen. (“It always stuns people when I bring it up,” he says.)
Baldinger must assume that his viewers know that 1,100 times 67 is not 10,000. And he must hope viewers will assume he got the 10,000 from some reliable source. If so, viewers would be hard-pressed find that source in a Google search.
HOWEVER, another source — the York Daily Record — provides additional perspective.
Pennsylvania is home to more than 5 million owner-occupied residences, the newspaper reported. If 10,000 of them are losing their homes each year, as property-tax opponents assert, that’s disturbing. But that’s also less than 0.2 percent of all homes in the state.
And that’s a problem for property-tax opponents who want to dismantle the state’s system of funding public schools because of a problem that does not affect 99.8 percent of homeowners. In its place, property-tax opponents would shift the tax burden to more regressive levies, such as, but not only, the sales tax. (The Republican candidate for governor campaigned on such a plan in last year’s election. He lost.)
As experts discussed with a local audience in 2016, Pennsylvania’s property tax system to pay for public education has rankled residents for centuries. But it endures because it dependably does what it’s designed to do. Its collateral damage can be addressed by more targeted means.
For one example, county officials should not be permitted to let reassessment of real property for tax purposes slide for four decades or more. That’s what Indiana County officials did, until 2015, after a judge blew a whistle on them.
LOCAL NEWS QUIZ:
On Jan. 25, The Indiana Gazette published a front-page no-byline announcement with photo about Indiana County magistrate Jennifer J. Rega, who is seeking a fourth term on the bench serving the county’s southern tier.
The item listed her credentials, her community service, her church affiliation, an announced challenger, and it included a quote attributed to the judge:
“It is not my job to judge people’s character, but it is my job to make decisions that will deter future criminal or irresponsible behavior.”
The quote was attributed to a news release.
Question: What newsworthy fact is missing from Judge Rega’s background that might be relevant to her campaign?
Send your answer in a comment at the end of this story, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
The HawkEye invites comments on this and other issues of community interest. Email email@example.com