Governor Gary Locke’s Remarks
The National Conference of Editorial Writers
September 14, 2000
Good afternoon. Thank you Ms. Lynnell Burkett for your kind introduction. And thanks to you and the National Association of Editorial Writers for inviting me to speak to you today.
Some of you may doubt this... but I'm glad to be here today. Really. You are a unique audience. All of you make a living watching and explaining and analyzing government to everyday people.
It is true that what you write can sometimes be painful for elected officials such as myself. Sometimes I just plain disagree with you. But, I admit, every now and then, the truth hurts. But it's also instructive and helpful! And the truth requires analysis...
Many people simply don't know what government does. Just as importantly, they often have no idea what it does not and cannot do. Indeed, most have not given much thought to what government should and shouldn't do.
This brings me to the subject of my remarks today. And that is that while the relationship between the press and government must necessarily be adversarial, we also have a common challenge: How to communicate effectively to citizens whose time is fragmented like never before.
One of your late colleagues, Baltimore Sun editorial writer and columnist H.L. Mencken, once wrote that newspaper readers don't much care to read about the inner workings of government in all its boring detail. Instead, he said, what citizens want to read about is "the merry chase" of a good government scandal. Mr. Mencken no doubt was writing somewhat tongue in cheek when he made this assertion.
In case he wasn't, a different perspective comes from a more contemporary editor of American newspapers, Eugene Roberts of the New York Times. Mr. Roberts contends that, in fact, newspaper readers want the details. They want the depth. And they want to understand everything they can about subjects that matter to them.
In a speech a few years back, Mr. Roberts recalled covering the tobacco industry for a small North Carolina newspaper some 40 years ago. He recalled that the tobacco farmers and others who depend on the crop for their livings would have gladly read the tobacco industry equivalent of "War and Peace" if Roberts had written it; because the farmers, to say nothing of the people who's economy depended on them, wanted to know everything they could about tobacco.
Let's look at a Pacific Northwest example of the challenge of communicating vital, complex issues. I understand that among other topics being addressed by this conference are the problems of reporting and explaining natural resource issues -- notably the Endangered Species Act specifically as it brings about the inevitable clash of science and public policy.
For those of you from back East -- where the Endangered Species Act is less of an issue -- this scientific/socioeconomic collision may seem a little arcane. But here in the Northwest, the confrontation is right in front of editorial writers and right in front of policymakers day after day. Indeed, it is right in front of every farmer, every logger and every manufacturer in Washington.
Five different wild salmon runs are now on the federal threatened or endangered species list, affecting all of our 39 counties and virtually all of our watersheds. We have an incredible job ahead of us to save the wild chinook salmon runs of Puget Sound, the wild steelhead runs of the Columbia and Snake Rivers, and the wild sockeye of the Washington coast, just to name a few.
Never mind for now the millions and millions of scarce dollars it will take to save the salmon… the business and lifestyle changes it will take to rescue them. Forget for a moment the trees that cannot be cut… the hydropower that cannot be generated… the shoreline development that must be modified… and the malls that must stay on the drawing board because they threaten clean water and other habitat. For now, consider only the central task of educating the public on the enormity and complexity of saving wild salmon.
For starters, if we in government and you in the news business could do just one thing, it would make a difference. And that one thing would be to make the phrase -- "cumulative impact" -- roll off the tongue of every person in Washington State as easily as the name of the guy who prevailed in "Survivor"... "Richard."
It's not exactly catchy, but the "cumulative impact" of the piling on of human activities is responsible for the decline of wild salmon. And it will take dramatic change in human activity to save the salmon.
There are no magic answers. This isn't about good guys and bad guys. It isn't just the loggers or developers or farmers. It isn't manufacturers or fishing fleets or even the fertilizer you put on your lawn. It's all of these... and more.
I saw a bumper sticker a few days ago that in effect says that to save the Snake River salmon, we need only breach or tear down the Snake River dams. Now there's a "neat and tidy" solution, which, unfortunately is "falsely simplistic." Practically speaking, even under the best of circumstances, it would take years to breach the dams -- and still longer before we would see any favorable results. The salmon can't wait that long!
Incidentally, it has always been somewhat of a mystery to me why the focus is on the Snake River Dams. If you believe that dam removal is the answer, why not talk about removing the upper Columbia River dams, which are some of the many impacts on eight endangered salmon runs? For that matter, why not remove the Willamette River dams, which also have an impact on wild salmon?
Why not just stop fishing? I'm asked that question a lot. Along with, "If salmon are endangered, why can we buy them at the market, eat them in restaurants?" Those questions beg the discussion of wild vs. hatchery fish, an enormous component of the recovery issue. We don't buy endangered fish at the store or eat wild salmon in restaurants. They're hatchery fish, pen-reared fish. And more that 95 percent are from Alaska, Norway, Chile and Australia.
Fishermen in Puget Sound know wild Chinook are off limits… more than 95 percent of the fish caught in the Sound are hatchery fish. Does the public understand this? We have to make sure they do. Is it neat and tidy? No.
The salmon issue is much too complicated to turn into a slogan and too complicated to cover in short articles twice a year… or in, "he said, she said" interviews that fit into 90 seconds. That's where editorial writers can be of enormous educational help.
Any serious student of Northwest salmon recovery will tell you that wild salmon recovery absolutely must include an aggressive series of concurrent actions; steps that require a reporter to stay with the story and understand the pieces.
If I said to you that salmon recovery must include the way we operate our dams, run our hatcheries and harvest salmon, would you know what I meant? The public depends on you knowing.
The biggest need in fish recovery is to improve their habitat. It also happens to be the hardest thing to do. Here comes the change in human behavior and all those millions of dollars.
If we spread the blame wide enough, maybe we can all avoid responsibility. But I can't do that. My job is to use the science to communicate the necessary changes. If the science backs up an action, but that action requires sacrifice, I hope you'll represent that and the reasoning to your readers and viewers. And I hope you'll examine the science and weigh it against the economic impact on people's lives. The suggestion of quick fix leads us down dead end streets. Emotions replace solutions.
So how do we both do a better job? I am frustrated by the gap in meaningful communication. How do we do a better job of replacing the simplistic approach with the complicated truth? How do we keep something like natural resource issues, which are so critical to our children and grandchildren, from being reduced to simple "grist" for the political mill?
It starts with cutting through the bureaucratic jargon, the endless numbers and sterile facts. Government must communicate as people do. That's item 'A'.
Item 'B' is we have to rebuild public trust. You do and I do. Never was that more evident than with the experience of Initiative 695. As many of you in states with initiative power already know, these measures can be very complicated, or they can be simple on the surface with far reaching consequences. They can have huge impacts on state and local budgets and services.
I'm not here to badmouth initiatives. They are a cherished part of our political system in the Western states. Like everybody else, I have supported many and opposed others. But I'm troubled, and I know that some of you are troubled, by how difficult it is to get across to voters what some of these initiatives actually mean and will do. Do people trust what we're telling them about these initiatives? If you didn't know how government really worked, how would you know if it was broken?
For those of you here from out of state, Initiative 695 repealed our motor vehicle excise tax, a main source of revenue for our state transportation system. This meant annual tax savings of several hundred dollars to the average two-car family. The initiative passed last November. It's now in the courts on a constitutional challenge, though I and the Legislature made the excise tax reduction permanent.
As I said many times, along with the benefit of lower taxes, the initiative would have big impacts on mass transportation, on roads and on the ferry system. I said these impacts would be felt for years to come. After the initiative passed, our budget office and my office took many, many angry calls from citizens. Those citizens asked us why we didn't tell them their favorite bus routes would be cut back as a result, or that their city governments would have to cut services.
For these citizens, we somehow failed to lay out what we thought was clear -- you can't remove $1.1 billion in revenue in the first year alone and not have big impacts. We failed to get across that a one-time billion dollar budget reserve wouldn't ease the pain for very long. Newspapers ran lengthy features weighing the impacts of this initiative. Across the rest of the spectrum of media, there wasn't enough thorough examination of what this proposal would really do. I'm aware of the allegations of short attention spans on the part of the public, but the public demonstrates at every turn, a thirst for the facts.
What happened to thoughtful discourse, to critical examination without rancor? The media, in my opinion, too often allowed 695 supporters to simply dismiss clearly negative impacts as "scare tactics." And when we did have to cut back, it was called "punishing the voters."
It isn't enough to say that many voters may not have understood the complex impacts of a 695. There's also the real possibility that the voters didn't care about the impacts and expected us to adjust.
My point in discussing this particular initiative is not to say that voters made a mistake. They repealed a hated tax. But why are so many people so surprised and distrustful of its ramifications? As we answer this, we reinstate informed debate, not snappy dialogue.
Given the communications revolution underway today… endless choices on TV and radio... the expanding Internet... on-line newspapers... the question of where to place information is as big a challenge as where to look for it. How to inform the public effectively is as big an issue as the information itself.
I'm streamlining and simplifying government… as demonstrated in, among other things, our digital government plan. A big part of my job is to inform the public of efficiency projects like that one and improvements in government. In fact, what's the point if I don't tell you my goals and the accomplishment of those goals?
Let me give you an example. Near the beginning of my administration, in the midst of a furor over welfare abuse, I set a goal to get every able-bodied person in this state into a satisfying job that could sustain a family. As recently as last January I announced that we had exceeded all projections, that Washington State was the most successful state in the country at making a better life for people who'd been on welfare.
Did government tell the public? Yes. But the coverage was minimal. Not the headlines that might have been expected considering that only a few years before, headlines had been occupied with little else.
Is it that the problem is so much sexier than the solution? If a situation has improved, what's the news value? The value lies in the underpinnings of our society. The strides in welfare reform whittle away at crime stats, drop our child death rate and our homeless population. Major news value.
We, you and I, need to work more closely to truly get the pertinent messages out. Addressing these issues requires a devotion to depth. Ours is an uneasy truce at times (yours and mine), one we must perfect if we're going to properly inform the working, taxpaying citizens of this state who need us in order to make educated decisions and choices. We in politics must be more willing to offer substance over slogans and you in the newspaper and broadcast businesses must be willing to ask more of yourselves and your readers and viewers.
It starts with education. What happens when your generation of editorial writers is gone? Will the next generation have the understanding of complex issues, the ability to analyze and the critical eye required to inform a citizenry? It's my job and yours to see to it they will.
Above all, all of us must tell the truth, an informed, balanced truth; because if the public doesn't believe what we say, all the communications skills in the world won't help us. Credibility of government, and of the press, underlies all successful communication, and that alone could fill another speech.
I hope we can do this again. Thank you for having me here today.