ProPublica Ignored Expert Advice When Producing Redistricting Story

The scandal surrounding the ProPublica article on California redistricting is intensifying today as more damning revelations emerge about the flawed way the article was assembled. Over at Calbuzz Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine break an important part of the story – that the article’s authors interviewed a Public Policy Institute of California expert who explained why the final district lines were sensible, but that this never made it into the article:

All you really need to know about their over-reaching piece is this: the reporters studiously ignored documented research and statistical evidence they were provided that conflicted or undercut their conclusion – that projected Democratic gains in the state’s House delegation are the result of a secret and nefarious partisan manipulation of the political naïfs on the commission.

In the course of their reporting, Calbuzz has learned, Pierce interviewed Eric McGhee of the Public Policy Institute of California, one of the state’s top non-partisan reapportionment experts, who explained to her that the gains forecast for Democrats represent a logical and expected result given a) demographic changes in the last decade and b) the criteria the commission was charged with using.

McGhee even emailed Pierce an advance copy of a 45-page analysis of the commission plan he co-authored with Vladimir Kogan of UC San Diego, which is scheduled to be published in the California Journal of Politics and Policy in a few months. Among its conclusions: given the gerrymandered districts used for the last decade, “it seems unlikely that it is possible to draw any plan that increases competition among congressional seats without also advantaging the Democrats.”

But when the ProPublica report published Wednesday – claiming that Democratic operatives had “managed to replicate the results of the smoke-filled rooms of old” (yes, they actually wrote that) – there was no mention of the detailed and comprehensive McGhee-Kogan research, nor even a reference to the facts, background and context on which it is based.

“If there was a credible argument on the other side,” of ProPublica’s conclusion, McGhee told us, “I don’t understand why they didn’t include it.”

That’s pretty damning. Nowhere in the ProPublica article was this analysis ever mentioned or hinted at. One would assume that if the authors were interested in serious journalism, they would have included this perspective in some form.

Instead they were pursuing a “Democrats are bad too!” story intended to balance out their reporting on genuine ways Republicans monkeyed around with redistricting in other states. Like Politifact, ProPublica put their desire to placate Republicans ahead of getting the story right.

Over at the San Francisco Chronicle, Carla Marinucci spoke to one of the Decline to State commissioners who dismissed ProPublica’s charges as “dead wrong”:

“As a commission, we ran a very transparent process, so some of the allegations made in the story are easily disproved by a look at our website and the criteria we used,” said Connie Galambos-Malloy, one of four “decline to state” voters on the 14-member commission. “If the voters investigate, it’s clear that most of the allegations are dead wrong.”…

Galambos-Malloy said the commission “wasn’t contacted before the story” for comment prior to the piece’s publication – a move she calls regrettable.

“I wasn’t reached out to,” she said. “And the story just doesn’t match the process we went through.”

Rob Wilcox, the media spokesman for the commission, confirmed in an email today: “Three Commissioners were interviewed in general about the Commission’s process in early November.”  But “ProPublica did not contact the Commission for comment on the specifics of their investigation following those initial conversations,” he said.

That’s pretty shoddy journalism from ProPublica, and casts further doubt not only on the conclusions reached in their story but also their basic credibility as a news outlet.

One of the authors of the story, Olga Pierce, took to Twitter to respond to David Atkins’ post at Hullabaloo. Pierce dodged the substantive issues raised by Atkins and by others who have questioned her article to make what was essentially a non sequitur:

@DavidOAtkins I greatly respect your opinion, but we didn’t say anything in our story about the California state democratic party.

So? If she was hinting at the DCCC, it still doesn’t make any difference. The criticisms we’re making weren’t about the California Democratic Party or about Democrats more broadly. No, we are challenging her “correlation equals causation” reasoning that ignored the evidence showing why the new district lines were a reasonable outcome and how there’s no evidence to indicate any of the organizing efforts actually impacted the final maps.

Indeed, if the DCCC was trying to influence the outcome (and there’s nothing wrong with doing so) they did not exactly succeed. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman are drawn into a district together, as were Jim Costa and Dennis Cardoza (who chose to retire, costing Democrats a representative in the crucial Central Valley). So too were Janice Hahn and Laura Richardson. Lois Capps’ seat became much less safe and she will face a stiff challenge from Abel Maldonado next year.

Neither Pierce nor ProPublica have yet seen fit to offer any other responses to the mounting criticism their article is facing. Instead they appear content to let their reputations erode in the hopes that at least they made California Republicans happy.

Finally, I got an email from Dave Meyer of the Rose Institute who was upset at my post yesterday. In that post I quoted California Democratic Party chair John Burton who called the Rose Institute “Republican funded.” Meyer said “the Rose Institute takes non-partisanship extremely seriously. We receive no support or funding of any kind from any political party.” Of course, that wasn’t exactly what Burton charged – he was saying Republican donors back the Rose Institute and claimed Rose has “Republican ties,” which wasn’t the same as Meyer’s denial. Additionally, the Rose Institute lost the contract to advise the redistricting commission earlier this year in part due to failure to disclose information, including their donors, that the commission required.

Still, I’ve included Meyer’s comments above so you can decide who’s right and who’s not. That’s more than can be said for ProPublica and Olga Pierce.

5 thoughts on “ProPublica Ignored Expert Advice When Producing Redistricting Story”

  1. Suppose two sides went to court to plea their sides of a case.  One side organized a legal team, set up a case, got expert witnesses and brought in a jury consultant.  The other side just showed up to court and said their peace.

    The side that was prepared and serious about doing battle win.  The other side starts whining about all the preparation and intelligent input the other side did.

    Was the result based on the merits of the case or on the superior trial preparation?  Who know and who cares.  As long as the process is fair and everyone has a chance to present their best case, the results are credible.

    Note to Republicans: You set up the process and should have known it far better than the Democrats.  Get your shit together and quit whining.

  2. “we didn’t say anything in our story about the California state democratic party”

    what the h*ell is wrong with these two reporters? I already know they can’t write clearly and that the story kept promising “corruption” without delivering it, but apparently they can’t remember what they wrote, either.

    Over the decades, few party bosses were better at protecting incumbents than California’s Democrats. No Democratic incumbent has lost a Congressional election in the nation’s most populous state since 2000.

    As they drew the lines each decade, California’s party bosses….

    As somebody interested in redistricting, as a citizen, as a local member of the Dem Central Committee, and subsequently as a local reporter, I followed the commission’s work and testified via email and at the Santa Rosa hearing, where we heard many Marin County residents, some of them most certainly not Democratic Party operatives, as per their own self-identification, testify against creating a gerrymandered Congressional district that “crossed the Golden Gate Bridge.”

    Isn’t using the Golden Gate Bridge as a natural boundary for a Congressional district exactly the kind of common sense redistricting that California citizens wanted to see? The idea that the Dem Party had to brainwash the commissioners so they wouldn’t create a gerrymandered district that “crossed the bridge” is ludicrous.

    My testimony didn’t mention the GG bridge, but focused on opposing horizontally drawn districts on the North Coast and criticizing the commission for lack of notice/outreach to Mendocino County media about the official hearings for our region, which were held early on in Redding and Marysville.

    The Pro Publica story is a huge “fail” on many levels, including being hard to follow, which means, as the story’s editor(s) know very well, even if the young reporters themselves don’t, that casual readers will give up reading and assume the story delivers on the “corruption” it promises in the lead.

    One thing the reporters did get right, although it hardly was explored: the commission was under-funded and under-staffed and public comment was not organized effectively.

    A year-end thanks to Calitics, and Merry Christmas to all.  

  3. We’re happy to be reprinting your original story for our readers in the year-end issue of Random Lengths News that comes out next week.  But as things continue to unfold we might want to do something more in January.  

    This is a perfect book-end to the PolitiFact “Lie of the Year” fiasco–in both cases purportedly “neutral” “non-partisan” organizations turn themselves into rightwing mouthpieces, and do it so badly that they inadvertantly do some good by showing people so unmistably what hacks they have become.

    STILL, however unmistable it may be, it takes skill & persistence in parsing what they’ve done (and not done) so that the full impact sinks in & is recorded for future reference.  And that’s what you deserve special kudos for.

    Merry Christmas!

Comments are closed.