I stared in stunned amazement at my social media newsfeed this morning as it displayed one of the rarest creatures in America’s disappearing free press: a critical story about economic development tax breaks for Wall Street.
Even more miraculously, this example of public service journalism was published by the most unlikely of news organizations: the toothless and morally bankrupt Des Moines Register. An Iowa paper with a reputation for parroting state economic development (eco devo) claims without verifying them.
The column was written by Daniel Finney, a friend and fellow journalism lifer I've known for 15 years.
Be still my beating heart.
Could it be, I thought. Had the neutering of America's free press finally come to a halt?
Had real business journalism somehow returned to a storied newspaper which once ranked among the best in the land?
Had Finney really decided to return to his roots in public service journalism and stop writing about his unending efforts to lose weight and find real love?
Had he and the cowardly Register really hung a critical story on a powerful corporation capable of fighting back?
The hard-hitting column was entitled “Apple played Iowa for suckers and we paid them to do it.” It deals with the ridiculous tax breaks Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds showered on Apple this month to convince it to locate a $1.3 billion data center in what is euphemistically known as the Silicon Prairie.
The term is the kind of misnomer politicians and public relations types love, because it camouflages their diversion of tax dollars from hardworking families to their buddies in the country club set. In this case, $218 million for 50 permanent, full-time jobs paying about $60,000 a year.
That works out to more than $4 million per job. The workers in the data center will have to labor for roughly 66 years just for Iowa to break even.
It's the kind of deal that only makes sense if you're trying to improperly charge taxpayers for a campaign ad, which is exactly what Gov. Kim Reynolds is doing.
“This is how economic development is done in America,” Finney reported, pulling no punches. “Corporations shake down states and local governments for as much free stuff as they can. Then, when they've fleeced local taxpayers for every penny, they hold a big, showy news conference and talk about how great the place is.”
The rule of thumb for tax incentives was more along the lines of one or two years of the potential payroll when I worked as an eco devo beat reporter from 1999-2003. Not 66.
That formula equals a tax break of $6 million for Apple for the entire data center. Not two hundred-friggin-eighteen million.
Anything more than $6 million is too much. The political equivalent of a reverse bribe from Reynolds for a photo op with Apple's celebrity CEO (below right).
A comparison with the record-setting eco devo deal which brought a new BMW plant to the state of South Carolina in 1992 provides some insight to just how badly Iowa just got ripped off by its own governor. The Palmetto state provided BMW with $130 million in tax incentives for the $2.2 billion project and its 8,800 jobs. That's about $14,800 per job.
Iowa is paying 271 times as much for each Apple job.
Not just 100 percent more, but 30,178 percent more.
It's incredible and mathematically indefensible. The kind of deal which ends political careers and threatens to make Iowa an icon for global stupidity.
Apple, which loves America so much it makes its iPads and iPhones in China, is the latest in a long line of economic development prospects to bend Iowa over the proverbial kitchen table. It follows in the footsteps of Google, Microsoft and Facebook. All of which have bilked the Fame Groupie State out of huge tax breaks for a handful of jobs.
The really sad part of the whole charade is that Iowa could get many more manufacturing and insurance jobs for the same tax breaks, if its elected leaders were capable of original thought and altruistic action. They prefer tech simply because it generates more media buzz and is preferred by their peers on the coasts.
Here's how the eco-devo scam works: A company looking to build a new employment hub hires a site selection specialist to find a suitable spot. Once upon a time this meant a big tract of land near an interstate highway and airport, preferably in a state with cheap electricity. Increasingly, it now means a state whose governor is willing to give away hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to pose as a job creator.
The practice is bad for America. It's become a form of political corruption and Iowa is hip deep in it.
Iowa has become the preferred Midwest destination for data centers not for its strengths, but for its weaknesses. Predatory executives with skills honed in the intensely competitive financial arenas of Wall Street and Silicon Valley know they can con the state's credulous leaders out of huge paydays. And they know the equally credulous Register will bless the bloated deals without aggressively reviewing them.
All Iowa's poser leaders and poser journalists ask in return is that they be treated with respect and affection by those exploiting them. Sadly, that's not nearly enough.
Iowa has become the preferred destination for presidential hopefuls in much the same manner. It's one of the few states where voters are still too polite to publicly heckle corrupt politicians. A place where the cowardly journalism lion that is now The Register trades glowing stories just for the opportunity to stare adoringly at national newsmakers every four years during The Iowa Caucus.
This pathetic dynamic might not seem like a big deal to those of you who aren't journalists, but it is. Because the journalism equivalent of negligence is being duped into misleading your readers and the journalism equivalent of fraud is doing so willfully.
One of our main jobs in the news industry is to verify the claims made by politicians and executives with a vested interest in misrepresentation. The Register often seems to suspend those standards when the stories are provided to it by someone rich, powerful and famous. The very people we once scrutinized so aggressively.
That's a big part of the reason it's hemorrhaging readers.
When I grew up in the Bronx in the 1970s and 80s there was a saying that was directed at the suckers who were routinely overcharged by street peddlers for everything from fake jewelry to fake Coach handbags. It was "they saw you coming."
As in: "You paid $300 for that gold necklace? You know it's gold plated, right? Dumbass. They saw you coming."
This is an accurate summary of the duplicitous manner in which political hookers and parasitic business leaders around the world now view the State of Iowa and The Des Moines Register.
The Register is not alone in its decline. However, the decline seems more pronounced because it was once a great paper that won Pulitzer Prizes the way The New York Yankees won championships.
The watchdog journalism the Register once excelled at doesn't happen much any more because hedge funds and private equity funds are taking over our nation's news industry. These are the same self-described "masters of the universe" who off-shored U.S. manufacturing to China.
They've been slowly and relentlessly destroying our free press for the past decade, and kicking crusading reporters to the curb. The result is a climate in which political corruption and business misconduct flourish.
I specialized in exposing corporate misconduct at The Register, before the once legendary newspaper nearly worked me into an early grave in 2014. I broke big stories about abuses at Wells Fargo; mortgage fraud; Wall Street's attempted pilfering of the insurance industry; and the so-called Madoff of the Midwest – Russ Wasendorf Sr.
Sadly, my tenure there occurred amid a period of tremendous decline for our nation's free press. One in which the painful truths I excel at reporting became less and less welcome.
That's why I'm so sensitive to any indication my beleaguered industry might be regaining its lost mojo. I'd love to see Finney lead the way.
Sadly for America, homeboy has the talent but not the inclination.
Bylines don't mean much to readers, but they speak volumes to those of us who know the people behind them. As I devoured Finney's column this morning, my mind’s eye filled with memories of him as a cub reporter.
Finney following me around like a 6’4” 400 pound baby brother after he secured a job as a cub reporter at the Omaha World-Herald in 2001.
The bright-eyed 23-year-old Iowan with the big weight problem and even bigger natural talent reminded me of the Leonard Lawrence character in the film "Full Metal Jacket." That's the big goofy kid in boot camp.
I can still see a young Finney running up and down the basketball court with me - a big smile plastered across his red face as he tried to get his weight under control.
Finney grabbing handfuls of Peanut M&Ms from a huge bag in his desk drawer.
Finney telling me Omaha was nice, but couldn't compare with his beloved Des Moines. Repeatedly.
Finney decorating his desk with Homer Simpson toys.
I was hammering away intently on my keyboard one afternoon – racing to make deadline on a front-page story – when the man-child playfully tossed a rolled up piece of paper over the wall between our cubicles. It landed in my lap.
“Goddamn kid,” I thought, digging a cigar lighter from the pocket of my slacks.
I lit the wad of paper on fire, casually tossed it back over my shoulder, and returned to work.
There was a satisfying yowl a split second later, followed by the sound of a corn-fed Iowan lumbering through our crowded cubicle farm like a bull in a china shop.
Those were the good old days, when many daily newspapers in the U.S. were locally owned and considered themselves part of the communities they served.
Before America began transforming itself into a police state and Wall Street hijacked the Democrat and Republican party machines. Turning the poor and faltering middle class into a group of heavily taxed people with no meaningful elected representation.
Before hedge funds and private equity firms transformed news into a kind of protection racket for The Predatory 1 Percent, and began charging readers $500 a shot for obituaries and wedding announcements that should be free.
Before poor and middle class white men were slandered as members of the patriarchy by the left and transformed into corporate cannon fodder by the right.
Before personal honor and professional ethics became something to be monetized by opportunistic bottom feeders.
Back then, two working class kids could dream that if we just worked hard, learned everything we could, and kept our noses clean we could become the Mike Roykos and Jimmy Breslins of our time. Royko and Breslin being the champions of the American middle class who once worked as Pulitzer Prize winning columnists for the Chicago Daily News and New York Daily News.
Today, there are no Roykos and Breslins and most newspapers no longer champion their readers. Instead, they champion their advertisers and sources, ignore their readers, and puzzle over their evaporating circulations. Like crusading journalism is some kind of rocket science.
Finney and I struggled to maintain professional standards in this climate of wanton corporate profiteering. Gannett Co. Inc. – the monopolistic parent company of The Register and 1,100 other U.S. dailies and weeklies – seemed to lose interest in keeping the rich and powerful honest after its corporate board was taken over by a private equity firm in 2013 or so.
Instead of a news organization, Gannett transformed the Register into a kind of unethical content farm which auctions off the truth to the rich and powerful. Investigative journalism was marginalized in favor of freak show trash. Instead of quality news being the premium product that sold the ads, it became the generic words around them.
An article about two impoverished brothers fighting over a sandwich was held up as our new ideal by an ambitious managing editor named Kelli Brown who had never worked as a reporter. And apparently never gone to bed hungry.
This is when online photo arrays began being scattered over multiple pages to create the appearance of more readers via superfluous page views. A similar tactic was embraced for online video news clips, which began to mysteriously pop up and begin playing themselves. The artificially inflated page views translated into bigger bills for advertisers.
Any ethical journalist who spoke up against these sketchy practices - which reek of advertising fraud - was labelled a "troublemaker."
Newsroom loyalty stopped being a two-street between management and the rest of us. Job security became a thing of the past.
Gannett's corporate mission statement was rewritten by its new corporate masters to minimize the previous focus on news and public service and emphasize content and online hits. The ethical wall between local advertising departments and newsrooms as online clicks became the No. 1 journalism performance standard. Papers began to stop publishing routine corrections.
A new social media policy made it a termination offense for any newsroom staffers to post anything - about anything - which didn't meet with Gannett's approval. Effectively reducing the freedom of speech of employed journalists to zero.
Newsroom reorganizations and layoffs began to reverberate through the Gannett chain. They seemed to target older workers in spite of federal prohibitions against age discrimination. The very workers who possessed each newsroom's prized institutional knowledge and which traditionally had trained the baby journalists now being brought in to replace them. As a result, new generations of cub reporters seemed to know less and less.
It was as if Gannett itself had declared war on public service journalism itself.
Journalism became a "business" whenever The Register needed to layoff a dozen reporters to boost quarterly profit growth. It was miraculously transformed back into a "calling" whenever it came time for management to reimburse expenses, pay overtime, and hand out raises.
Unlike many of my peers, who turned a blind eye to what was happening, I was painfully aware of the reduction in our free press that was underway.
My blood pressure eventually came unhinged in this emotional pressure cooker. I could handle the occasional dead body, hurricane, greedy business leader, and crooked politician, but being betrayed by my own editors and seeing the America's free press being neutered were traumatic events for me.
Editors were still ordering journalism lifers like me to wade into battle with the rich and powerful on their behalf. However, they were also increasingly pulling the proverbial drawbridges up behind us. Meaning that if you pissed off the wrong member of the Predatory 1 Percent, you were now on your own.
Strange little things started to happen as management stopped leading by example and shifted into an "all benefits and no burdens" kind of mode.
A crackerjack court reporter named Jeff Eckoff was mysteriously laid off. His only crime seemed to be an investigative into the the political retaliation directed at a state trooper who ticketed the governor's speeding vehicle.
In my own case, I was directed to race 65 miles to cover a criminal court hearing 45 minutes and warned not to speed.
"There's no way to get there in time without speeding," I shouted into my cell, heading down the highway at 80 mph. "Either you want the story or you don't. If I don't speed I might as well not go."
"OK," the editor said, searching for the combination of words which would allow him to avoid shared responsibility for a speeding ticket if I got one. "Just do your best."
Back in the day, we would have gotten the speeding ticket together. Suddenly, the burdens of newsgathering were all on the reporters.
My nose started bleeding one weekend in April 2014 and didn’t stop for two full days. As I kneeled in the bathroom on my hands and knees, stubbornly wiping the floor with a towel, it slowly dawned on me that blood was spattering the tiles faster than I was cleaning it up.
A trip to the emergency room revealed my blood pressure had surged to an often fatal level of 260 over 150 (normal is 120 over 80), causing my sinuses to hemorrhage. It took doctors two days to get it down to the point where they could send me home. Heavily medicated.
Business Editor Lynn Hicks (left) dropped my laptop off at my home just hours after my release and asked me to produce two articles the next day. I was back in the ER as soon as I filed them - blood pouring from my sinuses again.
The doctors said I had malignant, resistant hypertension. In layman's terms, it means I give a shit and can have a stroke or aneurysm if I work too hard and don't take care of myself. Which was basically my life at the shrinking Register.
The condition is most common among people with Type-A personalities in their 60s. I was just 49 years old. Years of big stories, rolling deadlines and overwork in a contracting industry had taken their toll.
My right eyeball would pop out of its socket three times in five months as a result of this condition.
News has always been a pressure cooker of an industry. Thanks to the intense competition and rolling deadlines, modest pay, crappy benefits, and pressure to perform flawlessly for a huge audience. But it was an honest pressure cooker back in the day, devoted to public service.
When greed replaced public service and bottom feeders replaced heroic editors, the pressure became impossible for many journalism lifers. Old school Managing Editor Randy Brubaker dropped dead about a week after I fell ill, after returning to work from open heart surgery too quickly.
Instead of balanced news stories, the new Gannett wanted more “clickbait” and “blowjob” stories.
Clickbait being the industry term for the sensational stories which mislead readers by removing context. Like when The Weather Channel misrepresents almost every big storm as the proverbial “storm of the century.”
Blowjob stories occur when journalists trade favorable coverage to newsmakers for scoops. Another specialty of the "new" Register. Especially during Terry Branstad's tenure as governor, when then publisher Rick Green bragged about his weekly chats with the governor and the governor's chief of staff.
Once upon a time such things were considered conflicts of interest, but Green seemed to view them as a badge of honor. He's in the vanguard of the new generation of scoundrels replacing the principled editors of old.
After each new round of layoffs, Green's proteges would dump the vacant beats on their remaining reporters. Then use the threat of negative performance reviews to pressure us into working overtime for free.
Talking to his proteges at The Register about business is like talking to the developmentally disabled. They weren't hired in recognition of their journalism props and business knowledge. They were hired because their modest resumes make them ethically malleable.
Hicks' favorite line when I complained about his habitual violations of federal wage and hour law: "sometimes you just have to let a good man go."
My job expanded from covering banking and insurance to include investment, white collar crime and part of the courts beat. Of the 14 companies the Register's gutted business team covered on a regular basis, I was responsible for 11 of them. The team had seven people, but many were relative newcomers and/or possessed little business knowledge.
By the time I fell ill, I was doing the work of three or four people and begging my editors to reduce the unsustainable workload. Their response was always the same: "You can handle it."
Why didn't I just cut back on my own?
Because I was raised to whoop ass on the competition. To beat the staffers of The New York Times and The Associated Press to big stories. Not to follow along in their wake with a servile smile on my face and a ready excuse for getting beaten on my lips.
A good reporter is a lot like a bloodhound in the sense that both will run themselves to death when they've got the scent. That's why there's always a handler.
When those handlers were replaced by second-string opportunists it put the best of us in jeopardy.
The 50 hour weeks I worked in 2012 grew into 60 hours in 2013 and 70 hours in 2014, as my beat was steadily expanded against my wishes. When I took top business honors at the regional and national level in 2014 I was rated a three on a scale of 1 to 5, mostly because I was still claiming a fraction of my OT.
Finney took the opposite approach, recognizing that the era of courageous, principled journalism was over. He gave up on being a stand-up guy, breaking news first, making ethical stands, and shamelessly fawned over a clueless new editor-in-chief named Amalie Nash.
It worked for him.
Nash (right), who was widely despised by the Register's journalism lifers, needed a friend. Finney was willing to be that friend. She rewarded him with his column during the same October 2014 reorganization in which I was kicked to the curb.
Finney reveled in his good fortune later that day, gloating about the price I had paid for adhering to the same old-school personal values and journalism ethics he was abandoning. I haven't spoken to him since, although I'm communicating with him and his new friends right now in a manner of speaking.
A subsequent investigation into overtime abuses at The Register by the U.S. Department of Labor found that more than 30 newsroom staffers were screwed out of more than $200,000 in unpaid wages from 2012 to 2014.
Most Register employees were forced to reapply for their jobs during the October 2014 reorganization. It occurred at a time when I was on short-term disability, heavily medicated, fighting for my life, and could barely walk.
Afterward, I learned the Register never had any intention of rehiring me. They pressured me to reapply strictly to get me off their payroll in an underhanded way that reduced their exposure to litigation.
That's who The Register is now.
An Oct. 10, 2014, email between Nash (right) and HR specialist Dotti Klootwyk (left) still makes my blood boil. It occurred before I tottered into the office to reapply for a job which had netted me three national awards in three years and four regional awards.
Klootwyk: “We need to be strategic with Victor however. If we don’t fill the two positions he applied for and he gets a qualifying score it could get touchy.”
Nash: “Thanks. I’m not worried about dealing with him. Certainly understand the trickiness – at the same time, obviously need to do what’s best for us.”
The rise of this profits-over-people crowd is part of the reason today’s anti-Apple column took me by surprise. There was certainly nothing for the new Gannett to gain financially by aggravating Apple, which spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on advertising.
Not unless they were investing in the paper's long-term reputation as a servant of the people of Iowa. A role they've all but abandoned.
So, I was ridiculously pleased by today's column and its potential implications. I was also wrong.
The Register didn’t suddenly grow a commitment to painful truths after producing a series of blowjob stories on the Apple deal, with headlines like:
“Apple data center deal can bring good things to Iowa”
“What economic benefits come with data centers”
"Apple's billion-dollar data center 'puts Iowa on world stage,"
“Apple deal is a win-win for Iowa”
“Apple puts faith in Waukee"
"Apple CEO Tim Cook for president? Here's what he says"
They were simply responding to a courageous column Michael Hiltzik (left) ran a week ago in The Los Angeles Times. It’s one of a handful of U.S. newspapers which still think public service journalism has value.
The Hiltzik column is called “Apple breaks new ground in squeezing locals for huge tax breaks while offering almost no jobs.”
The article's very existence is a standing indictment of Gannett's unwillingness and inability to serve the communities in which it operates. The Register's embarrassed management team responded by doing what they do best - covering their asses by pretending to be a real newspaper for a day.
Come to find out, most of the information in Finney’s "courageous" column originally appeared in Hiltzik's column. He'd got good taste in cribbing targets, given that Hiltzik is a Pulitzer Prize winner.
That my friends is the current state of journalism at the Des Moines Register. A legendary newspaper which once delivered painful truths to roughly 400,000 Iowa homes every Sunday and now provides propaganda to about 60,000 subscribers a day. If you believe their own numbers, which I do not.
What’s the moral of the story?
I don’t know what it is for you, but I can’t stop wondering how friggin good Finney would be right now if he worked with proper journalists. As Hiltzik does.
Sadly, we may never know. Because he works for scoundrels.