By Jon Cassidy | Ohio Watchdog
During his two and a half years as president of The Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions, Matt A. Mayer oversaw 10 major reports on issues and a poll, all of which were shared with local newspapers.
Not one of the six major newspapers in Ohio published an article about any of them, Mayer said. As he sees it, he went 0-for-66.
The state Legislature paid attention; several of the proposals became law.
But the Akron Beacon Journal, Cincinnati Enquirer, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Columbus Dispatch, Dayton Daily News, and Toledo Blade didn’t find any of the conservative think tank’s research worth reporting on, he said, not even a state worker salary database put out in the midst of a massive, months-long debate over public employee compensation and collective bargaining.
“I thought for sure we’d get coverage. These are controversial issues,” Mayer said. “After the second or third report was ignored, and I could see groups on the left producing reports and getting coverage, I started wondering, ‘What the heck is going on?’”
Carl Weiser, public affairs editor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, disputed Mayer’s contention Monday.
“I can’t speak for the other papers, but we actually use their work and call them frequently,” Weiser wrote in an email. “Our archives show dozens of cases in which we have cited Buckeye research or experts. Matt Mayer himself has been frequently quoted on the topics of the reports, including pensions and police/fire retirees.”
Bruce Winges, editor of the Akron Beacon Journal, also disagreed with Mayer.
“A review of our records through our internal library system shows that the Buckeye Institute has been mentioned 126 times in the Akron Beacon Journal,” Winges wrote in an email.
Mayer’s latest example: on Thursday, the Buckeye Institute released a new report, and Opportunity Ohio released a poll on the Senate race, the governor’s approval rating, and his proposed energy severance tax, among other issues. Neither got local coverage, even as the poll caught the interest of the New York Times.
Mayer, who’s now the president of Opportunity Ohio and a visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation, discusses local media bias, among other topics, in his new book, “Taxpayers Don’t Stand A Chance: Why Battleground Ohio Loses No Matter Who Wins (And What To Do About It).”
In an interview, he said that the typical response whenever he’d follow up with a reporter was, “We have lots of work, lots of other things to get done.”
Those other things included writing about reports from left and center-left organizations such as Policy Matters Ohio, Innovation Ohio, the Greater Ohio Policy Center, and the Brookings Institution, he said.
Particularly galling, Mayer said, is that “Innovation Ohio was set up by (former Gov. Ted) Strickland. One of the things he was going to do is set up a think tank on the left to counter The Buckeye Institute. Their first report, they issue a report on teacher pay and it was completely wrong. It said teachers got large pay cuts in 2008 and 2009. Three papers wrote about it uncritically. I put something out within 24 hours, and there was not a single bit of coverage of my retort.”
“Not only does it show bias, but it’s influencing the debate,” he said. “The idea that collective bargaining agreements, in pre-recession 2008, would contain pay cuts – they might take a freeze, but a cut? Are you serious, people?”
Mayer’s book explains how complicated teacher contracts allow administrators to claim wages are frozen, even as they steadily increase.
When he came to the Buckeye Institute in 2009, Mayer wasn’t expecting trouble with the press. He’d had a favorable experience with national newspapers while he was at the Department of Homeland Security or with the Colorado press during a campaign there.
“I think, generally speaking, the role of the think tank is to help shape the debate on the critical issues facing the state,” he said. “The expectation with the media is we’ll report on critical issues, and they’ll cover them.”
The work he’s proudest of includes:
- The Grand Bargain is Dead: The Compensation of State Government Workers Far Exceeds their Private-Sector Neighbors
- Dipped in Gold: Upper-Management Police and Fire Retirees Become Public-Service Millionaires
- Joining Forces: Consolidation Will Help Ohio’s Local Governments If Compensation Costs Are Properly Managed
- Smart on Crime: With Prison Costs on the Rise, Ohio Needs Better Policies for Protecting the Public
- Hanging by a Thread: Big Payouts and Promises Leave Ohio Pension Plans on the Brink of Collapse – or a Massive Bailout.
Many of the recommendations in “Smart on Crime” were adopted by the Legislature. But Mayer said he was baffled by the media’s unwillingness to cover public sector salaries in the midst of all the turmoil surrounding Senate Bill 5, which restricted collective bargaining in the public sector.
“The big report that we did on compensation of government workers was called ‘The Grand Bargain is Dead,’ which found government workers make 28 percent more than their private sector peers,” he said.
The report was accompanied by data tools on the web site, which have had more than 7 million searches.
“We had separate salary and pension databases, for K-12 public schools, universities, state and local. Going back to 2004, we had all the data for every worker,” Mayer said. “We had their highest salary and their estimated retirement.
“We had to do a lot of Freedom of Information requests, then we had to get the data cleaned up. We built a retirement comparison tool, a job classification tool, where you can compare, ‘I’m an accountant – what does a state government accountant make? I’m a janitor – what does a state government janitor make?”
Despite the popularity and obvious importance of the databases, the Dayton Daily News was the only newspaper to do a story on them, Mayer said.
“We had no coverage of it leading up to the vote” to repeal Senate Bill 5, he said. If more people had seen the numbers, “I guarantee the vote would’ve been far different. We’re dealing with a 30-year narrative that government workers are underpaid. If people actually saw the data…”
The data can be seen on the homepage of the Buckeye Institute.