Selling Indiana: Update

This past weekend, the LA Times and the Northwest Indiana Times both had stories about Mitch Daniel’s privatization initiatives.

The Northwest Indiana article reported on the impending default of the private operator of the Indiana Toll Road. While a default would probably not cost Indiana taxpayers–the private operator paid us in advance–it might well cost us what little control we retained over the Toll Road, and depending upon how the default played out, might require some legal fees.

The LA Times article, on the other hand, was the sort of in-depth reporting that has become all too rare nationally, and virtually non-existent here in Indianapolis.  It traced the disaster that was Indiana’s effort to contract out welfare intake, and it is well worth reading in its entirety. High points include a description of ACS ties to Indiana political figures and “movers and shakers”–especially Stephen Goldsmith, Mitch Roob and the Barnes Thornburgh law firm–together with a list of associated campaign contributions, and several examples of the harm done to vulnerable elderly and disabled people who depended on the program.

The Star did do several stories early on, when the failures of IBM and ACS were at their most glaring, and again when Daniels admitted defeat and pulled IBM’s (but not ACS’) contract. And it ran a story when IBM sued the state. But there was no effort to “connect the dots” and nothing even close to the comprehensive investigation provided by the LA Times.

That lack of a full picture matters, because without it, reporters fail to recognize the context within which we must understand related information.

A couple of weeks ago, the Daniels Administration announced that it had received an award from the federal government for cutting the food stamp program’s negative error rate–how often cases are incorrectly closed or denied. The Administration bragged that Indiana’s error rate was below the national average.  The Star dutifully reported the (accurate) claim. What didn’t get reported was the fact that from 2001 to 2007–prior to welfare privatization–Indiana’s error rate had also been below the national average, but in 2008, one year after IBM and ACS took over, the error rate had more than doubled, to 13%.  It was the largest increase in the country, and the celebrated “improvement” was measured from that high point.

Context matters. So does journalism.