by DON LOVING
75 Communications Director
Two articles about Oregon
PERS published June 19 reveal the stark differences in reporting on the state's
Public Employee Retirement System as practiced by the Oregonian and the Salem Statesman Journal.
The genesis for both
articles was the release of the latest Pew Center report on public pension plans nationwide. The link in that last sentence takes you
to the Pew Center website and a summary and highlights of the report; if you
want to read the report in its entirety, it is attached to this article in PDF
format. But here are the report's three key findings:
- Oregon currently ranks eighth in the nation in
terms of the funded status of its pension plan, up three spots from No. 11
- Pension experts say a funded status greater than
80 percent is a sign of a healthy pension plan.
- Oregon PERS' current funded status stands at 87
"This is something that
Oregon policymakers certainly need to keep an eye on, but they are not facing
the same challenges or showing the same level of irresponsibility as places
like Illinois," said Pew researcher David Draine. The Illinois system is only
funded at 45 percent today.
The bottom line is that a
national study group issued an objective report that says, "Hey, Oregon is well
over the 80 percent threshold, and while you need to be watchful, all things
considered, Oregon PERS is doing well."
Jump now to the two
newspaper articles. You need only to read the respective stories' headlines to
know where each article is going (though we encourage you to use the links and
decide for yourself). The missive by Oregonian reporter Ted Sickinger is titled "PERS: Unfunded liability of pension funds tightens
its grip around Oregon." The Statesman
Journal article, authored by state
government reporter Dennis Thompson, comes with the headline "Oregon PERS among nation's healthiest pension
One quick "inside journalism"
aside: reporters do not write the headlines for their stories, copy editors do.
Sometimes that leads to stories sporting headlines that do not match the
intention or intended tenor of the writer. But that was not the case on June 19; both headlines suited their
respective stories perfectly.
In the Oregonian article, Sickinger spends several hundred words
outlining problems specific to the Forest Grove School District, then launches
into an analysis of why the statewide numbers are worse than they appear.
Finally, in paragraph No. 23, Sickinger alludes to the Pew report, noting
"Oregon's pension fund is actually in better shape than many." But he
specifically leaves out the fact that pension experts consider 80 percent
funding healthy and that Oregon's funding rate is 87 percent.
In contrast, Thompson's Statesman
Journal article notes in the lead
paragraph that Oregon PERS "continues to rank among the best-funded public
pension plans in the U.S."
Why the disparity between
the two articles?
"It's my belief that Ted
Sickinger has little to no credibility left on the subject of PERS," says PERS
Coalition attorney Greg Hartman, a Sickinger interviewee many times over recent
years. "He has long ago left any objectivity behind, instead choosing to trumpet
the newspaper's editorial page party line within his news articles. This most
recent example just further demonstrates that."
Things aren't likely to
change anytime soon. Longtime Oregonian editorial page editor Bob Caldwell, who generally speaking was fairly
moderate, died in March. The paper recently announced Caldwell's replacement is
Eric Lukens, until this month the editorial page editor of the Bend Bulletin. Under Lukens' direction, the Bulletin's editorial page frequently targeted PERS and public
"I just think it's
unfortunate that the Oregonian is
not making a distinction between its news articles and its editorial position
when it comes to PERS," says Hartman.