Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Clever titles are not arguments

Posted by Craig Westover | 2:19 PM |  

Sometimes my hometown paper does some great things; sometimes it doesn't. An example of the latter is the editorial today ("Where's there's smoke there's no backbone") on the failure of the statewide smoking ban bill in the House.

Let’s put aside that once again a smoking ban editorial is written without one mention of the individual rights issue. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. It was not only brought up, but emphasized in every House and Senate hearing held on the smoking ban thus far. One can only surmise that the Pioneer Press ignores the issue because it cannot argue it, let alone refute it.

Individual rights is what the editorial did not address; what it did address is internally illogical and violates some of the paper’s own journalistic standards. It also shows the short-comings of researching editorials only by reading the paper.

Let’s start with the declaration that the the vote to kill the smoking ban by the House Commerce and Financial Institutions Committee was “chicken-hearted.” Later in the editorial it is said --
Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said he would sign legislation to extend smoke-free workplace law to restaurants and bars. The momentum is with proponents. The blanket argument that bans would hurt business in eating and drinking establishments has been disproved in enlightened states that have such bans. Reducing the harmful effects of smoke is a health care cost issue at a time when runaway increases for the sorts of serious illnesses that smoking can cause are driving up the cost of insurance. Clearing the air saves lives and money.
So if everyone wants this, why is it “chicken hearted” to vote against it? Perhaps, just perhaps, with all the world screaming at you, it takes a little courage to stand up for an unpopular cause that nonetheless represents a fundamental right that shouldn’t be taken away because some writers feel . . .
it is past time for all Minnesotans to enjoy going out to eat without having to plot and plan for a destination that has no blue haze wafting from the smoking section.
As for journalistic principle, look again at this statement --
The blanket argument that bans would hurt business in eating and drinking establishments has been disproved in enlightened states that have such bans.
Where is the attribution for that statement? Journalists are suppose to back up their premises with information the ordinary reader can understand as a source -- either neutral or with a point of view on an issue. Making broad assertions without backup that a reader can see, opens a piece to credibility problems that weaken an argument.

Had there been a source cited, it would contain aggregate data showing no reduction in state tax revenue from the hospitality industry following a smoking ban. It would not have shown the affect of smoking bans on some individual businesses. Even the sponsor of the smoking ban bill, Rep. Doug Meslow, acknowledged in a hearing that some bars and restaurants would lose business following a smoking ban (although he stated that he felt that community health concerns overrode the property rights issue).

Finally the editorial makes the assertion that
as a matter of equity, the same rules should apply whether a restaurant is in Hibbing or Hastings. It's in the public interest for proponents to find a way to advance the statewide smoking ban this year.
Again, in the House and Senate hearings, but unreported in the paper, several greater Minnesota legislators expressed concerns that a smoking ban in their districts would put local establishments in an unfair competitive position with tribal casino operations; some had concerns about activities on border rivers; some had concerns about border towns; others were concerned about small populations with a high percentage of smokers.

In short, many greater Minnesota legislators had reservations about applying a statewide ban based on metropolitan ordinances that were never designed to meet the needs of a rual area.

The smoking ban bill will come up again. Some legislation just refuses to die. Let’s hope that when it does, my hometown paper will be ready to engage in debate and not simply rhetorically stamp its feet at the inconvenience of having to plan a night out.