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Full Statement from Jeffrey Finkle

Full Statement from Jeffrey Finkle

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Published by: NPRombudsman on Jun 23, 2011
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06/25/2011

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Initial Letter from Jeffrey Finkle: I always thought that NPR was both fair and balanced and

would not go off on some preconceived notions of what economic development was or how it worked. That was not my experience in our most recent interaction for your piece on ³How to Create a Job.´ I hope that most of the folks that have participated in your prior stories don¶t feel as terrible about their participation as I do after listening to this segment. I have worked with reporters, both national and local, for my entire career and I have never felt that a story was so one-sided.

Adam, when you called me in December, you represented yourself as part of the ³Planet Money´ team from NPR and said that you were going to do a series on economic development. You even added to your credentials that you often consult economic developers on stories that you are working on as you travel. Frankly, I was excited about the opportunity. Here we were in a major recession, when our members have been working their hardest to get very few wins and to preserve jobs in their communities.

Our members work in all parts of the country and in all aspects of economic development. They work against incredible odds in what has been a terrible economy. They are trying to use some fairly miserly tools to retain and create jobs in competition with countries like China, which are using significant resources to support certain industries or supporting state-owned enterprises. Economic developers in the U.S. are working to retain businesses against media messages that low labor rates and large incentives are what they should expect in their desired location.

I am not sure when you decided to take your series and convert it to a ³This American Life´ story. I think we should have taken a pass once it became clear it was no longer a news series, but rather the sarcastic view of the world seen through the lens of ³This American Life.´ This week¶s episode on ³Infidelity´ following our story on ³How to Create

a Job´ says reams about the storytelling of ³This American Life.´ You cannot call it journalism - it is storytelling, and to let people believe differently is wholly inappropriate. As you know, I tried very hard to make sure you got timely information and access to our members, and I engaged many members to assist you in your so-called ³series.´ I trusted you to give a fair and balanced view of what our members do to create, retain and expand jobs in their communities. They gave you significant time and thoughtfulness. I do not think anyone anticipated that NPR would make fun of them. To have the piece come out in the form of a cynical view of attraction-focused economic development in ³This American Life´ on Friday the 13th was very disappointing (and probably appropriate, considering the date of the release). What the story failed to do is demonstrate to anyone the passion, sensitivity and commitment that our members demonstrate each and every day as they work to improve business conditions and opportunities for employers and potential employees. Nothing could be more demonstrative of that than when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and we called for volunteers to assist hard-hit communities; around 200 economic developers from around the country gave up annual leave and their time to go to the Gulf Coast and assist in the redevelopment of the region. Did you talk about the numerous economic development volunteers who went down to assist Gulf Coast communities dealing with the effects of the BP oil spill after the Deepwater Horizon Rig exploded and released 4.9 million barrels of crude oil, significantly damaging the environment and economic prospects for many in the region? Do you not think that the economic development professional in Saginaw, Michigan is working very hard, every day, trying to convince businesses to stay invested in Saginaw or bring investment to Saginaw? Did you ask her if she could demonstrate success? Each and every one of our members has to justify their existence each and every day, yet listeners could not tell it by your story. After listening to the program, I spent several days thinking about your story and talking to people that you interviewed. Adam, they believe, to a person, that you came to our

event with a preconception and nothing that they said could convince you otherwise. Is that fair reporting? I did not expect you to say that economic developers do everything perfectly, but balance was clearly missing from your story. As you know, a columnist/reporter in St. Louis said, ³The show's producers also dissect the pathological lies permeating an International Economic Development Council convention -- a venue where local economic development officers pretend to believe they represent towns, cities and counties untouched by recession and out-of-control unemployment.´ That is how others are viewing your story. You say you can¶t help how others represent your story, yet this is indicative of how one-sided and out of balance the segment was. By the simplistic way you represented our profession, I do not know why you would bother visiting with us, because the story appeared to be a mocking portrayal of a bunch of people who work with smoke and mirrors to produce nothing. It is in some ways a misrepresentation of ideas that were discussed with you during the interviews, taken out of context to fit a premeditated agenda. I appreciate your reference that if the economy improves, all boats float, but you did nothing to acknowledge that economic developers are making jobs that would not otherwise exist through their use of capital financing tools, mentorship programs, incubation, venture capital support, tech transfer and commercialization efforts, etc. Yes, the issue of attraction-focused economic development can be interesting to discuss. But, as I also noted, this is a small part of economic development. A far larger segment works with businesses that exist in their communities to help them grow and keep them from moving away. Approximately 70% of all new jobs come from existing businesses, a fact that economic developers realize and work accordingly to preserve the businesses and jobs in their communities. There is no mention of this in the entire program. Where are the major national case studies that we talked about? You were in San Diego and I told you about the work of Kurt Chilcott, a past chair of our organization and the president and CEO of CDC Small Business Finance. They are the largest originator

of SBA 504 loans in the country. They have won national distinction for many years as an economic development leader. We visited about the Ben Franklin Partnership Program in Pennsylvania and the Edison Program in Ohio and how these organizations are supporting the manufacturing base in those two states. Here again, they are award-winning programs but were not mentioned. We talked about the RFID incubator in Dayton and how they were trying to create some new targets after the demise of the Moraine Plant and NCR. While small in comparison to the job losses they have experienced, this program is certainly an economic development initiative worth watching. We also talked about the large bond issue in Ohio that funded the Third Frontier program. While I understand the skepticism about the job projections that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was making, the investments that Ohio is making through the Third Frontier program will make real and new jobs. If you had wanted to be fair and balanced you would have discussed a program like this. There is also the segment of economic development that supports entrepreneurship development to help build a stronger, homegrown business base. You can mock that too, but Hewlett and Packard were real people who grew a business out of their garage in the Silicon Valley. Proctor and Gamble were real people who created a business in Cincinnati. Research indicates that two-thirds of new job growth comes from firms between one and five years old. So if the economic development profession can assist in accelerating the next generation of firms, we know that these firms are more likely to stay put in the place that helped nurture them. Several of our members recently supported a new report to help economic development organizations understand the importance and steps that they can take to assist new and emerging firms. You also wanted to know about the national impact of economic development activities. We spent time talking about who pays the lion¶s share of economic development and we said that it was local and state governments that were paying the freight. Yes, national job growth does occur by some of what our members do, but the federal

government is a small contributor to economic development programming. As we discussed, economic developers for the most part are trying to recruit, retain and expand jobs in their particular region or community. Their pay, their strategy and their accountability is to their local area. If it were a national mission, their pay, strategy and accountability would be different. No matter how I said this to you, you seemed to expect economic developers to have a bottom-line impact on the nation¶s economic condition ± neither a fair nor realistic expectation. If you wanted to mock someone, why not pick a company that moved their operations out of the United States and then had to have a major recall because a supplier provided them with toxic substances for toys? Or a company that moved to China and lost their intellectual property to a supplier who now competes with them? Or a company that moved their call center jobs to India and have nothing but complaints from their customers because of the language and cultural differences? In economic development, we are trying to make it more attractive for companies to invest or to stay invested in the United States. This is a very tough job when the current managers of many global companies often think that their company will be better off moving jobs to another place, especially when another country is doing everything they can to attract those jobs. Economic developers are competing against that every day. When you asked what I would suggest as a centerpiece or focus of the story, I told you about JumpStart Inc. in Cleveland. You discounted them because they only have a record of creating 400 jobs so far, when you could have taken the view that in an area of the country that has been bleeding jobs for a long time, an organized effort to build a new economic base is significant. I even noted last Tuesday that it might not be a lot today, but if it is 4,000 in a few years, then the investment pays off. You also asked during our conversation last week if I could quantify the number of jobs economic developers created or retained last year. It¶s a good question, but it is as unrealistic as trying to quantify the number of articles filed by reporters last year, the number of lives saved by paramedics or the number of lectures by physics professors. But can the physics department of Ohio University determine how many lectures were

given by its professors? Can Tim Chase tell how many jobs were recruited, retained or grown in Wichita Falls? Do some people do metrics better than others? In these cases, the answer is yes. I feel even more hurt by the piece as I rolled out the red carpet for you guys. It is as if I held a dinner party, invited you as guests, told everyone how important you were and then had you insult all of my guests. How do you balance the term ³collegial pick pockets?´ Where is the balance to the comments of Walter Sprouse or Janet Miller or even the reference to the Greater Houston Partnership?

Some of the comments that I have received regarding your story telling have included: y y ³If you are happy with this, I will be amazed«.´ ³Not even a veil of balance, just their own version of gypsies, tramps and thieves. They obviously had a stereotype in mind, found what they needed, and helped to validate my opinion of NPR in the process.´ y y ³I was flattered not to be included in the segment. We got punked real good.´ ³I'm just grateful I wasn't one of the ones quoted. This alleged news team was obviously slanted and came into the event with their own agenda.´ y ³I'm sure everyone, including your staff, was blindsided by their final product. I'm guessing they won't be welcomed at future IEDC events.´ y ³These people obviously had a preconceived outcome in mind as they were doing this. That they only selected examples of companies that have relocated instead of new locations is totally indicative of their ³zero sum´ approach.´

There is an old adage in politics that you do not pick a fight with someone that buys ink by the barrel. That means you do not want to get in a fight with the local publisher of the newspaper. That being said, I am not interested in making this into a debate. I am interested in fairness and balance and this is my attempt to go on the record in saying

that was not found in the recent program. I hope that if we ever get a call from NPR again, we can count on a different and fairer outcome. And I want to know how NPR is going to offset the negative images you created of economic developers based on this story. In a phrase, ³how do we get our reputation back´?

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