In their news reports — if not on their editorial pages — newspapers are expected to be objective and impartial. That means providing different viewpoints on controversial issues. The Pasadena Star-News failed that basic test of fairness in its recent article, “When Pasadena’s minimum wage jumps in July, expect prices to rise, businesses say,” published on Monday, Feb. 6. The story was so one-sided that it could have been a press release from the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce.
Many studies have found that the key to detecting whether a news story is biased is to look at the sources that reporters use. The studies discovered that reporters aren’t always evenhanded when it comes to gathering information. When that occurs, their stories reflect a “source bias” in favor of one side or another of an issue. If reporters only talk to, or quote, Republicans about an election, or only rely on National Rifle Association members when writing about gun control, or give disproportionate space to bankers and their lobbyists in stories about racial discrimination in mortgage lending, the result is biased news.
The Star-News article about the impact of the next increase in the local minimum wage was a classic example of journalistic “source bias.”
Last March, after more than a year of spirited public debate, the Pasadena City Council adopted a municipal minimum wage law. On July 1, the city’s minimum wage was set at $10.50 an hour, 50 cents higher than the new statewide law, for employees with 26 or more employees. That figure kicks in for employers with fewer than 26 employees this July 1. Also on July 1, the minimum wage will increased to $12 an hour for employers with 26 or more employees. Subsequent hikes are scheduled to boost the local minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2020.
Before the City Council adopted the new law, the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce led the effort against it. Among local businesses, the restaurant industry was the strongest opponent. Some businesses supported the minimum wage on both moral grounds that nobody who works full time should live in poverty and on economic grounds that putting more money in the pockets of Pasadena workers will help the local economy. A coalition of clergy, nonprofit organizations, civic and community groups, unions and enlightened businesses led the campaign for the law, as similar efforts were underway in Los Angeles and other cities in the region. In the middle of the public debate, a scientific poll found that 74 percent of Pasadena residents supported a $15 minimum wage.
But a reader of the Star-News article — published almost a year after the city passed the minimum wage law and seven months after it went into effect — would have no idea that the vast majority of Pasadenans embrace the policy.
The story quoted six sources, five of whom were businesspersons who oppose the minimum wage. These include Bob Smith (co-owner of four high-end restaurants in the city — Arroyo Chop House, Smitty’s Grill, Parkway Grill and SECO), Angela Noh (manager of the Takumi Sushi and Cafe restaurant), Jason Lyman (manager of Samy’s Camera), Paul Little (a former City Council member who is now the president and CEO of the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce), and the California Restaurant Association (the industry lobby group that issued a statement against the wage hike).
Predictably, they all had bad things to say about the upcoming minimum wage increase. They warned that the pay increases would result in higher consumer prices and/or force local businesses to hire fewer employees.
In the Star-News’ 955-word story, the only person quoted in the story with a positive view of the city’s new law was Mayor Terry Tornek.
“We feel there are a whole series of moral, social equity and economic reasons that made this compelling,” the mayor said. “People who are working full time should not be living in abject poverty.” The story also quoted Tornek explaining why the wage increase will have a positive impact on workers and on the entire city. “People will have more disposable income and many will be spending it locally,” he said. “And now that the city of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County have adopted their minimum wage ordinances, this will allow businesses here to remain competitive for the best workers. We want to remain competitive. But frankly, most of us have concluded that there is no way to justify a circumstance where people work 40 hours a week and try to support a family on $20,000 a year.”
Completely missing in the Star-News story was the voice of the people for whom the new law was intended to have the most direct impact: low-wage workers. Once the city’s minimum wage rises to $12 on July 1, thousands of workers will see a significant increase in their paychecks. To wealthy Pasadenans, a $12 an hour wage — which is equal to $480 a week and $24,960 for full-time, year-round workers — may not seem like a lot of money. In fact, it is barely above the poverty line. Even so, that additional pay could mean a lot for families trying to provide nutritional meals, afford to rent an apartment and buy school clothes for the children.
This is lazy journalism. The reporter got the easy quotes, but didn’t do the legwork needed to give readers a full picture of how the minimum wage is impacting our city.
It wouldn’t have been difficult to find low-wage workers to interview. They work in local restaurants and hotels, at Huntington Hospital, in retail stores, and elsewhere. They show up daily at the Community Job Center to look for work and job training.
The Star-News gave the most space to Bob Smith. During the debate over the minimum wage, he and his brother Gregg were the most aggressive opponents of adopting the law. They organized meetings of restaurant owners to lobby the mayor and City Council members. They showed up at City Council meetings. Gregg donated $5,000 to mayoral candidate Bill Thomson, the only candidate who publicly opposed adopting a local minimum wage. Gregg also gave $1,000 to mayoral candidate Don Morgan, who in a Feb. 4, 2015 email to Smith told him that, if elected, he’d be against the minimum wage, even though he publicly said he was for it.
In the Star-News story, the reporter permitted Bob Smith to whine about the new law without verifying his facts. Smith unwittingly acknowledged that as an employer, he and his brother are real cheapskates. He said that out of “several hundred” employees, he pays the bare-bones minimum wage to “50 to 60 percent” of them. The new wage hike will cost him and his brother an additional $30,000 a month, he told the reporter.
“There is no way we can deal with all of that,” he’s quoted as saying. He said that he’d have to hike prices and trim staffing.
The reporter simply took Bob at face value, without asking him to actually prove his assertions. What is his overall payroll for his four expensive restaurants? What proportion of his operating expenses involves labor costs? How much profit does he make? Why do they charge an outrageous $23 for a hamburger and an overpriced $58 for a porterhouse steak at the Arroyo Chop House?
The wage increase will definitely improve the lives of the waiters, cooks, and dishwashers in the Smith brothers’ restaurants. The reporter, however, couldn’t be bothered to talk with any of Smith’s employees, or any other low-wage workers, to find out how the increase to $10.50 changed their lives and what they think about the next increase to $12.
Nor did the Star-News reporter bother to talk to any experts who have actually looked into the impact of local minimum wage laws on prices and employment.
He might have called Professor Michael Reich, an economics professor at UC Berkeley, who has done the most careful study of effects of the minimum wage on local businesses, including restaurants. Reich, who spoke at a Pasadena City Council hearing in 2015 during the debate over the minimum wage, found that restaurant operating costs will increase by just 8 percent. Pasadena is a regional visitor destination with many restaurants serving affluent customers. So even if every restaurant passed on that increase to diners, it would mean a small increase in actual menu prices. And it certainly won’t make Pasadena less attractive to people who want a nice meal out.
The wage hike isn’t likely to put much of a crimp in the Smith brothers’ lifestyle. Gregg lives in a 3,133 square foot house with a pool on Chateau Road in Pasadena worth $2.18 million, according to Zillow. Bob owns an eight-passenger seat Cessna 421b plane which is worth between $150,000 and $300,000. It is unlikely that the wage hike will make it harder for Gregg to fill up the pool with water or Bob to fill up his Cessna with fuel because they have to pay dishwashers an extra $1.50 an hour.
Peter Dreier, a Pasadena resident, is professor of politics at Occidental College and author of “The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame” (Nation Books).