McFeely: TV station's sweeps effort not based on facts

This began as an attempt at eviscerating the ethically bankrupt management at Valley News Live over its inflammatory series of "stories" last week demonizing refugees who've resettled in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Then it dawned on me: General Mana...
Fargo police talk with Nik Severson, middle, outside the Red River Women’s Clinic in downtown Fargo on Sunday, Oct. 25, 2015. Rick Abbott / The Forum

This began as an attempt at eviscerating the ethically bankrupt management at Valley News Live over its inflammatory series of "stories" last week demonizing refugees who've resettled in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Then it dawned on me: General Manager Jim Wareham, News Director Ike Walker and their marionette, Chris Berg, are not worth the effort it takes to formulate and write an entire column.

A good portion of a column, perhaps, but not an entire one.

First off, let's call it what it was: A ratings ploy during TV sweeps. Wareham and Walker are nothing if not conniving and they know bullying New Americans and Lutheran Social Services will lure the knuckle-draggers out from under their rocks. It's just good business to be incendiary and divisive. It's all about more viewers, more web page clicks, more unmoderated racially charged Facebook comments. If it works for Fox News, it'll play here.

Related: LSS head seeks to bust myths about refugee resettlement

Wareham, Walker and their slithering defenders will dismiss these words as nothing more than the rantings of somebody employed by a competitor. I work for The Forum and 970 WDAY radio, companies under the same Forum Communications umbrella as WDAY-TV (which has also been doing obvious sweeps stories, though not of the flame-throwing variety). It'll be their easy way out. Instead of defending indefensible work, they'll play the victim.

So be it. Their idea, it seems, was to compile uninformed opinions in order to drive a narrative that, for example, refugee children were affecting schools negatively (which 47 percent of respondents believed, based on ... well ... nothing). Then a reporter could go to the local schools and ask officials what they thought of the results. VNL did this. Officials dismissed the opinions revealed by the poll as misguided, unfortunate or just plain inaccurate.

Earth-shattering, no?

It seemed to be so much time, energy and money expended to disparage members of our community who make up a fraction of the population and by all accounts don't commit any more crime and don't cause any more problems in school than any other group of people. It would seem a proper way to do journalism would be to find evidence of a problem or issue, backed up by facts, and then seek reaction or solutions.

But see, that's the problem. When evidence shows New Americans are just another group of people in our community, going to a job every day and trying to pay the bills like the rest of us, that's just not sexy. Reporting that won't get the rednecks to come out and play.

Here's a statistic for you, an actual fact, courtesy of Cass County Social Services: The vast majority of local people who need some sort of public assistance are either aged, disabled or the working poor. A study several years ago showed that figure to be as high as 90 percent, according to one person I talked with.

Another fact: An average of 5,377 households in the county receive SNAP (food stamp) benefits each month. That's a monthly average of 12,186 individuals. Social Services says of those 5,377 households, 790 are headed by New Americans. That equals 1,790 people. That means less than 15 percent of those receiving SNAP benefits each month in Cass County are New Americans.

Key distinction: New Americans by county definition means anybody who arrived here under one of the 400-plus immigration codes outlined by the Department of Homeland Security. "Refugees," the spicy term VNL used because it could link it to Lutheran Social Services, are but a fraction of New Americans. The vast majority of immigrants, Cass County Social Services says, are never eligible for public aid.

I have an entire sheet of these pesky figures, broken down by participants and dollar amounts, sitting right here in front of me as I type. The good folks at Cass County Social Services presented them to the county board last week. It's all public information, available to anybody. It took me one phone call and a couple of emails to get the information and some clarification when needed.

Here's what I see: An awful lot of families and individuals who need help, even though they are living in the middle of a strong local economy. I see a large enough number of people needing food stamps, heating assistance, child-care aid and a number of other programs to know that our biggest concern isn't New Americans, but the elderly, disabled and working poor who are surviving under the radar and out of our consciousness-even if they are in full view.

I had one person tell me our community would be shocked at the number of working poor-those who have a full-time job or two or more part-time jobs-who cannot make ends meet.

They are in many ways invisible to us. We deal with them every day when we eat at a restaurant or shop at a big store and don't realize that when they go home at the end of their shift, they can't afford to pay the rent or the heating bill or buy their kid a jacket. And the issue is only going to get bigger given the thousands of service-industry, low-wage jobs available in Fargo-Moorhead now and in the future.

How is that going to strain social services in five years or 10 years or 20 years?

Now that sounds like a story. Community service instead of community divisiveness. Maybe I'll pitch it to my editors. Hopefully they'll go for it, even if it isn't saucy enough to generate thousands of nasty Facebook comments.

Facts can be so boring.