Recently, I spoke at a conference. Another speaker, a libertarian, whipped up the crowd with stories of government outrages. Government, he asserted in example after example, was the cause of most of our problems.
I know from experience covering ethnic wars in Yugoslavia and Central Africa the impact that emotion-driven anecdotes can have in leading people to broad and often unjustified conclusions that can trigger dangerous outcomes.
And in this case, some of the government excesses and outrages didn't sound right to me.
One in particular intrigued me. He cited a case where lifeguards in Newport Beach, California, were being paid so much that some retired with pensions around $150,000 or higher. The speaker then mentioned that he'd sure like to be paid huge sums to sit around and ogle bathing beauties - -a line that got big laughs.
But how true is this? And if true, how representative?
If you do a search on "lifeguard pensions," you get a bunch of articles from the new "conservative media" that are becoming powerful players on the Internet. The top hit came from the site Calwatchdog.com and another from TownHall.com and from biggovernment.com. These, in turn, have created fodder for right-wing radio -- and for public speakers like the fellow I heard.
CalWatchdog, one of a series of similarly named, conservative-funded entities scattered around the country that purport to represent a new kind of journalism, basically just took a piece from the Los Angeles Times and then used it to write an opinion piece that confirmed its readers' biases without actually doing any kind of research or good thinking.
CalWatchdog's masthead has three names, one of whom is the author of a book called "Plunder! How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation." A second was on the staff of Vice President Dan Quayle. The third, the one who wrote the lifeguard "piece," is described as CalWatchdog's "news reporter."
She didn't add much actual reporting to what the Los Angeles Times reported, but the ideological framing is typified by this lead:
"With the recent discovery that many Southern California lifeguards receive the same fat pensions as other 'public safety' officers and fire fighters, the public outcry at the absurdity is apparently paying off."
"The justification for the 'public safety' pension for lifeguards is that they perform an important job.- Advertisement -
"I was a lifeguard many years ago. It was a cool job and I was grateful for the slightly-better-than-minimum-wage pay I received.
"Lifeguards are well trained in first-aid, life-saving courses and CPR. Lifeguards are strong swimmers, and usually quite fit.
"But what few lifeguards will admit is that they are also glorified babysitters. Whether working at a swimming pool or a beach, lifeguards are often mediators and babysitters for inattentive parents.