Journalism in the Public Interest

An Exchange About California’s Redistricting Process

An exchange between ProPublica and the California Redistricting Commission.

In December 2011 we published a story about Democrats in Congress influencing the activities of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. Last month, we received an email from one of the commissioners regarding our story. Follow these links to read the exchange, which includes Commissioner Vincent Barabba's original email, our response and his subsequent correspondence.

“subsequent correspondence” link is broken.

I have read and appreciated all of ProPublica’s articles about redistricting, so it was disappointing to read your inadequate response to the points raised in the Commissioner’s letter.

On the issue of Doug Johnson, it’s strange that you concede that “he
is a fellow and not, as we originally wrote, a professor”, and yet continue to call him “Professor Doug Johnson” in the corrected article. Are you saying that he is a professor somewhere other than the Rose Institute? Is so, I couldn’t find any reference to it in a quick internet search, and his Rose Institute biography refers to him as “Mr. Johnson”.

The more important point, which you ignored, is that he is the president of a redistricting consulting company. It’s mind-boggling - and ironic - that you wouldn’t disclose that to your readers when much of the article is concerned with the secret influence of redistricting consultants!

As to your characterization of the commission, you claim that your goal was to show that the members were less “politically savvy” than professional political operatives. That’s exactly why it’s misleading to call a former city council member “a farmer”, or a former member of a city planning commission “an architect”. You clearly chose the most tendentious possible way of describing the members of the commission in order to exaggerate your point.

In my opinion, that approach characterizes the article as a whole. You had a reasonable, interesting case to make that the commission could have been influenced by partisan interests; but you pushed past the bounds of good journalism to make that case appear as spectacular as possible.

Sloppy work Pro Publica. This response letter is a completely smug, inadequate fail to address the failings of your article. I have now lost the level of trust I had for your quality reporting. This thing in my hand is the grain of salt I will read your articles with in the future. This was a politically motivated hit piece. But, if it makes you happy my Libertarian friends ate it up.

This is an incredibly half-hearted response. ProPublica not only buried the correction, but also posted the emails in a totally separate viewer program so that Google can’t crawl it like a webpage.

The shallowness of the entire response deserves to be read but the point by Kevin is a good representation of how ProPublica is ducking the criticism:

** From Original Pro Publica story:
“The result was a commission that included, among others, a farmer, a homemaker, asports doctor and an architect. Previous redistricting efforts had been executed by political pros with intimate knowledge of California’s sprawling political geography.”

** Response by Commissioner Barabba
What was left out: Before I get to the “others,” let’s look at the four who were mentioned and how they were described:
Why is there the implication that a “farmer” can’t listen and implement the will of fellow citizens? In this case, the “farmer” is also a lawyer who owns a successful bookstore in Sacramento and served as a city council member. Why suggest that a “homemaker” is limited to tasks associated with the home. In this case, the very capable homemaker, before joining the Commission, was a strategic planner and organizational consultant for non-profits in the San Joaquin Valley. The architect is also an educator and a former member of a city planning commission. The sports doctor also served as an intelligence officer in the United States Air Force.

To drive home their point that the Commission was not up to the task, the reporters not only belittled the background of the four commissioners but then chose not to describe the background and experience of the 10 others. Perhaps the reporters chose to omit the description because it would weaken their position. The commissioners who were not mentioned include: a former mayor, a city council member, a consultant to start-up enterprises, a law professor and legal scholar, a former executive director of the Earl Warren Institute at UC Berkeley’s School of Law, urban planners, business owners and a former director of the United States Census Bureau.

** Response by ProPublica:

Commissioner Barabba criticizes us for ridiculing the non-professionals on the commission. But we did nothing of the sort. Contrary to what Commissioner Barabba wrote, we did not suggest that farmers “can’t listen and implement the will of fellow citizens” or that a homemaker “is limited to tasks associated with the home.”

What we do say is that individuals with those backgrounds would be less politically savvy than political operatives involved in redistricting for years or decades. We agree with your statement that, “by design, the commissioners were not like the political pros who did redistricting in the past.”


Talk about missing the point! The Commissioner’s response wasn’t about how you shouldn’t make fun of farmers, his response was about how you conveniently left out the farmer was also a city business owner and a former city council member? Why is it more important to label that commission member as a farmer rather than a former city council member? And why is “homemaker” a better description for someone than non-profit consultant? It smacks of sexism, as if you were to criticize the Obama White House for being so dumb that they hired an Arkansas mom to be Secretary of State.

Tracy Weatherby

March 19, 2013, 1:24 p.m.

I am surprized at ProPublica’s sloppy work on this article.  I am incredibly impressed with the fairness and dedication of our citizen commissioners.  The recent NYT article pointed out that California was one of the few states that now reflected its electorate as a result of this redistricting.  We need more citizen work like this and should work to recognize the benefits!

I’m disappointed that ProPublica chose to publish such a one-sided article with an extremely selective use of facts to bolster its own sensationalist agenda. The reporters took an interesting, if obvious fact (political operators tried to influence a redistricting process) and then selectively present evidence to create the impression that the influence was successful, when a holistic reading of the facts would conclude the opposite. As Commissioner Barabba points out, unfortunately California’s Republican registration has slipped to below 30%, which is almost exactly the percentage of Congressional seats currently held by Republicans elected under the commission’s new districts. You also chose to compare the seat gains and losses to the previous bipartisan gerrymander, which protected incumbents and therefore resulted in an overrepresentation of Republicans who were guaranteed “safe seats” despite dramatic shifts in the state demographics. The whole point of the new process is that these attempts to influence the district boundaries must now take place in public view, or would you prefer to return to horse-trading behind closed doors, in which case you’d have no story to write about at all?

Does ProPublica have an ombudsman office?  (if not, why?)  I’d be interested in their assessment of the reporters’ work.  The irony here is that the same cynical political forces you described in the article as trying to influence the citizens commission are now using your flawed article to attack the citizens commission.

I was wondering why you have not posted the comment I made last Friday?

Chunka Mui

Strangely, you posted my question about why my previous comment was not posted, but not the comment itself.  So I’m guessing there was a glitch?  Here it is again:

To Propublica editors:

It is easy to read this exchange as little more than a struggle about ego and reputation. In that regard, it’s clear that the commissioner comes out on top. He presented overwhelming evidence to show that the original article was sloppy (at best) and that the reporters’ response to his concerns are inadequate. That’s not surprising, given Mr. Barabba’s long track record of outstanding and meticulous work. You don’t get appointed twice as the director of the US Census without great attention to politics, process and detail. And the fact that Mr. Barabba was the only person ever to be appointed to that sensitive position by presidents of different political parties speaks to his integrity.

So, let’s be clear, there’s no doubt Democrats tried to fool the commission (as no doubt every other political faction did as well). But, the headline and general thrust of the article that the commission was fooled is wrong.

This issue, however, has much larger implications than ego and reputation. As Mr. Barabba points out, the original article gave ammunition to those who opposed efforts in New Mexico to end gerrymandering. And, given ProPublica’s reputation, there’s no doubt the article will be trotted out in every other redistricting debate that tries to take the process out of the hands of entrenched politicians. (As an observer who lives in Illinois, where machine politicians of both stripes have kept a shameless lock on power through openly ruthless gerrymandering, I know this too well.*) Given the stakes, it is a horror that the article stands without wholesale correction.

ProPublica describes itself as “an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with ‘moral force.’ We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.” [Source: ProPublica’s “About” web page]

Well, ProPublica, gerrymandering is truly an important story and you’ve dealt a blow against the public interest. The journalism that you’ve produced does a disservice to a worthy cause. Rather than providing comfort to the afflicted, your refusal to correct the article comforts the comfortable so that they might continue to afflict the afflicted. It is an unfortunate example of “a failure of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”

You also declare on your website that “We listen to the response and adjust our reporting when appropriate. We aggressively edit every story we plan to publish, to assure its accuracy and fairness. If errors of fact or interpretation occur, we correct them quickly and clearly.”

You’ve clearly not lived up to either the spirit or the letter of these lofty words, given how this terse exchange is buried deep within the bowels of your website. Have the decency, at least, to prominently link to it from the original article and not force the reader to dig through reams of awkward attachments. Better yet, are there no independent journalists or editors who can do the exchange justice?

To really live up to your mission, ProPublica should commission an article with “moral force” about “How Republicans Fooled ProPublica about California’s Redistricting Commission.”


Chunka Mui

* As evidence of what articles like the one in question help to perpetuate, just take a look at Illinois 4th congressional district (by which I’m surrounded) and Chicago’s 2nd ward (in which I live):

From the 3/21/2013 issue of BusinessWeek:

“In 2010, California voters stripped lawmakers of their authority over redistricting, the once-a-decade process of redrawing congressional lines to account for demographic shifts, and awarded that power to an independent citizens’ panel. By the 2012 elections, the group’s work had done exactly what it was supposed to: create competition for seats that had long been safe. After the 53 new districts were revealed, 14 House members decided not to seek reelection or lost their race in November, resulting in a 26 percent turnover in the state’s delegation.”

I have read the exchange of thoughts between ProPublica and Commissioner Barabba, as well as various comments from readers.
First, I cannot imagine that anyone would consider redistricting under the control of politicians (technicians hired by politicians) a more desirable model than a commission made up of a a bi-partisan, bi-racial, bi-ethnic, female/male group of qualified persons to better represent citizens in any state.  The politically-controlled route is called gerrymandering.  And, as some have said, gerrymandering is a major source of much of what is wrong with our political system.  I am not a resident of California, but my dream would be to have a redistricting solution, represented by a Commission model similar to that of California, take on a redistricting study in my state of Maryland.  The apparent claim by ProPublica, that all thinking and conclusions reached by the Redistricting Commission resulted from Democratic Party “stacked” public forums, not only insults the dedicated members of the Commission, but, in my opinion, is patently ridiculous.  Again, the worst of a Commission like the one in California is far better than any politically controlled “gerrymandering”.  The redistricting accomplished in California, using the Commission formula will hopefully serve as an excellent model for other states.  Take redistricting out of the hands of partisan politicians.
I would suggest that ProPublica is trying to influence a proceeding in the direction of political control vs. that of the general public.  And I take issue with such thinking.

Sloppy ProPublica, I’m with Commissioner Barabba all the way.

Congratulations,ProPublica. As predicted by Commissioner Barabba and others,your article has taken on a life of its own and is being used by some in the Republican Party in my state of North Carolina as an argument against a non-partisan redistricting committee.

By casting a disparaging light on a group of extremely capable individuals who worked diligently to take the politics out of the CA redistricting process, you have played right into the hands of a party that in 2010 made North Carolina look like the poster child for gerrymandering.

I read your article and found it to be lacking in substantial evidence in the case you were trying to make. Of course the potential was there for the commission to be influenced by partisan interests,that’s what political parties do, but the case you made shows me no proof that that actually occurred.

I found your response to Commissioner Barabba’s rebuttal bordering on smugness. When he stated that “through your actions of selecting only those portions of resumes that support your point… attempted to make the commission seem ill-equiped to conduct redistricting and restrain the influence of partisan forces” you stated that was not your intent. Come on. It was obviously your intent. But,to what end? Were you trying to shift the process back into the hands of politicians?

You agreed with Commissioner Barabba’s statement that “by design, the commissioners were not like the political pros who did redistricting in the past”,and, you went on to state, “at no point in our story do we say the previous process was superior.” Unfortunately, your article is being used by other states, my own included, as an example that the previous process WAS superior.

From my perspective, you have written an article that makes an accusation that you fall short of proving. In the process, you have provided fodder for political forces in other states to defeat attempts to provide a non-partisan redistricting commission such as the CA commission. I think you have done a disservice to both the citizens of CA and the citizens of other states that are trying to rectify a flawed process. If this was not your intent, then perhaps,in the name of good journalism, you need to amend your article.

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