One way that Patrick makes his public presence known on the Sierra Madre Patch site is as its occasional comment cop. He can often found there lecturing to those posting on decorum issues. But the one thing that really seems to pique Pat's snit is pseudo-anonymous, or just plain old anonymous, posting. The reason being that if people don't use their own names and real e-mail addresses, how can AOL collect their data? Data collecting is very important to AOL. Properly bundled and presented to corporations who use that kind of information, it can bring in quite a bit of money. And outside of billing the helplessly lo-tech for their antiquated dial-up Internet services, AOL doesn't have very many profit centers right now. Certainly Patch isn't one of them.
Another thing about Patch. Nothing you will ever see there is spontaneous. Everything is done with a set content style in mind. Predetermined presentations that have been carefully researched and market tested by AOL's home office in New York. The kinds of stories to be run, the things discussed, the ever-present lifestyle topics, these are common to all 800 sites. Visit other Patches and you will see what I mean. And all are meticulously monitored by AOL's regional editors.
Patch is what AOL and its market researchers believes you, the potential consumer of their on-line products, to be. Compulsive and self-obsessed consumers who spend most of their days agonizing over things like toenail colors. It is a condescending and inaccurate picture of people living in towns like ours.
But despite all of that, yesterday a rather interesting conversation broke out on our local Patch. It had to do with the water rate hike, and whether or not Patch's coverage of our topic of the week was biased in favor of the City. The conversation kicked off with the following comment from a rather poorly informed gent named Ryan.
It is a good thing that this frivolous lawsuit is over. It is interesting that Crawford claims victory, but none of the objectives stated in the lawsuit were achieved. It is scary that he has no clue as to the decrepit state of the water mains in town. All of them need to be replaced. Water is one of the necessary services provided by the city. We cannot let the system go beyond repair.
Sad to think that there are people in this town who still believe the water rate hike was about fixing old pipes. You'd assume that everyone in town would have understood by now that the city fibbed when it first put that story out, and the money was actually for the servicing of bonds. But considering the heavy push this misinformation got during the Spring of 2010 from the likes of then Mayor Joe Mosca, it is probably inevitable that there would still be some who live in such primeval darkness.
So who should then jump in to defend our honor? None other than our good friend Kim Goddard. Here is what she had to say:
Gee Ryan, you are naive if you don't think Mr. Crawford did not have the backing of over 1,600 people. You are naive if you think the majority of that money is going to repair pipes, and you are naive if you think that the city complied with Prop 218. There is nothing in that article that claims victory ... The main and most important difference between the Tattler and the others is he does not have to write to satisfy or not offend advertisers. I notice that when I read Patch or the Weakly all the stories are the same. Press releases spun by the city. The city lied to you, it is still lying to you.
And true to form, up popped that ever vigilant Patch comment cop, Patrick Lee. Which is what usually happens when someone brings up something that calls into question the journalistic integrity of Patch.
Hi Kim: Thanks for your comments. We appreciate Mr. Crawford's passion, but the fact is that Patch reports the news without bias or agenda, unlike Mr. Crawford, who has a clear agenda. We also don't post stories that please advertisers; we post news that community members such as yourself tell us are useful to them. If you don't find Patch useful, then it's our job to find out why. And we're always open to hearing from people who visit our site, such as yourself.
While his chirpy writing style is a bit off putting, Patrick does have a point. I do have a clear agenda, and I practice it as often as I can. It would be ridiculous of me to deny it. But for Patrick Lee to then actually claim that Patch, in contrast to my unworthy self, has no bias or agenda of its own? Good Lord Almighty. I'm sorry, but that just cannot be allowed to stand.
I e-mailed Patrick hoping that he would come to see the absurdity of his claim to purity of thought, and come back down to the planet floor with the rest of us. This is what I said:
Here is what Patch missed, and I have always wondered why. In late 2010 the City Council claimed we needed a water rate increase due to water infrastructure decay. Later it was discovered by concerned residents that the actual reason for the water rate hike was based on water bond debt, and not infrastructure repair. The city's story then changed.
What Patch never reported, along with every other news source except the one I run, is that the city's story had clearly been altered, and without acknowledgement. This despite the fact that Patch had reported both versions of the story, and made the switch with no questions asked. Exactly as they were put out by City Hall. Yet you never noted even once that the story had changed. The big question being why. Do you care to explain that?
Apparently Patrick didn't want to discuss this issue. Probably because to do so would be to admit that Patch did have an agenda, that being to reflect whatever version of reality the City was putting out at the time. In other words, Patch's bias is to toe the line of the status quo. Even when that line radically careens from one side of the issue to another.
Here are two examples of how Patch reported both versions of the city's take on the water rate increase question. The first comes from an article posted on Patch by John Stephens. The date is October 7, 2010, the title, "City Announces Special Water Meeting."
"(The City Manager stated that) payments routinely made on outstanding bond debt and associated interest are part of the city's ongoing water costs, but that the proposed rate hike is needed primarily to fund improvements to water infrastructure."
The City Manger, Elaine Aguilar, was not being truthful when she made the statement, but it was the official line of City Hall at that point in time. And Patch dutifully reported what she said, word for word.
We then zoom forward to January 12, 2011. In another John Stephens article, this time entitled "Sierra Madre Approves Controversial Water Rate Hike," we step through an Orwellian warp and discover that water infrastructure repairs not only had nothing to do with it, they were not even to be mentioned. The real reason was water bonds.
The primary reason for the water rate hike, according to staff reports and council discussion, is to satisfy a water bond covenant that calls for the water fund reserve to maintain an amount no less than 120 percent of operating expenses. The new ordinance will satisfy this covenant, with which the city is currently out of compliance, within four years.
The big story on the water rate increase is that the City completely changed its story halfway through the process. And that was because concerned residents has uncovered the real reason for the hike. Unfortunately, the City only copped to the bond thing after the legally required Proposition 218 notices had already gone out to the residents. That notice being in agreement with the first Patch statement cited above, the one that said it was about rusty pipes.
So does Patch have an agenda and bias in its reporting of the news? Of course it does. Nowhere did they in anyway report that the City had run a bait and switch operation in order to get more of the ratepayer's money. Not even once. Why? Because they didn't want to bring any attention to that issue. It might have embarrassed City Hall.
Patch's agenda is the one that AOL dictates. That being not to get into a fight with City Hall. Even to the point of having to suppress important news. Controversy might make for exciting reading, but it just isn't good for business.
And Patrick Lee apparently not only enforces that policy on all of the Patches under his wing, he defends it as well.