But are they legitimate news? An anonymous reader on Wednesday raised the question in a comment on the "public salary outrage" item on the California Stem Cell Report. The article dealt with a news story about the $400,000, part-time salary for new CIRM Chairman Jonathan Thomas.
The reader said, among other things,
"Media coverage like this has to be counted as something of a cheap shot."The reader went on to say that the salary is not out of line with what medical school deans and top level researchers are paid.
The reader's remarks are somewhat ambiguous. It is not clear whether he or she is focusing on the Los Angeles Times story, the California Stem Cell Report's items on the subject or the public reaction based on comments on the Los Angeles Times' web site.
Let's assume that the main focus is the original Times story, which portrays Thomas' salary as excessive, comparing it unfavorably it to the much lower pay of the governor and the head of the NIH. The public reaction on the subject flows from that article by reporter Jack Dolan.
A case can be made that Thomas and CIRM President Alan Trounson ($490,000 annual salary) are paid at roughly the same level as a University of California medical school dean. Sam Hawgood, dean of the UC San Francisco medical school and a member of the CIRM board, for example was paid $572,896 in 2009, according to a Sacramento Bee database. However, CIRM's Thomas and Trounson preside over a staff of about 50 with a budget of about $18 million. Contrast that to Hawgood's staff of about 10,000 employees and budget of $1.52 billion.
However, those sorts of facts are somewhat beside the point when it comes to the news value of high state salaries. What makes them news is how they affect the public debate about government spending, perceived bureaucratic waste and ultimately the future of CIRM. Substantial segments of the California public exhibit an intense, visceral and hostile reaction to what they view as excessively generous compensation. In this case, it is a public that may well be asked to vote to give more billions to the stem cell effort in a few years. That's a reality, however unpleasant, that CIRM must deal with.
How the agency handles the issue is news as well. If CIRM cannot reframe the discussion, the entire campaign for the bond ballot measure may well center on CIRM salaries. The result could be "extinction" of CIRM, as the Los Angeles Times said Thursday in an editorial.
The California Stem Cell Report has discussed on more than one occasion both the nature of the public reaction to generous government salaries and the predilection of the mainstream media to zero in on them. Last July we wrote,
"What is important here is what the voters perceive as lavish or greedy – not the perceptions of recipients or the perceptions of those who approve the pay."Last spring, the entire CIRM board of directors indirectly acknowledged the public relations problem with the salaries when it approved a dubious scheme to paper over them by channeling $250,000 in funds from private donors to Thomas' paycheck. If the salary is a mistake, the second mistake is trying to hornswoggle taxpayers into believing that they are not paying for it when all the funds come from public coffers.
To one former longtime newspaper editor, John M. Simpson, now stem cell project director for Consumer Watchdog of Santa Monica, Ca., coverage of CIRM salaries is not only appropriate but necessary. In a statement to the California Stem Cell Report, he said,
"It's not a cheap shot to report what salaries taxpayers are paying their public servants. It's simply basic watchdog journalism. If this sort of reporting had happened in the mainstream media before the vote, perhaps the outcome would have been far different."Simpson continued,
"Perhaps the (medical school) deans on the (CIRM) board weren't troubled by the eye-popping salary because they make so much themselves. They need to think like the average person when evaluating salaries. It's clear that a well-qualified candidate was available at a fraction of the cost."Nonetheless, in some ways, the hooha about salaries is a sideshow. The money amounts to only a tiny fraction of the $3 billion that CIRM is handing out. Meanwhile, other difficult issues remain unexamined by the mainstream media including:
- Conflicts of interest on the part of scientists who make, in secret, the de facto decisions on grants,
- CIRM's strategy, including whether CIRM has missed or is missing profitable areas of research, as well as management of its grant portfolio, including whether the agency has the stomach to pull grants from big-name, non-performing scientists and
- CIRM's grant management system, which remains a work-in-progress, and needs close attention by directors, particularly with an eye to protecting IP and proprietary information from unprincipled biotech companies and hackers.
Here is an updated reading list on CIRM salaries. More information can be found by searching on the Internet used the terms "cirm salaries" or "california stem cell salaries."
CSCR Reading List: Compensation at the California Stem Cell Agency Sphere: Related Content