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Ethnic Media Urged to Monitor Stimulus Money, Spending

Stimulus Watch

New America Media, News Report , Vivian Po, Photos by Mona Koh Posted: Aug 08, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO Bay Area ethnic media should monitor stimulus dollars on behalf of their communities and make sure the money is spent to revive their local economies, said speakers at an August 6 seminar co-hosted by New America Media and Investigative Reporters and Editors.

Michael Grabell, from ProPublica, shares stimulus tracking websites with ethnic media
Michael Grabell, from ProPublica, shares stimulus tracking websites with ethnic media

Congress passed the federal American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), more commonly known as the economic stimulus package, in February, with a promise from the Obama administration that the $787 billion dollars would provide, among other things, funds for infrastructure and put construction workers back to work.

Where and how these stimulus dollars are allocated should be issues ethnic media investigate, speakers said.

The half-day seminar was meant to offer tips to ethnic media on how to track the stimulus dollars in a number of ways, using data that are publicly available.

ProPublica, an independent non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, and government sources such as the Federal Procurement Data System, have built up comprehensive stimulus tracking websites that ethnic media can tap into, said panelist Michael Grabell, who covers transportation for ProPublica.

Oren M. Sellstrom, associate director of Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, said local ethnic media could play an important role in reporting whether minority-owned businesses are fairly treated in the selection process.

It may not be as fair and open as people think, said Sellstrom. Ethnic media are in the role of asking questions about whether local agencies are distributing dollars into minority businesses.

Oren M. Sellstrom urges monitoring of stimulus package
Oren M. Sellstrom urges monitoring of stimulus package

Sellstrom further explained that there is a massive amount of money available from the federal stimulus package for minority businesses. However, there are concerns about whether minority businesses are capable of competing for funds with the old boys network.

People may not know the channels [through which they can] apply or bid for money if they are not in an established business network, said Sellstrom, noting that lots of minority-owned businesses do not belong to such networks, and as a result lose out on available financial help.

Another issue ethnic media should focus on is ensuring that agencies and businesses have not, or do not, misrepresent themselves as belonging to a minority group in order to receive stimulus dollars.

The $787 billion is not being dispensed by a single federal agency, Sellstrom said, but by hundreds of state and even local bodies, which can be difficult for small businesses to identify.

After identifying the areas they want to report on, ethnic media must act quickly since contracts are already being signed, followed by a quick distribution of money. You surely want to get to the decision early enough to make a difference, said Sellstrom.

Panelist Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, asked ethnic media to not expect too much from the stimulus package.

Jean Ross on stimulus expectations
Jean Ross on stimulus expectations

Stimulus money is meant to rescue the economy, not change it, Ross said, noting that stimulus dollars are meant to close deficit gaps in state and local budgets. The role of the media is to hold them accountable for what it is designed to achieve. If the Oakland School District is not hiring new people but reducing layoffs, I think [the dollars] serve the purpose.

Ellen Hanak, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, agreed. She said that doubling federal spending on infrastructure does not mean a revolution in infrastructure. Rather, it is designed to create quick public works projects such as road repairs that can be implemented fast enough to have an immediate effect on the economy.

However, Sean Randolph, president of Bay Area Economic Institute, believes stimulus dollars can be used not only in filling potholes, but to generate jobs sustainable for long term by selecting projects that are significant.

In the latter half of the seminar, panelists suggested some possible areas of coverage. Liz Guillen, director of Legislative and Community Affairs at Public Advocates, believed that public transit and education deserved special attention because people most affected in these two areas are mainly low-income and people of color. Other suggested areas of coverage include energy, small businesses, health research and high-speed railway.

Ethnic media practitioners who attended the seminar, 14 in all, were pleased with what they learned. Kai Ping Liu from World Journal, a Chinese language newspaper, said the suggested websites would be useful for him because he plans to do a follow-up story for his paper on Asian-American contractors who are having difficulty receiving stimulus money.

The seminar gives me a better picture on what is going on with the stimulus, said Heather Mari Horiuchi from the San Francisco-based Japanese newspaper, Nichi Bei Times. Horuichi said she wants to write about how the stimulus money is helping sustain social service programs for elders.

To further assist ethnic media on their stimulus money coverage, New America Media editor Aaron Glantz, who facilitated the workshop, said NAM will be administering 12 ethnic media fellowships sponsored by the Open Society Institute Stimulus Watch. Selected fellows will each receive $3,500 for their projects, and attend an all-expenses paid workshop in Washington, D.C.

Related Articles:

State Web Sites Fail to Track Stimulus Money

Minority Contractors Unite to Demand Share of Stimulus Dollars

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