Art thou a report?
Art thou a report? PeopleImages

The business news site Forbes.com yesterday published a column by Roger Valdez, a local lobbyist, claiming Seattle City Council members cited data from a “report that never existed” while debating a head tax to fund housing and homelessness services.

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The report in question, which exists and is labeled “final report," was produced in December 2017 by the consulting firm McKinsey and Company in partnership with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. It concluded that King County would need to spend upwards of $410 million to house the region’s homeless population, about double what officials currently allocate toward the problem. After journalists from Crosscut and the Seattle Times revealed the existence of the report, McKinsey briefed some city council members on its findings. Council members then cited the $410 million figure to argue for a tax rate higher than a competing proposal supported by Mayor Jenny Durkan.

In Valdez’s piece, titled “Seattle: A Tax On Jobs, $400 Million, And The Report That Never Was,” the lobbyist claims the McKinsey report did not exist. His entire argument rests on a profoundly stupid quibble over the definition of “report.” The document sent by McKinsey to González on May 10 outlines the scope of homelessness in King County, explores deficiencies in the region’s crisis response system, and identifies a gap between affordable housing supply and demand. Its authors use numerous graphs and charts to illustrate their findings and include footnote citations to show where they got their data.

But according to Valdez, it is not a report. As he writes in a follow-up piece published by Forbes.com after multiple journalists questioned his column, "It all comes down to timing and whether you believe a PowerPoint used by McKinsey to brief Council supporters of the tax is the ‘report.' I suggest it was not. And I already knew about the PowerPoint when I wrote the story.”

Of course a PowerPoint can be a report. As can a video or an oral presentation or a good ol’ fashioned printout with a durable non-stick poly cover. The format of a report is immaterial to the information contained within.

McKinsey's study on Seattle's homelessness crisis was reported in multiple formats, including the PowerPoint distributed to council member González, a blog post cited by the Seattle Times, another PowerPoint with the Chamber's logo on it and a mostly-text document published by the firm this month.

When I raised this issue over the phone, Valdez told me I am missing the point.

"When I look at the report, I don’t see a methodological outline or executive summary. I don’t see anything that says we recommend the city spend $410 million a year, which is what the headlines and all the papers said,” Valdez said, despite the McKinsey report including a slide titled “Executive Summary” that stated it would take between $360 million and $410 million to house all households in King County, as defined by the Homeless Management Information System of the U.S. Department of Housing.

"I don’t think it is an issue of semantics at all,” he said. “It’s splitting hairs to say just because it is named a 'final report,' it is a final report.”

But as originally published by Forbes.com, Valdez’s column did not explain why he did not regard the slideshow as a report. After I contacted Forbes.com about this question, Valdez’s piece was edited to include a paragraph that stated, "Functionally, it’s hard to call the PowerPoint a report when it doesn’t function as one, missing all the hallmarks of a report, like an explanation of, methodology, an executive summary, and clear recommendations based on that methodology and data.”

In his Forbes.com column, he argues the written document produced by McKinsey in May 2018, which draws many of the same conclusions as the slideshow, proves there was no "report" when city council members started raising the $410 million figure.

Ludicrous. Whether the slideshow produced by McKinsey in December and shown to at least one council member in May meets Valdez's arbitrary criteria to be called a report doesn't matter. What matters is that a respected consulting firm conducted an analysis of King County's homelessness crisis and found that it needs up to $410 million a year to address it, a newsworthy data point that informed one of Seattle's most contentious political debates in recent history. Valdez also insinuates in his column that the Seattle Times, Crosscut and the Puget Sound Business Journal reported fake news when they published articles on the McKinsey report, a Trumpian deflection of journalism that he doesn't like.

McKinsey and Company did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Several journalists criticized Forbes on Twitter for publishing Valdez's column. Some called for a retraction. The column went briefly offline Thursday evening before coming back online.

When asked for comment, a spokesperson for Forbes wrote, “At issue is the timing of who saw the report and when, as well as when it was finally made public." The spokesperson noted in his statement that a City Council committee vote took place on May 11 but the mostly-text version was not available until May 18. He did not address the fact that González received the slideshow version of the report, titled "final report," on May 10 and that several council members were briefed on that version on May 11.

"The timing here is critical, because no member of the public who was skeptical of the tax measure was able to examine the data, let alone its methodology, until well after the vote had taken place," the spokesperson added. Fair. But also not the question. Nowhere in the spokesperson's statement does he address Valdez's false claim that the media reported on a non-existent report.

The damage has been done.

Conservative radio host Jason Rantz aggregated Valdez’s piece with a headline mirroring the lobbyist’s central claim: “Report: Seattle Council used non-existent study to push head tax.” Rantz’s article quickly circulated among groups opposed to the head tax, including Safe Seattle, whose members routinely search for ways to discredit the current Seattle City Council, which they regard as the spawn of Stalin.

After taking some blowback, Rantz wrote in a follow-up article that he received the slideshow report from González adding, "Roger Valdez got a big story wrong and he owes the Seattle City Council an apology.” But he does not explain why he re-published an opinion piece from a lobbyist as fact. Rantz’s piece on Valdez’s claim was shared 145 times by members of the Safe Seattle Facebook group. His followup was not posted by page administrators.


Speak Out Seattle, another group opposed to the head tax, also posted Rantz's piece on social media, this time on Twitter. The group did not tweet Rantz's follow up.