Journalism vs. Democracy

The Los Angeles Times is out with an editorial telling the Legislature “Don't rush changes to the California Environmental Quality Act.” Other papers have written similar pieces in recent days.

Which raises an interesting question: How exactly do the papers define “rush”?

Anybody who follows public policy in California knows that CEQA reform has been an issue for decades. John Landis, then of UC Berkeley, and his colleagues published a major study showing the law's shortcomings in 1995. The Public Policy Institute of California came out with a study of reform options in 2005. The San Francisco planning and environmental group SPUR said in the same year that “stopping projects is what California does best” and concluded that “after the law’s 30-plus years of operation, the type and pattern of developments, viewed at citywide, regional, and state scales, are environmentally worse than before.” Reform approaches have been repeatedly discussed in Sacramento over the last decade, both in commissions like the Schwarzenegger California Performance Review and in legislative consideration of dozens of reform bills.

So are the papers telling us that a decade or two of debate is a “rush?”

I doubt it. What they are really telling us is they want it both ways. They love to criticize politicians for never getting anything done. But they then turn around and criticize politicians for the way they do things when they actually get things done. The process was too hasty, the deals were too dirty, the results were not perfect.

Many journalists want it both ways because it allows them to retain the pose of superiority. But at the root of that pose is a kind of moral irresponsibility.

Democracy requires both debate and decision. In its modern incarnation, journalism emphasizes the debate. But what matters most to the public good is ultimately the decision. And in a democracy the deciding is not often quick and rarely pretty. Go back and look at the great accomplishments of public policy and you can scarcely find one that wasn't years in the making or one not driven by fierce partisans and pushed across the finish line with the lubrication of a scuzzy deal or two.

Responsible journalism acknowledges the difficulty of putting together coalitions, the essential role of partisans, and the art and necessity of the deal. Most of what passes for political journalism in California doesn't meet that test. It stands on the sidelines, nose in the air, denigrating the people and practices that make democracy work. From where it stands it might very well fail to notice that a midnight deal reforming CEQA and ending the option in the corporation tax could be a double win for California.

Update: Senate President Steinberg now says there will be no CEQA reform this session. Can’t wait for the editorials that complain about how little the Legislature did this year.