John Diaz, Glass House

In his latest column, John Diaz, editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, bemoans the tendency of his readers to live in echo chambers of the like-minded, receiving information only from sources they agree with. Yes, political polarization is real and increasing. But as political scientist Brendan Nyhan recently pointed out in a more nuanced and better informed article, American expose themselves to a wider variety of media and information sources than hand-wringers like Diaz acknowledge.

But there does seem to be at least one group of Americans who live in a media echo chamber: Readers of California newspapers.

Look at this list, compiled by the irreplaceable Scott Lay for his daily Nooner report, of newspaper endorsements of statewide candidates and ballot measures for the November 4 election.

I read this list and can't help but marvel how, in a state as big as California, with the most complex economy and most diverse mix of people and cultures on the face of the planet, the state's newspapers manage to walk in virtual lockstep through the ballot.

Why? Partly because this is an election mostly about nothing in a state where one party, the Republicans, is moribund. But notice that in the only three statewide candidate elections where there is any real competition—controller, secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction—the endorsements are virtually unanimous. And that's not because those races involve easy or obvious choices. There's a good, informed case to be made for any of the candidates in those contests. But in 26 flips of the coin, the state's newspapers ended up together on heads 23 times.

Diaz denies his newspaper has a "centrist bias." But the papers' very much nonrandom walk through this year's ballot seems a good piece of evidence for what I observed in a career working in journalism: there's no echo chamber louder, no herd more tightly clustered around conventional wisdom, than in a newspaper office.

Scoopy Plays the Race Card

I didn't think it possible for the Sacramento Bee to come up with a less persuasive case for Kevin Johnson's strong-mayor push than the one I took apart in the last post. But then this editorial got dropped on my porch this morning.

The Bee repeats its plaintive cry: "Sacramento must separate Measure L from the mayor." As I previously noted, this is impossible. Kevin Johnson and the strong-mayor push are like conjoined twins who share one heart. They are inseparable. One can't live without the other. Even Kevin Johnson thinks so. Look at Measure L's own campaign materials.

It's all about Boss Johnson, and always has been. When the Bee tries to suggest otherwise, it's pissing into the wind.

From there the editorial goes downhill.

When we subscribe to a newspaper, one of the things we expect for our money is journalism that provides some context and depth to make sense of the flood of events, information, and spin that come at us every day. The Bee can no longer seem to do that.

It attributes the opposition to Measure L to "some in the old guard," people who never fully accepted Kevin Johnson and who "would prefer to keep a political system that worked when the city was smaller." Leave aside for a moment the obvious fact that the council-city manager system continues to work pretty well in big cities that are doing much better than Sacramento, a fact that an intellectually honest editorial would have to acknowledge. The big lie here is that somehow it's the "old guard" behind the opposition to Measure L.

That's nonsense. There's nobody more "old guard" than the people supporting the Measure L push: Angelo Tsakopoulos, the Friedman family, the Chamber of Commerce, the cops and firefighters. On the other hand, the opposition campaign is headed by rookie Councilmember Steve Hansen, who, at age 34, is hardly a member of the old guard. The fact of the matter is that there are young and old, both people who voted for Johnson and people who voted against, on both sides of the strong-mayor debate. When you don't have any evidence to support your position but aren't honest enough to say so, tarring your opponents becomes a temptation.

And that's when the editorial spirals down into the muck: "It does make you wonder whether some of these personal attacks on Johnson, Sacramento’s first black mayor, have something to do with race."

That's an astonishing thing to read in what purports to be a professionally edited metropolitan newspaper. Not because there aren't people who will vote against Measure L because the mayor is African-American; this is, after all, the United States. But because it maligns a wide swath of the community with no evidence to support the claim. A leading foe of the strong-mayor measure was the late Grantland Johnson, the city's most prominent black politician for three decades as council member and county supervisor, who signed the opposition ballot argument before he died earlier this year. It's also signed by Bonnie Pannell, another long-time African-American member of the council. Does the Bee believe their opposition has "something to do with race?" Does it believe that they would have associated themselves with the opposition if it did have "something to do with race?"

It's an axiom of Internet debate that the first person to invoke Nazism loses the argument. There's an even older newspaper corollary: An editorial page that "wonders" in print, without supporting evidence, whether a large and active part of its city and its readership is racist has not only lost the argument; it has lost its moral compass.

Half Savvy in Sacramento

In her preview of the contest for the open state Senate seat in Sacramento, Laurel Rosenhall of the Sacramento Bee demonstrates the peril, to reporter and readers alike, of being half savvy.

You know that cute little girl in the political ads for Assemblyman Richard Pan, who’s running against Assemblyman Roger Dickinson? You know, the one who smiles as Pan, in his white doctor’s coat, examines her? Her name isn’t Emily, Rosenhall tells us. No, her name is actually Seneca. And worse yet, “Her mom is a lobbyist and her dad is a political consultant. And the man depicted as her doctor is an assemblyman who spends more time in the Capitol than the exam room.”

Here, on full display, is what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls “the cult of savvy” in political reporting. The reporter’s pose is that of the hard-headed and unsentimental observer who sees behind the curtain of the political game to the place where voters, those poor deluded saps, are manipulated. She knows what we don’t know, and asks her readers, as another journalism professor Todd Gitlin once described this brand of reporting, to become "cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement." We are the objects of the game, where things aren’t what they seem to us. Pan, she tells us, wants the voters to see him as a beloved doctor, not just another politician. And the savvy reporter is not going to let him get away with it.

But when the reader gets beyond the gotcha lead paragraphs of Rosenhall’s article, her story dissolves. It turns out that Richard Pan is indeed a doctor, who has continued to practice part-time during his four years in the California Assembly. And it turns out that the little girl was, in fact, one of his patients. Before Pan was ever a candidate for office, the child’s mother, then chief lobbyist for the California Medical Association and now a partner in her own firm, picked Pan to be her new baby’s pediatrician. So the reader learns that Pan is not only really a doctor but, if you assume that the chief lobbyist for the California Medical Association is better positioned to know something about medical quality than the average consumer, probably a pretty good one too.

In other words, a story that asks the readers to watch themselves being manipulated by big money donors ends up validating and amplifying the very message the donors are so expensively sending: good and caring doctor, healthy and happy patient, trusting mother. There were, I suspect, high-fives all around at the Pan headquarters the day the story appeared. A thousand words in the Bee repeating your message: Priceless.

But what about Pan’s using “a campaign tactic that so obviously demonstrates his relationship with a lobbyist,” Rosenhall asks. It’s a strange question in general. All members of the Legislature have relationships with lobbyists; it’s the nature of the job. And it’s an even stranger question in this contest in particular, given Pan’s opponent. Pan may have put the daughter of a lobbyist in his campaign ad, but the savvy Rosenhall has neglected to tell her readers that his opponent Roger Dickinson climbs into bed with a lobbyist every night: his wife, Marjorie Dickinson, runs the government and community relations shop at UC Davis.

A reporter more interested in substance than savvy might have made something useful out of this story. Pan is counting on the public’s high regard of doctors as professionals to give him a halo effect. But a reporter versed in health policy might help voters understand that being a doctor in politics raises issues the electorate should care about.

Health care in the United States is far more expensive than anywhere else in the world. One big reason is that doctors here have used their political power to drive up their incomes and restrict competition. A reporter more interested in policy might have told us something about how Pan looks at and votes on issues — reimbursement rates, scope of practice by competing medical providers, malpractice, breadth of provider networks for health plans under Covered California, the state’s insurance exchange — where the interests of patients and businesses clash with those of doctors.

In fact, Rosenhall’s story, which looks to be the centerpiece of the Bee’s coverage of the Sacramento state Senate race, gives readers nothing apart from political savviness and the identity of campaign donors with which to make an informed judgment between the two major candidates. What are their voting records and how do they differ? How effective are they as lawmakers? What are their reputations for intelligence, policy knowledge, and honesty?

As a voter who lives in the district and has make a choice in this contest, I need to answer those questions. As a subscriber, that’s what I thought I was paying Rosenhall and my newspaper to give me. Instead I get Capitol gossip wrapped up as savviness.


Some people root for the home team; I root for the home newspaper.

I cheer when the Sacramento Bee does important work like Cynthia Hubert's exposé of Nevada's mental patient dumping. I groan at shallow, boosterish, and credulous reporting of local issues but wouldn't think of canceling my subscription, as others have—a diminished newspaper is better than none.

Like someone who goes to the hospital daily to sit with a patient in a coma, I even turn to the Marcos Breton column. Will this be the day when the lines on the encephalograph move?

The other day, when I saw the following exchange on Twitter, I thought the moment had finally arrived:

Breton exchange.png

Could it be? Here was Breton, head cheerleader for the pipe dream of downtown "transformation" by way of handouts to super-rich team owners, remembering himself back in St. Louis, a city where in the past two decades taxpayers have subsidized not one but two downtown sports complexes, Busch Stadium for the baseball Cardinals and Edward Jones Dome for the football Rams.

It was October. Football season was in full swing and the Cardinals were in the postseason. It was exactly the kind of peak moment that sports-subsidy seekers always ask their victims to imagine, the moment when taxpayer giveaways sown in concrete and steel will yield a bumper crop of "economic benefit" and red-sweatered fans driving in from the suburbs to "revitalize" downtown.

But Breton's eyes saw something different and unexpected. His eyes told him "how dead downtown St. Louis is," even after spending hundreds of millions on ballparks. "I was surprised," he remembers himself feeling.

Was he having a thought? A doubt?


A couple of days later he was back with pom-poms a-twirling, doing cartwheels for the Kings ransom: "The area downtown is a picture of inactivity, an urban disaster, a high-crime area. The arena deal changes this dynamic profoundly." Yes, what he knows not to have worked with two ballparks in St. Louis will surely work with one in Sacramento. Marcos Breton doesn't do doubt.

Or basic journalism.

Downtown "a picture of inactivity?" If Breton means us to believe that the city neglects downtown, as he's written before, he shows himself ignorant of the past six decades of city politics and policy, a period during which City Hall and state government have lavished obsessive attention and hundreds of millions of dollars on downtown. If he means to say downtown is empty of people, he needs to check his eyes and his facts. Among the 150 largest cities in the country, Sacramento ranks 16th in the number of people employed downtown and within a one-mile radius of downtown (151,828), and 10th in the number of people living in that area (73,225).

Downtown a "high-crime area?" Below is a map, generated by the city's online crime-mapping tool, showing all reported major crimes—violent crimes, robbery, burglary, car theft—in the city for the month of January.

Sac Jan 14 crime map.png

Overall, Sacramento has a lot of crime, but the distribution of crimes in the map doesn't shout out that downtown is the city's "high-crime area." Given the huge number of people who flood into downtown daily to work, do business, visit, and play, the crime rate there—the chance of any person becoming a victim—probably puts it among the safer neighborhoods in the city. And if it were a high-crime area, wouldn't someone practicing basic journalism wonder why city politicians want to spend $300 million on subsidies to the rich instead of using it to hire more officers for one of the least-policed major cities in America?

Downtown Sacramento "an urban disaster?" Only in the fever dreams of the comatose. If a neighborhood could sue for libel, it would have no trouble proving Breton had made false statements about it with reckless disregard for the truth.

I root for the home newspaper because quality journalism—honest, informed, skeptical reporting and commentary—is an essential public good. Sports fans keep the faith knowing that, if a player won't lay off the outside slider, if he loafs down to first base on ground balls and answers the crowd's boos with a raised middle finger, the home team will waive him. But how long can you keep rooting for the home paper when, week after week, it trots out a player to pollute the civic conversation with lazy rants that don't meet the basic standards of the profession?