The Bee Drops the Veil

In a September 9 editorial the Sacramento Bee announced it is abandoning the newspaper’s long support for the death penalty.

“For most of its 162 years as a state, California has had laws on the books authorizing the death penalty. And for nearly all of its 155 years as a newspaper, The Bee has lent its support to those laws and use of capital punishment to deter violence and punish those convicted of the most horrible of crimes,” the paper’s editorial board wrote.

“That changes today. The death penalty in California has become an illusion, and we need to end the fiction.”

You will note the ambiguity of that “we.” Is it the editorial “we?” Or is it “we, the people of California?” The editorial promiscuously mingles the two. A careful reader will conclude it is most likely the latter; a reader who served a long tenure writing editorials for the Bee — someone like, well, me — will understand that the ambiguity is real and (possibly) quite deliberate.

“We need to end the fiction.” Memory can’t provide an exact count of how often that phrase was spoken at the Bee’s editorial board during the nineteen years, from 1985 to 2004, I spent there. But a good approximation would be this: those words or something like them were uttered every time some ballot measure or court decision obligated the paper to speak on the death penalty.

Because the fact of the matter is that the “Bee” that supported the death penalty wasn’t the Bee of the people who wrote in its voice. I think it’s fair to say that at no time while I worked at the Bee would the death penalty have won the support of the majority of the editorial board. Simply put, the Bee that supported the death penalty was the McClatchy family that owned the paper.

Acting as mouthpiece for the deeply held but lightly considered views of newspaper owners is part of the editorial writer’s job description. Those of us who worked for McClatchy were lucky on that score. C.K. McClatchy, the editor who hired me and a prince of a man, liked his views well thought out, and went out of his way to hire people capable of putting such views into his newspapers. The list of things about which he was both adamant and wrong was short and always subject to trimming through the proper application of logic and evidence. Only the death penalty was untouchable. No arguments or logic from editorial board writers could shake its hold.

But that hardly mattered. As the Bee’s editorial makes clear, California has had the death penalty in name only; the state has conducted more statewide elections than executions in the last two decades. It wasn’t a great moral hardship for us to support a policy that rarely occasioned sitting down at the keyboard to say so. And when readers complained that the Bee was unthinkingly liberal in all things, we could point to the paper’s support of the death penalty as evidence that we could be unthinkingly conservative too.

I have no idea how the family’s heart was changed or even if the family cares any more what the papers it owns write on their editorial pages. But I congratulate Stuart Leavenworth and the other members of the current editorial board. Change is hard, but they have ended the fiction.

I ask them to consider only one thing. The next time they sit down to write an editorial to berate the Legislature or Congress for not doing this or that, let them take a moment first to reflect on the Bee’s own experience.

By their own account, it has been blindingly clear forever that the death penalty is expensive, unjust, and ineffective. Yet it has taken the Bee, as an institution, a whole 155 years to figure that out.

If it takes so long for a simple institution, in which a decision rests with a handful of writers and executives, to get a big and emotional issue right, imagine what it takes for a legislative body or government to do the same. If those who have completed a long journey to the light will not appreciate the difficulties others face in moving complex institutions, and if they will not offer respect for their successes, who in our culture of instant gratification will?