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?

The No-Growth Giveaway

Cosmo Garvin and the Sacramento News and Review have written the kind of deep analysis of the arena issue the city needs but hasn't received. He finds what anyone who has followed the sports extortion game would expect: Spending huge amounts of taxpayer dollars in giveaways to basketball arenas has little or no benefit to local economies. The outrageous claims of boosters "aren't real."

But the real news is that Kevin Johnson's team of hired liars have now essentially conceded that Garvin and the economic doubters are right.

They have released a new "study" making the usual bogus claims of the kind Garvin debunks. They say the arena will increase economic output in the region by $11.5 billion over 35 years.

Since this is the holiday season, let's be charitable and assume they are right. How big is $11.5 billion over 35 years?

The Sacramento metropolitan area had an output of $97.6 billion in 2012. If you assume economic growth at a nominal rate of 4 percent a year, the region will produce $8.2 trillion in total output over the next 35 years. Divide the claimed arena boost by total output and you find the claimed "incredible multiplier effect" from the arena would amount to only 0.0014 of the region's output over that 35 years.

How "incredible" is that? It is so tiny you need a microscope to see it. It is the economic equivalent of 11 hours in a year, or the length of two football fields on a drive from the State Capitol to Union Square in San Francisco. In other words, it is exactly what Cosmos Garvin's fine report shows: Arena subsidies bring little or no growth.

And now Kevin Johnson and his cronies have admitted it.

Sacramento Bee Misleads on Arena as Tax

On his City Beat blog, Ryan Lillis, city hall reporter for the Sacramento Bee writes that opponents of a subsidy for the NBA Kings arena in the city are misleading voters when they say that it means higher taxes. In fact, the opponents are more right than Lillis.

It is a fundamental principle of public finance that any spending by a government that does not have its own currency must ultimately be paid for by individuals and firms — through taxes, fees, or exactions. As conservative economist Milton Friedman liked to say (in a phrase that liberal economists frequently quote), to spend is to tax.

So, too, with the proposed arena subsidy in Sacramento. The city's$346 million contribution to building the arena is a government commitment of public resources that must be repaid by the city's taxpayers. It's a tax of roughly $700 on every resident of the city.

How exactly that money will be collected is still an open question. Sacramento remains mired in the process that the New York bond analyst who writes online under the pseudonym Bond Girl describes thusly:

Officials then work with their friends in the banking community to craft some borderline-insane financing scheme that involves the city, or some puppet nonprofit established by the city, issuing a combination of tax-exempt and taxable bonds to pay for the new facility. Debt service will be paid from a combination of grossly exaggerated facility revenues and whatever other miscellaneous revenues the city manages to scrape together. (“Hey, how about parking revenues? Our parking garages will be packed once the city’s economy is rejuvenated by the presence of a professional sports team. The facility is practically paying for itself this way.”) Officials will then probably hire some economic (prostitute) consultant to reverse-engineer revenue projections that make the project seem feasible. Maybe the city decides to back the bonds directly.

Whatever "borderline-insane financing scheme" ultimately emerges, one fact will remain: any public resources devoted to the arena could otherwise be used to pay for other city services like police, fire, parks, culture, and libraries, or to reduce taxes. To spend is to tax.

What Lillis neglects to tell us is that the signature gatherer he ignorantly brands as "misleading" is doing no more than paraphrasing what the Bee's own columnist, Dan Walters, has suggested: that the higher Measure U sales tax enacted in 2012 and due to expire in 2019 will be used and extended to pick up the arena bill.

Supporters of the arena subsidy understandably don't like to talk about it as a tax. Mayor Kevin Johnson is demanding that his city, home to the poorest residents in the region, carry the entire burden for a facility that caters predominately to higher-income people. (This may explain why the strongest supporters of the subsidy live outside the city; it's easier to love a tax you don't have to pay.)

Poor City

And it's even harder to talk about the arena as a tax when your city already has the highest taxes in the region. Only Galt has a sales tax as high as that in Sacramento (8.5%). The city's utility user tax rates (7.0% and 7.5%) are triple those in other parts of the region. These taxes are both highly regressive, hitting the essentials of life—heating, cooling, clothing—that make up a high percentage of the budgets of the poor. The city that's home to many of the region's poor hammers them hardest.

Vigilant and useful journalists would be explaining this to the region. Instead, as in so much of the Bee's cheerleading coverage of the arena subsidy, Lillis brands as "misleading" the very citizens who are raising the right questions about who benefits from the giveaway and what it might mean for the future of a financially and economically troubled city. He owes them an apology, and the Bee owes its customers and city better reporting and analysis.

Neglected Questions at the Bee

Of all the silly things my old employer the Sacramento Bee has written in its campaign to keep the Kings in town, it's hard to find one sillier than describing Sacramento's "struggling downtown" as "the neglected heart of the capital city."

Neglected? Have they put the paper’s news archive down the memory hole?

Just off the top of my head, here are a few projects built using public money, in whole or part, since I moved to town in 1985:

Hyatt Hotel.

Sheraton Hotel.

Citizen Hotel.

Convention Center expansion.

City Hall expansion.

California Environmental Protection Agency.

Downtown library expansion and U.S. Bank Tower.

Esquire Building and IMAX Theater.

Downtown Plaza expansion.

Elks Building renovation.

Dive Bar.

Cosmopolitan entertainment complex.

County jail.

Matsui Federal courthouse.

Numerous housing projects, including the lofts where Gov. Jerry Brown bunks when he’s in town.

The list could go on and on. I haven’t gotten to all the investments made by the state after former Gov. Pete Wilson reversed state policy to encourage new agency buildings to locate downtown, a change that led to construction of the huge East End project, the Justice building, and the Secretary of State/Archives complex. There’s hardly a block downtown that hasn’t been blessed with a subsidy.

Far from neglecting it, Sacramento has been devoting attention and public dollars by the hundreds of millions on downtown for more than a half century. And what result has that devotion yielded? To hear the Bee tell it, a “struggling downtown.”

Anyone with a shred of curiosity or even a little concern for the public interest might be tempted to ask some questions here. If all those public dollars have left downtown still in need of “revitalization,” maybe the city has been doing things wrong. Are there policies that prevent efficient use of the money? Are public dollars being invested in the wrong way. Are they being overwhelmed by policies and trends that push people and private investment to the urban fringe? Are the benefits of downtown public investment going to developers instead of the broader public?

The Bee, it seems, has neglected to ask.

The Taxes That Didn't Bark

Was it a good thing for California that legislative Republicans stymied Gov. Jerry Brown on taxes in 2011? Robert Kleinhenz, the chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., thinks so. According to the Los Angeles Times, Kleinhenz told the Sacramento Press Club that, “We were still reeling from the recession. [A tax increase] could have taken an already dire situation and made it worse.”

If Kleinhenz offered any evidence or argument to back up his opinion, the Times didn’t say. In fact, the Times didn’t even bother, for the benefit of readers, to clear up Kleinhenz’s apparent case of amnesia. The issue facing California when Jerry Brown became governor in January 2011 wasn’t whether to raise taxes. Higher taxes had already been in place in California for nearly two years: the temporary tax increases approved by the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in February 2009, at the very depth of the Great Recession. In his first budget Brown sought only to maintain the status quo by extending the level of taxes already in place.

We don’t have to speculate, then, about whether higher taxes “could have taken an already dire situation and made it worse.” California took the leap in 2009. If higher taxes were destructive, Kleinhenz might be expected to offer evidence of it in the economic performance of the state while they were in effect. That’s the kind of thing a skeptical journalist (as opposed to a stenographer) might want to check, either by looking directly at the data or interviewing an expert. The Times failed to do so.

So let’s try it here:

Job Growth, California and nation

The graph compares the year-over-year percentage change in private nonfarm employment in California (blue line) against the nation as a whole (red line) for 2010 through 2012. California’s rate of recovery almost exactly tracks the national economy both on the left half of the graph, the period when the temporary taxes were in place, and on the right half, after they disappeared in July 2011. Raising taxes “in an already dire situation” apparently didn’t makes things worse, nor did lowering them two years into the recovery make things better. 

This is not surprising. Readers would understand this if the Times and other media would occasionally provide some numbers to give context to our political arguments. One of the great failings of public policy reporting is that journalists so rarely show readers what they mean by phrases like “higher taxes.” Brown’s initial budget proposal to extend the temporary taxes would have raised revenues by a combined $15.5 billion over the 2010-11 and 2011-12 fiscal years. What does $15.5 billion mean? Well, total personal income in the state for those two years was $3.4 trillion. The argument was about less than one-half of 1 percent of personal income. 

And the alternative to that small drag on the economy, Kleinhenz and the Times neglect to tell us, was not to avoid all drag. Unable to extend the Schwarzenegger temporary taxes, Brown and the Legislature were forced cut spending. Firing teachers and state workers created its own small drag. Some of the private-sector job gain of 632,000 in the graph above was offset by the loss of 83,000 public sector jobs. 

So was it a good thing that Jerry Brown didn’t get his way on taxes in 2011? Measured by the short-term movement of the economy, it didn’t matter much one way or the other to most Californians. But to all those young Californians who found themselves shut out of college or trying to learn math and science and English in schools with shortened years and overcrowded classrooms, it may matter a lot for the rest of their lives.

Faulty Sacramento Fault-Finding

My old newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, has once again gone into full panic mode over the rumors that a Seattle group may be trying to buy and relocate area’s National Basketball Association franchise, the Sacramento Kings. Dare I suggest that what the Bee’s readers need at the moment is less panic and more insight?

Marcus Breton assures readers that “whether the Kings ultimately move or stay, it's time that Sacramento embraces an undeniable truth: None of the turmoil surrounding the team is the fault of this community.” It’s all the fault, the ham-fisted local columnist tells us, of the team’s owners, the equally ham-fisted Maloof family. If that is so, why did the Kings fail to prosper, either on the court or as a business, during the tenure of the prior two owners?

Should the Kings leave, Phillip Reese reports, Sacramento would be the second largest metropolitan area in the nation without a major-league sports franchise, after only the Inland Empire area of San Bernardino and Riverside.

That’s a nice factoid but it raises the obvious question: Why? Pro sports teams are businesses. Leagues locate their franchises in the places where they are likely to yield the greatest revenue and profits. Is there something about Sacramento that explains why it has such a hard time supporting the Kings?

The Bee used to know and report the answer. NBA franchises draw a large share of their arena revenue from corporate sales. But Sacramento, its economy dominated by state government, is the weakest market when measured by the number of local firms able or willing to shell out for season tickets and luxury boxes. The area’s median household income is far below that of metropolitan areas on the coast, home to California’s other pro sports teams, or of Seattle, and its growth is hampered by its mediocre level of educational attainment. Those weaknesses, which have plagued the franchise since it moved to Sacramento in 1985, have been compounded by the effects of the Great Recession. The popping of the housing bubble and cuts in state government dealt a double blow to the region, which lags far behind most of the country in recovering lost jobs.

The uncomfortable truth that Breton and others at the Bee evade is that the Kings story is part of the larger story of Sacramento’s economic shortcomings and leadership failures. The area is a lousy market for delivering revenue to an NBA team, and its governments are in deep fiscal trouble and in no position to subsidize the franchise. A newspaper devoted to tough journalism would be telling that story, not whining and pointing fingers.

Will Kyle Palmer Ride Again in San Diego?

“[Kyle] Palmer was nothing if not consistent. He had been the kingmaker of Republican politics in California since the 1930s. Short, cynical, curly haired, bow tied, and pushing sixty in 1950, he was known by friends and enemies alike as Mr. Republican or the Little Governor. When candidates came by… to pay him a visit, it was known as 'going to kiss Kyle’s ring.’ He felt that telling candidates what to do was improper, but he expected them to follow his 'advice.’ Asked what happened when they didn’t, he replied, 'they got into trouble… political trouble.’ Palmer once advised Richard Nixon to smile when he clobbered an opponent—and apparently Nixon took the instruction to heart.”

So writes Greg Mitchell in his fine book Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady: Richard Nixon vs Helen Gahagan Douglas—Sexual Politics and the Red Scare, 1950. If your hair has not yet turned gray, you have likely guessed Kyle Palmer was a paid political consultant or strategist. Your guess would be only half right. Palmer was indeed paid but his employer was the Los Angeles Times. As political editor there, he wrote articles, columns, and editorials to make or break candidates according to the dictates of the Times’ GOP political agenda.

California has not seen Palmer’s like in journalism for many years, but in San Diego the clock is being turned back.

The paper that used to be the Union-Tribune but that now is brutally called U-T San Diego will be hosting a September 11 invitation-only event to advise Republican candidates how to present themselves to the media and secure the paper’s endorsement. (A spokesman for U-T San Diego told Politico a more sparsely attended event will later be held for Democrats.)

Democrats may be excused wondering whether they have been invited to lunch or to be lunch, because it is clear that Doug Manchester, the developer who bought the declining paper last year (to which he has now added the North County Times), is taking it boldly into the past. He uses its pages to tout his development plans with front-page editorials, bully local officials who don’t support his efforts to grab taxpayer dollars for himself and the local pro football franchise, and trumpet far-right views and candidates. On the U-T website you will find a page, Seeing Red, of right-wing commentary, including a U-T editorial predicting a second Obama term will lead to U.S. abandonment of Israel, Medicare death panels, and removal of “In God We Trust” from coins. A search for a comparable See Blue page yields the following image:

How U-T sees blue

Nonetheless, by the standards of Palmer and the newspapers publishers of the last century, including Joseph Knowland of the Oakland Tribune and George Cameron of the San Francisco Chronicle, Manchester and his rag are still minor league.

Palmer recruited candidates, taught them what positions to take and how to take them, wrote their speeches and radio scripts, and tore down their opponents. The publishers in Oakland and San Francisco were GOP kingmakers in the north state. I was made editorial page editor of the Oakland Tribune shortly after it had passed from the Knowland family to the Gannett chain. During my long march of conducting endorsements interviews of local candidates, old-timers would tease me that I was doing it all wrong. In the Knowland days, they explained to me, the publisher would pick the candidates he wanted to run for each local office. The paper would then forget to cover their rivals. This procedure saddened reporters and editors wishing to do serious journalism but gave them much more time to drown their sorrow at the bar next door.

Palmer, according to Mitchell, was more generous with the unanointed. In the 1950 U.S. Senate campaign between Nixon and Douglas “Palmer’s idea of balanced coverage was reflected in his public explanation that even though his newspaper opposed Helen Douglas 'from time to time, as space allows, news accounts of what she has to say and what she is doing will be published.’”

Many people will have no problem with a form of journalism that returns from professional to partisan—just look at the rise of Fox News. Those in San Diego who want to look at the world through open eyes are lucky to have an online alternative, Voice of San Diego, which has already replaced the self-destructing U-T as that city's most reliable and interesting source of local news and commentary. If you don't want to see the return of Kyle Palmer, you might consider sending some dollars their way.

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?

ProPublica: The Anti-Politics Police

Try to imagine Lady Chatterley’s Lover written by the Anti-Sex League. If you can, you’ve grasped the basics of ProPublica’s story on California redistricting, which floats a few morsels of detail in a broth of disgust and ideological loathing that renders it worthless and misleading.

The gist of the (badly edited) ProPublica piece is that, while the Republicans who control the House of Representatives sat helplessly on the sideline, “savvy” House Democrats “fooled” a hapless and self-blinded California Citizens Redistricting Commission into drawing a congressional district map that helped some incumbent Democrats at the expense of the public interest.

I’ll refer you to others more steeped in the intricacies to see show how flimsy the ProPublica piece is in some of its particulars:

  1. As Paul Mitchell, a Democratic redistricting guru, notes, it’s “ludicrous” to believe that incumbents and parties wouldn’t take an active role in trying to influence the outcome. (If Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans really ignored the redistricting of the largest state, ProPublica has missed the story here—one of the greatest acts of political malpractice in American history.)
  2. If the Democrats “fooled” the commission, as Robert Cruickshank and Calbuzz write, they did it in the odd way of throwing Democratic incumbents into districts with each other. And ProPublica reaches its conclusion that Democrats achieved unnatural gains by simply ignoring the evidence and analysis it received from political scientists Vladimir Kogan and Eric McGhee, who found that the commission maps yield the expected amount of competition.
  3. The law creating the commission forbids it from considering the place of residence of any incumbent or drawing maps to help or hurt any party. As John Myers of KQED points out, had the commission done what ProPublica criticizes it for not doing—looking at the partisan effect of its maps—the commissioners would have been criticized too. Damned if they don’t, damned if they do. (I’ll go one step beyond John here. They would not only have been criticized—they would have been criticized by these very same ProPublica reporters, who would have taken the commission’s knowledge of the political consequences of their maps as evidence the commission was in cahoots with the Democrats. The first rule of journalism written from the anti-partisan, anti-political perspective is that the person in the public sphere must always be wrong.)

What interests and appalls me most is the craziness of that perspective—that you can have politics without politics. It pervades the story and explains why it has the elements and all of the subtlety of an old-fashioned melodrama of virtue debauched: wily seducer slips by inept chaperone to ravage the unprotected virgin.

The ProPublica reporters go to great lengths to tell us the villains plotted their debauchery in “secret.” (As opposed to all the times that political or business operators conduct their strategy discussion in public?)

They tell us that Democrats slipped by the commission’s defenses to testify at hearings in the guise of “ordinary citizens.” Such language betrays how deeply ideological is the reporters’ anti-partisan view. The most ordinary and common activity of a citizen in a democracy is to advance his or her partisan political identity by organizing, arguing, contributing, or voting. Yet to ProPublica, that activity is less legitimate than that of the economic and ethnic groups that went before the commission to plead for narrower and more selfish interests.

They tell us how the seducers inveigled the virgins with the sweet words of “communities of interest” that they wanted to hear, when all the seducers really wanted was to get into the commission’s maps.

If the ProPublica reporters had approached the story without anti-partisan ideological blinders, they might have seen the meaning and irony of this. After all, political parties are the largest and most pervasive “communities of interest” in our politics. But the law creating the commission, written from the same anti-politics, anti-partisan ideology that blinds ProPublica, explicitly prohibits treating parties as such. So California was trying a grand experiment: What happens when you piss into the wind?

We can see pieces of the answer to that question in ProPublica’s story. Politics doesn’t go away. Parties and incumbents adapt and jostle for advantage as they always have. Though the law tries to elevate other redistricting criteria over party, the thing that continues to matter most in public discussion—to activists, voters, and journalists, including ProPublica—is how redistricting affects partisan balance and the careers of incumbents.

But someday we’ll get the fuller answer, told by someone competent, who both understands and doesn’t hate politics. In other words, someone other than ProPublica.