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California Seen Through the Press Darkly

Historian and state librarian Kevin Starr complains at length in today's Los Angeles Times that we Californians have taken to Scorning Public Life:

For two decades, Californians have not been engaged — psychologically, intellectually, imaginatively — at the statewide level. In the era of Govs. Earl Warren, Goodwin Knight and Pat Brown, Sacramento was at the center of the California experience. In such public-minded visions as the freeway system, the statewide water plan and the master plan for higher education, Californians expressed their highest creativity.

Then things began to change. State government became the problem, not the solution. With the information revolution — realized and symbolized by the Internet — California began to devolve into a federation of local autonomies. State government didn't disappear, but it became increasingly invisible as local identities and values superseded Sacramento's. Part of the reason that state programs got so out of sync with sustainable revenues was this invisibility. Californians were too busy finding California locally to bother with finding it in Sacramento. Term limits finalized this devolution, for they brought state government a steady succession of local and locally oriented elected officials.
Starr overlooks an important contributor to the invisibility of California state government: a press that can't or won't provide the sort of ongoing coverage that would give the average citizen the first idea what is going on in Sacramento. Local television news operations maintain no presence in Sacramento and can go days or weeks at a time without mentioning the capital -- unless, perhaps, there was an interesting police pursuit there. The print media -- notably including the Times -- provides rudimentary coverage at best. Columnist Jill Stewart is all over the blindness of the press in this week's column:
A wise man said democracy is guaranteed only by a vigilant press. The collapse of leadership in the statehouse, which led to the greatest state budget deficit in U.S. history and to the recall against Davis, is the direct result of an extended lack of journalistic vigilance.

Had Davis believed the public was alert and questioning the overspending he willingly approved beginning years ago, the cowardly Davis might have feared the people more than the lobbyists. He might have vetoed mounting overspending.

Instead, the media handled the emerging crisis as a boring budget story, inadvertently protecting Davis and kissing off the public's need to know.
Stewart's column also provides a guide to some of the more shortsighted or self-serving items of legislation that have been sent to the Governor's desk while the public's back was turned, unreported by the press.

The Conventional Wisdom among bloggers, of course, is that blogs are The Answer, that they can provide the coverage that the more organized and edited media do not. And the Sacramento Bee took a step in that direction when it authorized public affairs columnist Daniel Weintraub to launch his blog, California Insider -- often cited here for its timely coverage of recall-related news. Today, however, we learn that Weintraub's wings are to be clipped: thanks to a complaint from the Latino caucus in the Legislature, the Bee's ombudsman has made it known that nothing will be allowed to be posted to the Insider blog unless it has first been cleared with another Bee editor. Mickey Kaus broke the story, and blogospheric heavyweights such as Glenn Reynolds and Matt Welch have leapt in to express their disapproval and dismay -- in which this Fool joins. A large collection of links and comment can be found at Robert Tagorda's Priorities & Frivolities.

Harrumph. How can the news be fit to print if no one's willing to print it?


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