Nonsense and media

Alarmed by the state’s craven politics and giant budget deficit? Don’t be. The California media is on the job.

Illustration By B.Z.

If the courts delay the recall, pity the voters who will be subjected to four extra months of Gray Davis pretending he likes church (as when he loudly pronounced Psalms as “Palm” while in church with Bill Clinton), pretending he has friends and pretending he’s a good man who’s just misunderstood.

But I pity the voters even more for having to rely for information on the California media, a bunch whose political coverage is, with some exceptions, best categorized as journalistic malpractice.

A wise man said a strong democracy is guaranteed only by a vigilant press. The craven power game that grips Sacramento and controls Davis remains a baffling mystery to everyday people largely because of the California media.

The collapse of leadership in the statehouse, which led to the greatest state budget deficit in U.S. history and to the recall movement against Davis, is the direct result of an extended lack of journalistic vigilance.

Had Davis been on notice that the public was alert and asking questions about the overspending he willingly signed off on beginning a few years ago, the cowardly governor might have feared the public far more than he feared the lobbyists. He might have vetoed the worst overspending in 2001 and 2002.

But instead, the media covered the profound and mounting state crisis as a boring “budget story.” The media not only inadvertently protected Davis but also kissed off the public’s need to know.

So quick to blame other institutions for what is wrong with society, journalists are a highly defensive crowd who rarely admit they are also to blame—unless they are seriously drunk.

Despite the boisterous recall—and the 75 percent to 90 percent of Californians who say they are paying “close attention” to it and to the crush of national coverage—the state’s media is still kissing off the public’s need to know.

I watched in awe in the days leading to a September 12 deadline as the Legislature passed last-minute laws never before debated in public. Lawmakers changed laws from one meaning to an entirely new meaning, accompanied by hurried and inept discussions. They ignored massive problems to tinker with silliness.

Hundreds of mostly foolish bills now sit on the desk of Davis. If the recall vote goes forward, Davis is expected to sign many of the bills into law by October 7 to appease special-interest groups, because he might not be governor as of October 8.

The media will cover the daylights out of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ postponement of the recall and the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s a truly juicy story, and editors have sent up a howl for copy on what motivates the 9th Circuit, the single most-overturned court in the nation.

But when it comes to the broken cogs and snapped bolts in Sacramento that precipitated the recall, the media don’t name the faceless characters or provide the crucial details of how the money really gets spent.

Maybe the public ought to do something about this. On the chance that the U.S. Supreme Court allows the recall to go ahead, here’s a test you can give the media: Watch for coverage of the incredible laws just approved by the Legislature—not quickie stories that tell you nothing, but serious, detailed stories that get to the truth.

“Serious” and “detailed” mean you are informed of who actually ghostwrote the law (not the politician, but a big union or other huge special interest), whether and how the law was dramatically altered when the public wasn’t watching and who gave money to legislators who voted for it.

It’s not very difficult for journalists to do this Journalism 201, but it is time-consuming. So, they rarely do it. If one reporter from each medium-sized city in California spent one day researching one crazy bill, the Internet would be jammed with the sort of truth you rarely hear in California.

So, here’s my list, with editorial comment, naturally. And by the way, nearly all of the bills approved by the Legislature came from the Democrats. That’s because the majority Democrats used their significant powers to prevent Republican bills from getting out of committee for a vote. I watched about 450 bills get approved in recent days. About 25 were Republican.

Some of the bills awaiting Davis’ signature:

• Assembly Bill 1245, by John Laird of Santa Cruz—It prevents draft ballot measures written by citizens from first going to the attorney general, where they currently are sent so that any obviously illegal language can be removed before public distribution. Under the new law, measures filled with inadvertent illegal wording would go on a state Web site so the public could see every error. The intent is to make citizen measures look as controversial and inept as possible, so they have less hope of passage. Laird should be flogged in a public square for this sneak attack on the initiative process, but I guess we don’t do that anymore.

• Assembly Bill 1309, by Jackie Goldberg of Los Angeles—With this bill, when a school district tears down houses to build a school, the district also can tear down somebody else’s house, somewhere else, to build new housing for the people it originally displaced. The intent is to make middle-class suburbanites, whom Goldberg intensely dislikes, suffer instead of blue-collar families who live in the crowded areas where schools are being built. Watch for lawsuits from unsuspecting homeowners nowhere near the schools being torn down.

• Assembly Bill 587, by Mark Ridley Thomas of Los Angeles—This instructs that a box asking for your skin color will be put on voter-registration forms now. The intent is unknown, but it makes me extremely queasy. Who’s asking?

• Assembly Bill 1742—If you go to a tax man who has more than 100 clients, this one forces you to send your returns to the state via the Internet, and you may not opt to use far-more-secure snail mail. The intent is to save money, but because this is the Legislature of Unintended Consequences, watch for huge numbers of security-minded taxpayers to drop their current tax preparer and find one with fewer than 100 clients.

• Senate Bill 796, by Joseph Dunn of Orange County—This has employers in a tremendous dither. It gives employees the ability to seek fines of $200 for each employee in a company that commits even small violations of state labor codes. Our California labor code is infamous, containing so many rules that it’s actually thicker than the Manhattan phone book. How could it be so thick? Example: One rule spells out the size of typeface in which employee notices must be posted. Under Dunn’s law, every employee can seek $200 if employers screw up on such rules. Sounds like Christmas all year. I predict that Dunn, joined at the hip with various unions and the trial lawyers, will be showered with campaign contributions.

• Senate Bill 892, by Kevin Murray of Los Angeles—This one penalizes and withholds funds from schools that are caught with dirty bathrooms. This stupid bill once again takes the backward, anti-reform way of fixing the schools. Instead of giving power to principals to decide how to spend money—such as on cleaner bathrooms—the Legislature and school districts have robbed California principals of nearly all power and spending decisions. Pushed by the school employees’ unions, people like Murray see to it that struggling schools are further punished. Brilliant.

• Assembly Bill 231, by Darrell Steinberg of Sacramento—This “reforms” the food-stamp program, which long has required that people couldn’t own fancy cars if they expected taxpayers to buy their food. Until now, a food-stamp recipient had to downgrade to a car worth a maximum of roughly $4,300. Now, you can own a Rolls, and your household can own as many cars, of limitless value, as it likes. Also, there will be no more face-to-face interviews to get food stamps. Just give officials a buzz on the phone. Did I mention that California’s food-stamp program is rife with fraud and, in particular, is being targeted by con artists who are not poor?

A few stupid ideas were defeated. Steinberg’s idea to fine hospitals heavily unless they lower nurse-to-patient ratios was killed when Assemblyman Keith Richman, a liberal Republican and the only doctor in the Assembly, told legislators that hospitals would make their ratios by closing beds and units. “No nurses are out there, and you will end up denying care to the sick,” Richman pleaded.

It was one of the very few arguments that stopped more than a week of pell-mell nonsense by legislators, egged on by the increasingly panicky Davis.

Also defeated was Senate leader John Burton’s nutty bill to give California American Indian tribes tremendous sway over any development anywhere near an American Indian burial or sacred site—even if it was miles away.

I could list 100 more bills that make equally little sense. Davis, openly pandering to the groups for whom the bills were written, could sign many of them.

So, drop your tax man, call up for food stamps, suspiciously eye any new school in your town and hire an attorney to make sure your employee bulletin board is legal. And be secure in knowing the California media are on the job.