On The Sacramento Bee's soft spot for K.J.

The Bee has been criticized before for its handling of Johnson’s various controversies, and this latest legal dust-up isn’t helping

It’s weird when news organizations become the news. But that’s exactly what happened when Mayor Kevin Johnson filed a lawsuit against the city and SN&R.

The July 1 lawsuit came after SN&R refused to back off its public-records request for emails between his office and attorneys involved in a legal entanglement with the National Conference of Black Mayors. As a result, Johnson sued to block the city’s release of said emails, citing attorney-client privilege—emails that the city attorney had already determined to be public record.


Even taking SN&R out of the equation, the lawsuit is odd—and a pretty big deal. When was the last time (if ever) that a mayor sued his or her own city? When was the last time (if ever) that a mayor requested a restraining order against the city he or she governs?

News of Johnson’s landmark legal moves spread fast. By end of day Wednesday, all three major local TV news stations had visited SN&R’s Del Paso Boulevard headquarters to interview publisher Jeff vonKaenel. National outlets such as Deadspin, The Huffington Post and USA Today also picked up the story.

All of which just makes The Sacramento Bee’s coverage of the lawsuit all the more, well, weird.

Take its initial report, for starters: After the news broke, the paper posted a short, unbylined brief on its website. That’s not necessarily the strange part; breaking news is a fast beast, surely the paper’s print version would be meatier.

Nope. The Bee’s July 2 print version of the story was buried on page A3, credited only to “Bee Metro Staff.”

How and why, exactly, did Bee editors decide this story wasn’t front-page news?

(Full disclosure: I worked at the Bee from 2000-09 as a features writer and have a pretty good idea of its newsroom politics. Getting bylined credit for a juicy city scandal story is a big, big deal.)

But the weirdness doesn’t stop there. There’s also the Bee’s mischaracterization of its own role.

The lawsuit states that the Bee “agreed that all privileged communications may be omitted from its public records request. The SNR, however, has refused to withdraw its request.”

The Bee’s coverage offered a different take, however. The July 2 print story contradicted the lawsuit’s claim, and the paper’s own prior claim, that editors had agreed to anything: “To expedite the remainder of the records request, The Bee said in an email that those attorney communications could be omitted … if the city independently determined they were privileged. Because the city determined they are not privileged, The Bee is still requesting those records.”

Makes sense.

However, a June 25 email from Bee reporter Marissa Lang to Johnson attorney David Pittinsky contradicts that assertion.

In the email, which was included as evidence in the lawsuit filing, Lang writes, “I spoke with my editors and our legal counsel and we’ve decided that any emails independently found by the city attorney to fall under attorney-client privilege can be omitted from the PRA request.”

In other words, the Bee agreed to Johnson’s demand to back off those emails.

The Bee also reported a different version of SN&R’s role. In a July 3 story—this one with a byline for veteran reporter Dale Kasler—it claimed SN&R refused to make a deal with Johnson’s attorney because we were “insisting on getting all the emails right away.”

The takeaway? The Bee’s approach has been professional and fair while SN&R has resorted to aggressive and unreasonable tactics. Or, as the lawsuit read, we’re being “stubborn.”

The only thing our paper has insisted upon is legal due process.

An email exchange with Bee editors eventually resulted in a formal correction in the paper’s July 4 edition.

The Bee has been criticized before for its handling of Johnson’s various controversies, and this latest legal dust-up isn’t helping its reputation as a paper that’s friendly to a fault when it comes to the mayor.

Earlier this year, for example, an embarrassing exchange between Johnson and his attorney Jeffrey Dorso came to light after SN&R filed a records request for emails between the mayor and his staff.

“Met with [Sacramento Bee columnist] Marcos Breton today and put him in the dog house,” Dorso wrote to the mayor and staff in 2013. “He tried to back peddle [sic] saying it was just more neutral than negative. I hit him on this saying he needs to keep in mind his goals and focus on economic benefits of downtown development. He said he would do a better article Sunday.”

It’s a newspaper’s duty to investigate and accurately report. Whether the Bee’s revisionist take on the story is intentional, clearly it needs to spend less time worrying about its own image—or the mayor’s.

To do otherwise makes the Bee a gatekeeper for Johnson’s agenda instead of the public watchdog it’s supposed to be.

An earlier version of this story stated that the Sacramento Bee did not correct an error regarding its coverage of the lawsuit in print. That is incorrect, the Bee revised the story online and ran a correction in its July 4 edition. SN&R regrets the error.