Why is the Bee creating the buzz?

Team player: When does journalism become boosterism? After the Sacramento Bee‘s second three-part series in two weeks promoting a new basketball arena for the Kings in downtown Sacramento, Bites would say that time is now.

You gotta admire the public relations savvy of Mayor Heather Fargo and other city officials, in concert with the Sacramento Kings‘ top brass, which has gotten the Bee in on the ground floor of their effort to convince Sacramentans to spend public money on a new arena.

Using lures like leaking an advance copy of a consultant’s study of the arena concept, opening up of the Kings’ corporate books to the Bee and bringing the Bee along on a “fact finding” tour of the arenas in other cities, the promoters of the downtown arena have managed to dominate April’s front-page spreads.

In exchange for such “scoops,” the Bee has apparently been willing to play along with transparent little ploys behind the Fargo offensive, such as parroting self-serving tripe like “Kings officials have said little about their interest in moving downtown.”

Why would the Bee let the Maloofs stick to this coy line, even when the Bee’s own pages have included quotes like King’s Prez John Thomas saying, “We are very interested in downtown,” and when the Kings are helping pay for the study? Why? Because public opinion on the idea would sour if people thought this was about the city buying a new arena for the Kings, instead of looking for a “catalyst for redevelopment” that benefits us all.

Of course the Kings want a new arena downtown with luxury boxes galore. Why wouldn’t they? And if winning a big public subsidy for the project wasn’t the reason behind letting the Maloofs go on and on about how broke they really are in the “King Inc.” series, then what exactly was the point? And why would you let that claim off without telling the reader about the economic concept of “value,” instead of presenting the Kings as some sort of philanthropic venture?

Listen, Bites has no problem with the Bee getting in early on the discussions of this proposed arena. And there have certainly been some skeptical statements in the hundreds of column-inches they’ve recently devoted to this subject.

Yet the cheerleading has drowned out the journalism. Sunday’s story about a four-city junket of questionable value paid for by taxpayers (with more such trips to come) included no price tag and only one unskeptical line on the cost: “Sacramento city officials said they paid their way with office expense accounts.” Huh?

During an extended interview with the Maloofs about finances, why couldn’t the Bee get them to address what they’re willing to pay for a new arena? Why haven’t we seen any scrutiny of whether this project is a proper use of redevelopment funds desperately needed in other blighted parts of the city? Or whether something other than an arena that many city residents can’t afford to ever enter could also be a “catalyst” for transforming the railyards to other urban uses?

As it does with both the legislative and executive branches of state government, the Bee is desperately trying to maintain access to the powers-that-be by trading away straight talk, tough questions and scrutiny of the “growth is good” paradigm … and pretending that’s journalism.

You may not see access to the inner offices of the Maloofs, Fargo or Gray Davis in this column, but Bites will always tell it like it is.

Stifled speech: For the second year in a row, Sacramento has the dubious distinction of being awarded a “Muzzle Award” by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

Last year, it was the Sacramento Convention and Visitor’s Bureau that drew deserved scorn for allowing visiting home-schoolers to put clothing on our Poseidon statue because they considered it “pornographic.”

This year, the center rapped attendees at Sacramento State University‘s graduation ceremony who heckled Bee publisher Janis Besler Heaphy off the stage as she raised concerns about losing liberties to the war on terrorism.

Maybe we ought to have a "three strikes and you’re out (of town)" law for those who make Sacramento look like such a small-minded city.