Jewish Journal

Whose Guarding the Henhouse?

by  David A. Lehrer

July 10, 2014 | 2:36 pm

As readers of this blog know, Community Advocates has been active in focusing attention on actions in Sacramento that seem to belie logic, data and good public policy.

Over the past few months we have written about and taken action to counter Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 that sought to allow racial and ethnic preferences in admission to California’s public universities and colleges. We wrote about Senate Bill 1174 aimed at restoring “Bilingual education” in California despite evidence that the English language learners have done well since elimination of the flawed “Bilingual” system in the late 90s. There are countless other efforts at legislation that seem ill thought out---more attuned to media attention than serious dealing with issues.

Having debated the authors of two of the most problematic bills pending in Sacramento, I wondered how they could get away with offering such little serious argumentation in support of their legislation.

Today the Pew Center issued a report which may offer some insight as to why our state capitol seems so much less serious than in days when Speakers Jess Unruh and Willie Brown shepherded meaningful legislation through the state house that dealt with real world problems.

The Pew Research Journalism Project’s report entitled America’s Shifting Statehouse Press chronicles the decline in reporters covering the activities of state legislators nation-wide. The report calculates that full-time newspaper reporters in statehouses declined by 35% between 2003 and 2014. While newspaper reporters overall declined by 30% between 2003 and 2012, the decline in local state reporting was even more precipitous. Non-traditional news outlets have added some reporters in capitals, but they have not filled the loss of real, newspaper journalists.

The report concluded that less than a third of our nation’s newspapers assign any kind of a reporter to their statehouse. Eighty-six percent of television news stations don’t even assign one reporter to their statehouse. Of the reporters who do cover statehouses, 16% are tied in with “non-traditional” news sources ranging from non-profits to digital outlets of one sort or another. While large states, like California (43 full time reporters) and Texas (53), have more reporters than others it turns out that on a per capita basis California has the fewest number of reporters per resident (866,371/reporter) of any state.

Any attempt to establish a causal relationship between a decline in news coverage of a legislature and the quality of its legislation is perilous. Nevertheless, it is probably safe to assume that legislators who don’t think anyone serious is watching what they do may be more prone to promote poorly thought out bills to pad their resumes and their webpages then if they were worried about a challenging editorial or an inquiring reporter. If the only meaningful counter-force to silliness and worse is colleagues with whom they can horse trade, we are losing an important safeguard when the Fourth Estate abdicates some of its responsibilities.

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