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Guest Commentary: Hard times for truth, journalism

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“The further a society drifts from truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.”

—George Orwell

The collapse of local news reporting in communities across California and the rest of the country is a slow-motion disaster undermining the very fabric of our democracy in ways large and small. Driven in part by high tech companies like Facebook, Google and others which have robbed local news organizations of the print advertising revenue upon which they once relied to subsidize quality journalism, hundreds of newspapers across the country offer far less news or have disappeared entirely, leaving behind “news deserts” where people have little way of knowing what their local government officials are doing.

Last year, according to the New York Times, more than 1,000 newspaper employees lost their jobs in America, extending a trend which began more than a decade ago. In the East Bay, home to 2.5 million people, ownership changes and inept corporate consolidations has resulted in the disappearance of the following daily newspapers: Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, the Daily Review of Hayward, the Argus of Fremont and the Tri-Valley Herald in Pleasanton, among others. According to the Associated Press, what’s left is one regional daily newspaper, the East Bay Times, which is attempting to cover an area the size of Delaware with a tiny fraction of the news staff formerly covering the 40 large and small cities in the region.

Were the economic pressures not enough, President Trump’s continuous public bashing of newspapers and television news media has only worsened the dilemma. Trump’s frequent and shameful cries of “fake news” (generally defined as factual news reports which have truthfully exposed his own misdeeds) is clearly aimed at bolstering his public image while undermining the legitimacy of the entire American press corps. He strongly encourages his minions nationwide to hate the very people (journalists) who toil daily to bring them facts and truth.

As a result of these and other forces battering the news industry, voter turnout has declined, political polarization has increased markedly and community engagement with local government has significantly deteriorated. Without “watchdog” journalists keeping a close eye on local governments, increased corruption can now occur unabated.

Even the Democratic Party establishment here in California is part of the problem. During the annual meeting of the California Press Foundation last month in San Francisco, I heard a deeply disturbing presentation entitled “California vs. the First Amendment.” Moderated by David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition headquartered in San Rafael, panelists discussed the ramifications of a troubling trend in which various California government agencies were behind an unrelenting number of attacks on free speech last year. Among them was an illegal raid at the home of freelance journalist Bryan Carmody, in which a dozen heavily-armed San Francisco Police officers with a battering ram and sledge hammer stormed in to seize the reporter’s laptops, phones and hard drives containing images and documents he had archived from his 29-year career as a reporter and cameraman. Police were in search of the source for a leaked police report about the death of San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, but their search and seizure were wholly unconstitutional since journalists here are protected, by law, from having to divulge the sources of the information in their news stories.

Many more examples of government overreach were cited by Snyder’s panel. Among the most egregious was California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s refusal to release serious police misconduct records, which are now open for public review per a new law endorsed by the California Police Chiefs Association that wanted to know if the people applying for police jobs had previously committed crimes or major ethical violations. Becerra complained that his staff would not have the time to produce such important public records, but a trial court ruled otherwise. He has appealed the court ruling.

A bright spot at the California Press Foundation event was a presentation by Sonoma Media Investments CEO Steve Falk, my former boss, who spoke about how the company earned a Pulitzer Prize for the Press Democrat’s overage of the horrific fires of October 2017. Sonoma Media Investments also owns the Argus-Courier.

Falk’s talk focused on the importance of keeping quality journalism front and center in the overall business model and reminded me that Sonoma County residents deeply value local news coverage and support it with their subscription dollars to both print and digital-only versions.

Press Democrat readers were further reminded of the importance of watchdog journalism in a story published earlier this month regarding actual ridership numbers on the $600 million commuter SMART train, which is subsidized by local taxpayers. The data for the news story was obtained using a California Public Records Act request after SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian repeatedly refused to release the figures, claiming that his agency did not break out daily or weekly passenger totals commonly reported by other transit systems.

Whereas Mansourian had recently stated that the rail lined carried an average of 2,800 riders each weekday, the actual data revealed that number was actually closer to 2,300. The discrepancy amounted to a difference of about 96,000 riders a year, or roughly one sixth of SMART’s annual ridership.

Why is this important? Voters in the North Bay will soon be asked to approve an early renewal of the rail line tax for 30 years, and they have a right to the facts about how many people are riding the rail line and how truthful the people are who are running it.

Journalists aren’t always perfect, but they usually get their facts straight since their credibility and vocational future depends on it. Despite the many headwinds that continue to undermine their efforts, I’m grateful for their work and what it does to ensure we are able to retain our fraying democracy.

(John Burns is former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at john.burns@arguscourier.com.)

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