Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Adversarial relations are better for the Capitol

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:16 pm

We in the media occupy an odd place in Capitol politics.

Inescapably, we are part of the process because what we write and broadcast and how we do it affects outcomes of issues inside the Capitol and political campaigns outside.

That's why those in and around the Capitol employ hundreds of media advisers and spokespersons – outnumbering journalists by multiple factors – to affect, if they can, what we in the media do.

That said, we are not combatants or stakeholders. At best, we are the public's eyes and ears. We monitor hearings, debates and other official activities, talk to the participants and sort through thousands of bills and countless other bits of official paperwork.

We try to figure out what's happening and why and decide – imperfectly, to be sure – what's pertinent for our audiences.

I've been doing that in the Capitol for more than 37 years, ever since Jerry Brown began his first stint as governor. And I've never seen a time when the relationship between the media and those in the Capitol has been more contentious.

But that's good.

Journalists, especially newspapers such as The Bee, have ramped up their watchdog role as never before – in part because with media fragmentation, investigative efforts are original and unique content.

Another reason is that with one-party dominance in the Capitol, its denizens have seemingly become more arrogant and secretive, so there's more grist for the media mill.

They bridle when we write about such matters as botched bridge construction testing, hidden funds in a state agency, legislative staff raises, semi-secret special interest bills or phantom legislative committees, especially since they want voters to enact new taxes.

Brown, governor again, used the word "malpractice" to describe The Bee's articles about bridge testing – just before reporter Charles Piller revealed even more embarrassing facts.

On a day-to-day working level, we've seen politicians' media handlers engage in petty, sometimes personal sniping at journalists. In a recent interview, Brown referred to all newspapers as "a machine to heighten neurosis and increase the propensity to respond to the advertising."

Another factor in the more adversarial media climate is that the personal symbiosis between reporters and Capitol staffers has eroded.

The press corps has contracted dramatically in these tough economic times. We are experiencing the reality of California's economy while those in the Capitol still enjoy job security, lavish fringe benefits and even salary increases.

This friction is not a bad thing. A less tolerant, more independent and skeptical press corps means the public is getting more information about what their politicians are doing – or not doing.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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