Among the most noteworthy items in Joseph Kieta’s April 28 debut column were the new Bee editor’s promises to deliver, “a sharper focus for the printed newspaper. It needs to be more local. And it needs to focus on the ‘why’ and ‘how.’” Kieta also told readers to expect more journalism that doesn’t, “pull punches.”
For some, Kieta’s promises amounted to an admission of journalistic weaknesses many Bee readers have lamented for years. They came not long after the Columbia Journalism Review proclaimed that the demand for news in Modesto, “far exceeds the supply.” And they were followed by Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh’s plea to get, “Scott Peterson off the front page and Chris Peterson (California Teacher of the Year) on it.”
Like many Modesto residents, Marsh is weary of Modesto’s “Scandal Central” reputation. On the other hand, like most newspapers today, the Bee is struggling for survival. Faced with declining circulation and revenue, newspapers nationwide are searching desperately for readers. The sad fact is that murder, mayhem, and sex sell. The Bee’s Scott Peterson story went global. One can hardly blame a struggling business for delivering what the customer demands.
The Bee’s long history of pulled punches, partly the result of a well-meaning but (in the context of journalism) ill-considered “civility campaign,” resulted in years of failure to hold elected officials accountable, especially those favored by Bee management. We thus had a gargantuan tire fire, the purchase of the Vogel ranch at an inflated price, an almost endless promotion of Diablo Grande (despite severe and obvious water problems), and the current failure to explain the “hows and whys” of the Modesto Irrigation District proposal to sell water to San Francisco, and none of these things apparently ever involved accountable elected officials.
But it’s too easy to blame the Bee’s lapses on management. More than most businesses, newspapers are reflections of their customers. In today’s survey- and focus-driven market, newspapers must please readers who reject “negative” news, demand the illusion of “objectivity,” and display an insatiable appetite for sensational sex and violent crime. The results are feel-good stories, false equivalencies, and 24/7 Scott Peterson or James Hooker, take your pick.
More than anything, Valley citizens need news that leads—news that helps them make wise political and quality-of-life choices. For too many, the consumption of news has become a feast of empty calories. It will take an extraordinary effort to change readers’ taste for scandal and an even greater effort to involve them in the kind of political deliberation and value-driven news that provides the information the public needs to promote participatory government.
James Madison’s admonitory words were never more appropriate than today: “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both.” We will continue reading the Bee in hopes of acquiring the “popular information” so necessary to our “popular government.” And we hope Bee readers will do their part to promote the “hows and whys” of good journalism by demanding more than the scandal du jour.