In fall, 2010, the Columbia Journalism Review’s report about the dearth of news in Modesto was met with ignorance and denial. Most Valley citizens never heard of the report; of those who did, denial has long been their default reaction to negative news about their beloved home.
Sometime during the mid- to late-nineties, when Modesto began ranking last or next to last in various quality of life categories, regional leaders circled the wagons and developed a defensive response to negative news that has been the community standard ever since.
Not long afterwards, the Modesto Bee began a “civility campaign.” It didn’t take long for the, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” policy to become institutionalized.
Close observers of the local political scene since then will note that no matter how egregious the political bungling, no one is ever accountable. Consider Village I, Diablo Grande, the Vogel purchase, the SCAP scandal, and most recently, the mismanagement at the Modesto Irrigation District—all took place without a trace of responsibility.
A lone exception was during the controversy over the proposed dump on Stanislaus County’s West Side. County CEO Reagan Wilson was caught favoring his friend Lee Torrens with plum assignments and then exposed for his extravagant use of the County credit card. This story was one of the first and last produced by Joe Demma, whose tenure at the Bee was marked both by his willingness to do real journalism and a hasty exit.
Demma was most likely put on notice that his failure to be “objective” was a sin. The Bee formula for objectivity consists of giving equal time in the form of quotes, avoiding analysis or context, and washing its hands of any responsibility for helping the public make informed decisions.
Thus, in its recent report of the Farm Bureau’s conclusion that we’re doing a poor job of preserving precious farmland, the Bee made sure to include a comment by the Building Industry Association’s John Beckman, who said the amount of irrigated cropland is growing. Beckman knew he could comment without fear of analysis or explanation.
But Bee readers really need to know that virtually all our increase in farmland is on land irrigated by ground water only. Those miles and miles of orchards on Stanislaus County’s east side are drawing down the aquifer at a rate that will not only diminish our water supply, but also produce associated problems of subsidence, salinity, and compaction.
The southern San Joaquin Valley already has water problems that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars just to begin to control. Much of the land and water are ruined beyond remedy, and the cause is overuse of ground water. Rather than learn from past mistakes, northern San Joaquin Valley citizens are poised to commit the same errors, in part because of the failure of local media to sound the alarm.
Someday someone will do a post mortem report on the costs to Valley citizens of the “dearth of news” in our region. Most likely, the report will receive little notice and less comment. It’s only over the long run that denial is less comforting than fatal.