A recent report by the Columbia Journalism Review focused on news in Modesto. It is a must read, especially those sections by former Modestans, including former Modesto Junior College Professor Laura Paull. The report sparked a great deal of commentary, all of it of keen interest to Valley citizens. Our take follows.
Many Modesto Bee employees and former employees cried “foul” when the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) released a report that claimed, “In Modesto, California, the need for news far exceeds the supply.” CJR made the claim with particular reference to the dearth of online alternatives to the Bee, but it was only natural that some at the Bee were stung by implications of the study.
Featuring comments from former local journalists Nic Roethlisberger and Dhayan Levey, the study noted huge differences between availability of news in large metropolitan areas and the Northern San Joaquin Valley in general:
“Modesto is a different universe,” Roethlisberger said. “The Bee is pretty much the only professional news organization covering the city. That’s it. In San Francisco you have the Chronicle and the Examiner and umpteen wire services. That just doesn’t happen in Modesto. There are some very good reporters there, but not too many of them.”
Roethlisberger went on to note that lack of competition can lead to complacency, even with the best reporters. More telling, he also said local journalists often, “don’t know what they don’t know.” If local journalists, “don’t know what they don’t know,” imagine the effect on local citizens. For many, the Bee is their only source of local news, and it never occurs to them to consider how much is missing from Bee coverage.
Consider two cases in point. The Valley Citizen has already published a column by the late John Michael Flint that the Bee refused to print. Bee readers never knew Flint’s take on the criminal charges that were conveniently filed just before the campaign for Carmen Sabatino’s second term as mayor. Flint wrote the charges were of “dubious merit.” Flint also wrote a column about current mayor Jim Ridenour’s time sheets, official submissions that had Ridenour in two places at once. Flint didn’t submit that column to the Bee. Instead, he placed it anonymously on the Sabatino Report—because he knew the Bee had determined the time sheet was not news worth pursuing. It’s worth a read.
We might note also that the Bee and Mayor Ridenour seem quite disturbed about City Council member-elect John Gunderson’s putative conflicts of interest, but not concerned about their own. Ridenour’s moonlighting with the sheriff’s department is taken for granted, and the Bee’s need for growth and advertising revenue is never an issue, despite the Bee’s cheerleading for massive development on the floodplain habitat of a then endangered species (the proposed UC site on Mapes Ranch in the late 80’s) and its failure to discover Diablo Grande’s water problems until much too late, to name just two instances when self-interest was a major factor in framing the news.
The Diablo Grande issue is particularly problematic because two local experts, Al Brizzard and Steve Burke, tried repeatedly to sound the alarm about Diablo Grande’s lack of a reliable water supply. The Bee remained an enthusiastic booster of a now deeply troubled project that is still trying to locate a sufficient source of clean water.
None of these things mean the Bee and Bee reporters are incompetent, corrupt or lax. Rather, the Bee and Bee readers suffer from the isolation that naturally occurs when a given point of view is the only game in town. And like other newspapers in the grip of journalistic tradition, the Bee’s leadership reflexively adheres to journalistic standards many journalists and scholars claim are no longer relevant or even good journalism.
CJR’s Dean Starkman, writing about Jay Rosen and other news gurus, had this to say about Rosen’s views on mainstream media:
…..few academics are more withering, and in my view, trenchant, in their critiques of mainstream media and its multiple, florid failings. In writings over the years, he has likened American press culture to a church, and a bureaucratized one, that equates mechanically playing it down the middle with finding truth, and one that takes refuge in platitudes (“if both sides are criticizing us, we must be right”). He has called the press out on its “quest for innocence,” the idea —that it just reports facts and has no stake in them, is not responsible for rendering judgment, and can’t be held responsible, in any way, for outcomes.
Bee readers will recognize one of Bee management’s favored platitudes in the list above, and should ponder local “outcomes” that include high crime rates, continuing losses of productive farmland, and our cities’ failures to provide general plans that avoid sprawl.
While many Bee employees and former employees reacted defensively to the CJR report, they needn’t have. McClatchy is a great news organization and anyone who’s been inside the Bee’s newsroom knows Bee reporters are among Modesto’s most gifted and hardest working people. At bottom, CJR’s report suggests that unless and until Modesto citizens are willing to provide a market for the kind of news people need to make informed decisions about public policy, it is inevitable they remain Bee-wildered—not because of any nefarious design, but because real news is the product of multiple viewpoints and competing interests striving for truth.
Sal Salerno says
Good insight on local news!
Fred Herman says
Modesto’s news supply has been a mixed bag. When I arrived in ’58, The Bee had just been denounced on the floor of congress as “socialist.” i.e. advocating public ownership of public utilities, but it covered only meetings and official documents like the police blotter. Enterprise stories were unwelcome. My feature (as a copy editor) on two African American teachers unable to find Modesto housing was spiked. Bu tit had a sense of professionalism, reaching its apex with formation of a Newspaper Guild chapter in 1974.
That was then. The Bee now is laid out (ads, anyway) in India and printed in Sacramento. The editorial staff is decimated. An operation once carried out on the second floor of a building covering a block now can be carried out in a phone booth. (Anyone remember phone booths?) Arts coverage, always spotty, vanished totally when the last “critic” left for motherhood; the “Scene”section is shallow beyond belief. Sports focuses on tiny parochial schools which most Modestans don’t know exist, with Cal and Stanford all but ignored.
Incidentally, I never heard of Roethlisberger or Levey. Few “good reporters” are left. The top editorial dog won his position for attending his predecessor’s church and baby-sitting his predecessors children; the union found the letter of recommendation confirming this account. His two major assistants are sweet little girls (now in their fifties) whose major strong points seemed to be believing that their superiors knew anything about journalism.
Shall I continue with Bee endorsements, abysmal manifestations of long-gone editors feeling that since they COULD endorse, they HAD TO endorse? Identifying the core beliefs of candidates for public office is generally taboo.
The “youth page” insults teens with such trivia as “what’s your favorite color?”
Incompetent, corrupt or lax? Its laxness is legend. I have no proof of corruption at any level. Competence? Don’t get me started. The only point of view in town? If anyone can identify a point of view – possibly besides eternal toadying to the establishment – I’d be glad to see it. Fred Herman
Fred Herman says
what does “awaiting moderation” mean?
Eric Caine says
We receive many comments by people who merely want to advertise their own websites. As a result, we have to filter comments.
Hunter Moldrup says
Eric, your article has a great democratizing effect and might awaken more people from their dogmatic slumber by introducing your audience to Columbia Journalism Review. The paucity of local in-depth, investigative reporting is well-documented by CJR and other independent sources. None of these sources who are critical of shallow reporting have an axe to grind–they just want to make sure citizens have adequate and accurate information so we can make informed judgments. Your article is a beginning to promote this attitude in the local press.
Eric Caine says
Thank you Hunter. It is always good to hear from you.
Adrian Mendoza says
You wrote “Many Modesto Bee employees and former employees cried “foul” when the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) released a report that claimed, “In Modesto, California, the need for news far exceeds the supply,” but you didn’t attribute any quotes or name names. In fact, 2 former reporters (Patrick Giblin and Rusty Coats) and one editor (Nic Roethlisberger) were among the writers. Aside from their predictably defensive indignation, what could they possibly say to counter the essays? Enquiring minds want to know.
Eric Caine says
In the “comments,” former Bee writer Adam Ashton thought the articles gave too little credit to the Bee’s hardworking journalists. Vikki Porter, who claimed to have worked with Bee employees, thought the CJR reports neglected to include enough of the Bee employee perspective. One current Bee employee posted a (Facebook) comment to the effect, “Pooh on the Colmbia Journalism Review.” Mark Vasche frequently remarks that he believes the Bee is doing a good job because, “everyone is angry,” the very platitude Jay Rosen claims provides cover for so many editors. I eagerly await the day when more Bee employees and former employees tell us what they know about policy there. Over time, my own stories will come out. As for, “what could they possibly say,” I think Ashton represents a common perspective. I am of the opinion that nothing can be said, “to counter the essays.” In fact, the essays did not go far enough in emphasizing Modesto’s need for news.
Gary Wheeler says
Its not just newspapers. Modesto has no real TV Stations. Virtually everything comes from Sacramento. Even the public radio, as KUOP has been gobbled up by a non profit conglomerate.
Wonderful blog! I found it while browsing on
Yahoo News. Do you have any suggestions on how to get listed in Yahoo News?
I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Thank you
Eric Caine says
No idea how to get listed; didn’t know we were.