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Press Clips: Merc Up, Chron Down, Politicker WTF?

Jul16

kenmclaughlinHats off: Mega-kudos to Ken McLaughlin of the San Jose Mercury News for a smart and solid Sunday package on what California’s wannabe governors say they’d do about the state’s budget meltdown.

Using what Calbuzz likes to call “actual  reporting,” he contacted all five contenders to ask the same set of seven fundamental questions about state finances, ranging from their stance on the two-thirds vote requirement to how they would bridge the partisan gap on fiscal matters.

His report, along with the complete responses he received from four of the campaigns can be found here.

McLaughlin is what was once known as an actual newspaper reporter, who properly avoided eye-rolling at some of the answers he got — leaving the chore of providing truthy context to three of California’s most popular quote machines –- Larry Gerston, Barbara O’Connor and Dan Schnur. But even this trio of go-to chrome domes seemed restrained in their commentary by the limits of the formal newspaper form.

Calbuzz, not so much. Here’s a report card on how the candidates did, from worst to first.

EGBrown3Jerry Brown: F General Jerry figures that everybody already knows who he is, so why should a little thing like California going down the toilet make him bother to break a sweat and respond to a serious newspaper’s serious questions about the crisis? Here’s why: because when the Merc reported seven different times that Brown “declined to answer the questionnaire (saying) that he was on vacation and not yet a declared candidate” it made him look like a jerk.

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Meg Whitman: D You’d think with all the money Her Megness is forking out to her army of media retainers, they’d come up with something better than the generic campaign mush they put in her mouth. Example: “Political posturing would be off the table,” she said in answer to how she would ease partisan dysfunction. Really? Off the table? Whoooaa, that’s some tough stuff there, eMeg. Which goes to our oft-expressed concern about her candidacy to date: it’s one big pile of platitudes without a glimmer of political experience, savvy or instinct within it.

GavinNewsomGavin Newsom: C No surprise, Prince Gavin’s answer to everything is, “Come to San Francisco, where I’ve paved the streets with gold.” To his credit, Newsom comes out foursquare in favor of dumping the two-thirds budget vote requirement, but most of his answers are tiresome retreads of his self-congratulatory self-appraisal of his own record. Until the Chronicle favors us with some perspective on his claims (see next item) California voters are on their own to figure out how much of it’s true.

Steve Poizner: B Poizner mostly offered warmed-over campaign rhetori126719_poizner_GMK_c but two things stand out: 1) unlike Meg, he doesn’t lay the solid waste on with a trowel, and also seems to understand he isn’t getting paid by the word; 2) alone among the candidates, he talks specifically about ways and means to modernize and apply basic management techniques to government that don’t begin and end with Attila the Meg-style reflexive cutting and wholesale firings.

tomcampbell1Tom Campbell: A Dudley Do-Right does it again, emerging as the best-informed, most thoughtful and most candid one of the bunch. Campbell’s economics intelligence is buttressed by his sweat-the-details understanding of the fine strokes of public finance. A former Director of Finance, he has proposed a serious and balanced approach to addressing the deficit in both the long and short term, and his answers to the Merc put the rest of the field to shame.

Chronicle Watch II: Still MIA - Prince Gavin sent out a release the other day announcing a major campaign swing through Southern California and making the case for himself this way:

“Mayor Newsom announced his candidacy for governor earlier this year by releasing an online video on GavinNewsom.com that ties his record of success as mayor to his vision for California’s future.

“’In San Francisco, we’ve not accepted excuses. We’ve protected people’s civil rights, created a universal health care program, protected teachers from layoffs and enacted a local stimulus plan that will put people back to work and save jobs. And we’ve done it while balancing our budgets and seeing our bond ratings go up.”

No knock on Newsom for peddling this self-aggrandizing narrative wheeze – it’s what political candidates do. But, as Colombo would say, there’s just one thing that keeps botherin’ us: Are Newsom’s claims true? If so, to what extent? If not, where’s the evidence to disprove them?

Unfortunately the one and only institution in a position to easily address the issue is the Chronicle, Newsom’s hometown daily paper, which has spent years covering the guy, but doesn’t appear to be in any hurry to answer the key political questions anytime soon.

By giving Newsom a pass now, effectively granting him a big ole’ summer fling in the Free Spin Zone, Chron editors are missing an opportunity for important public service journalism, booting a chance to show they’re still a vital statewide voice and reinforcing the notion that newspapers are too clunky and slow to help define swiftly emerging narratives of a crucial, nationally-watched campaign.

When Calbuzz delivered a gentle love tap last week, chiding the paper for ducking its responsibility to examine their own mayor’s extravagant claims, the High Sheriffs of their newsroom got into High Dudgeon about our post, putting on frightful frowns and hurling personal insults at Calbuzz: “So much for journalistic integrity,” one senior editor sniffed at the buzz boys, in an email distributed to staff.

Sticks and stones backatcha, chief, but the plain fact is, this ain’t about integrity – it’s about Journalism 101.

The job of calling balls and strikes on a hometown candidate who’s seeking to spring up the political ladder comes with the territory for what you like to call your major metropolitan newspapers. And for years, under the leadership of recently departed politics editor Jim Brewer, the Chron often performed that duty better than most.

Back in 1990, when another S.F. mayor was running for governor, the paper helped pioneer the “truth box,” that now-routine, campaign watch graphic that helps voters measure the veracity of a candidate’s TV ads. Over the years, they’ve regularly published other, useful fact-checking features following debates, major speeches or campaign appearances by candidates and officeholders at every level.

Because this Internets thing has changed everything about campaigning – most notably the pace and speed with which claims, counterclaims and charges fly around – that kind of reporting is more than important than ever.

So why in 2009, three months after the city’s mayor formally announced his bid to be California’s next chief executive, trumpeting his record in San Francisco as evidence of his worthiness, has the Chronicle not published a single piece that simply lines up Newsom’s campaign trail statements about an issue and submits them to the truth test?

At a time when the state is in crisis, teetering on the edge of financial failure, and their guy is telling everyone he meets that he can fix it, inquiring minds want to know.

Earth to Chris Reed: Calbuzz lists Politicker on our blogroll because we enjoy the work and work ethic of Chris Reed, who proclaims his site “America’s Finest Blog” and juices the predictable conservative cant of his frequent rants with a lively, passionate, hair-on-fire style that’s fun to read and often informative.

And while we usually subscribe to the just-spell-the-name-right school of publicity (that’s two z’s in buzz, mister), we must confess we’re bemused, if not bewildered, by his out-of-right-field attack on our post about a recent PPIC report that undercuts the Republican claim that high taxes are driving rich people out of California. Reed’s rant, which purports to show how the PPIC is “disputing” our report is based on a willful, agenda-driven misreading of what we said and his pique at our failure to confirm his own view of the world:

“(When) I read the actual short report…I didn’t see what I expected,” he writes, in accusing Calbuzz of journalistic crimes and misdemeanors. Huh? And this would be our problem, why?

To be safe, we put in our own call to PPIC to ask if we’d gotten something wrong, and to confirm the obvious: that Politicker was simply trying to conjure up a controversy to drive traffic: “We don’t see any dispute about the results of our research as published” in Calbuzz, a spokeswoman told us. “Interpretation and headline writing are what you do, and we aren’t going to get in the middle of that. But we’re delighted to see our work scrutinized and discussed.” Us too!

Must read of the week: If you can read only one California budget story this week (and why would you want to read more?) make it Dan Walters’ Tuesday column,  which strips the fiscal meltdown down to its essence in 492 plain and simple words. The big fella’ may have lost a few feet off the fastball, but he can still bring it when he needs to.


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There are 2 comments for this post

  1. avatar jskdn says:

    San Francisco is paved with gold for government, and a good chunk of the gold comes from the rest of the state’s taxpayers. Prop 13 set property taxes statewide at 1% but it gave the responsibility of allocating that 1% to the state, which was done by the legislature. The most relevant division in the allocation of Prop 13′s 1% rate is between schools, where it functions as a de facto state tax in all revenue limit districts, and the rest of the shares which are retained by local governments. I believe the statewide average for the state schools tax portion is around 55%, if memory serves correctly. But the portion of the 1% rate on San Francisco property that the legislature required to go to schools is about half of that and the difference is then available for local San Francisco government to spend. In FY 2005-06 the total assessed valuation there was $111 billion. It might well be $125 billion now. If that’s true and .55% of that amount were directed to schools it would be $688 million and the half of that not going to school leaves quite a windfall for local SF government to spend. To get some frame of reference that amount of money adjusted for the state as a whole relative to SF’s population amounts to around $15 billion.

  2. avatar sqrjn says:

    Leave Newsom and the Chronicle alone. If politicians arn’t allowed to make statements without being held accountable to them they just won’t make statements. Just assume that everything the Mayor says is a mischaracterization, at least by noting how a politician dissembles we can learn how they’d like to be percieved. If the Chronicle was doing its job we’d probably be deprived even of that, nothing but photo-ops and hopeful remarks about the weather until a month before the primary.

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