Archive for 2012

Press Clips: Nadia and Rupert Meet Geena and Kim

Friday, April 27th, 2012

As the East Bay turns: Amid the reams of coverage about the whole Nadia Lockyer drugs/booze/sex/email/missing person/politics scandal, the smartest piece we’ve read came from Chip Johnson, the Chronicle’s talented if woefully underpaid East Bay columnist.

All in all, the Bay Area MSM acquitted itself well in the seamy-but-still important soap opera story, with special mention due the dogged Julia Prodis Sulek, who scored the still exclusive interview with the troubled former Alameda County supervisor, along with old Chroniclers Phil Matier and Andy Ross, whose sequential scoops kept pushing the search for the truth forward, as well as  Dan Borenstein, the first to issue an eminently sensible call for Lockyer to resign, in a fine column that was both tough and empathetic.

But it was left to Johnson to parse the politics of the mess, and to remind everyone exactly how voters came to elect a person so ill-suited to office:

It’s easy to dismiss the dramatic fall of Alameda County Supervisor Nadia Lockyer as the failings of an addict. But it was much more than that.  A system – our political system – created her.

Our political system allows one person, like state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, to run for a statewide office, collect millions of dollars in donations and then bestow those funds like a kingmaker in lower-level races – like a county supervisor’s race…

The accomplices to the political hijacking ran the gamut from labor leaders to politicians looking to move up the ladder and liberal voter groups who take their cues from Democratic leadership.

There is enough blame to go around – and voters deserve some of it, too. They can claim they were duped by their leaders, misled by campaign rhetoric, but at the end of the day their only responsibility was to choose a qualified leader at the ballot box, and they fell asleep at the wheel.

Calbuzz sez: Check it out.

Seven degrees of separate reality: Our old friend Tim Redmond of the Bay Guardian blogged a critique of the Calbuzz critique of Twitter, whereupon Jeff Sonderman of Mediawire, the industry blog for the Poynter Institute, journalism’s top educational outfit for working journalists, held forth on the exchange. He drew into the discussion yet another online posting, this one from the Awl, written by former Gawker editor Choire Sicha, which bashes MSM reporters for incessantly tweeting during Rupert Murdoch’s testimony to the British government’s investigation of the London tabloid hacking scandal.

To recap for those keeping score at home: a media blog for a news business training center references an online posting attacking print reporters for using Twitter to cover a global media mogul’s testimony about tabloid reporters using electronic surveillance to score stories (whew), by way of analyzing a blog posting by an alternative weekly editor about a web posting by two recovering newspaper types about how tweeting represents the decline of civilization as we know it.

Who says media types are self-referential and only talk to each other? For commentary on this, we go now to Harold Evans and Tina Brown.

Speaking of the Guardian, congrats and best wishes to Jean Dibble and Bruce Brugmann, the first boss at least half of us had in journalism, on their sale of the paper to Brand Ex after 368 consecutive years printing the news and raising hell. Here’s hoping the new owners keep pounding away on the Raker Act.

Weed whacker alert: Buried deep within the data of this week’s PPIC poll are some intriguing numbers about public attitudes towards Governor Gandalf’s proposed school finance reforms that may help shape the debate over his tax hike initiative.

The results, largely overlooked in MSM coverage of the poll (which understandably focused on the tenuous majority lead now held by the governor’s tax measure), suggest that Brown’s pitch for the tax increase as a way to save public schools would be strengthened by simultaneously selling his pending proposal to increase local control over education.

The centerpiece of his reform plan is the elimination of about 40 state-mandated categorical aid programs, which local administrators and elected officials have long complained entrap them in red tape while shackling their flexibility and authority to manage their own schools.

PPIC found that 89 percent of those it identified as likely voters say that local schools and districts should have “the most control” in deciding how state money for public education is spent – compared to 6 percent (six, count ‘em, six) who say Sacramento should have the authority. More: 81 percent of likelies say locals should have “more flexibility” in spending money that the state now “earmarks,” i.e. categorical aid, and 75 percent are somewhat, or very, confident that local schools would use such money wisely.

What is less clear is how much support Brown would have for other, more controversial elements of his reform package. Beyond giving each school district what amounts to a per-pupil bloc grant of about $6,500 a year, he also is proposing to give extra money to district that have a) more low-income students and/or b) more students still learning English.

Just 54 percent of likely voters say they back the idea of sending extra funding to schools with more poor kids, compared to 41 percent who oppose it. And, as if more evidence was needed of how much race and ethnicity underpin politics in California, only 40 percent of likelies say schools with a greater number of non-English speaking students should get more money, compared to 54 percent who are against such a policy.

Bottom line: Watch for Brown soon to start talking more about his schools plan as the next item on his “realignment” agenda, amid a growing debate in the Capitol over a) how the state can impose accountability on locals under such a dramatically revamped finance system and b) the fairness, or lack thereof, of favoring poor districts over wealthier ones.

P.S. For policy wonks and other masochists, the indispensable John Fensterwald has the fullest and best-informed discussion of Brown’s “weighted funding” reform plan. Warning: do not read and operate heavy machinery.

What do women want: Mega-kudos to Calbuzzer Susan Rose, whose writings here and here helped bring visibility to Krusty’s effort to defund the state Commission on the Status of Women, a move that was checked this week when commission chair Geena Davis joined Speaker John Perez in announcing a new funding plan to keep the board going. Nice work by all.

Memo to producers of “The Prince Gavin Show” — It’s become more important than ever to ensure that Kim Karashian is the first big “get” for Gavin’s exciting new Current TV show. The L.A. City Council is on the brink of adding Armenian to the list of languages in which election ballots are printed, giving Kim K. a much broader power base that’s likely to expand her political ambition beyond being merely the mayor of Glendale.

She already may be mulling a statewide campaign, sources close to our imagination say, even perhaps the lieutenant governorship, a $159,000-a-year gig that apparently would leave her plenty of free time for her reality TV career.

The Politics of TMI: Three Arguments Against Twitter

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

As sheer hypocrisy, the spectacle of Calbuzz criticizing Twitter ranks right up there with Paula Deen attacking butter, Jose Canseco bashing steroids or Jerry Brown banning Teilhard de Chardin.

Throughout the day, we tweet our vast global audience links to our stuff, while dispatching 140 character feeds of our deepest thoughts on politics, media and getting the oil changed in the old Plymouth.

That said, a recent spate of inane, Twitter-driven firestorms – the Hilary Rosen stay-at-home moms war, the missing tweet archive of horse’s ass Richard Grenell, the hijacking of French election results, for starters – lead us to wonder if we’ve quietly morphed into Roland Hedley Jr. And whether the MSM’s jones for tweeting is not perhaps contributing to what you might call the complete corruption of journalism and the utter debasement of the political process.

Oh sure, Twitter is an invaluable communications tool for pimping your business, spreading the word about a good cause and that whole Arab Spring thing. But for high end political coverage? Maybe not so much. Here are three reasons why:

It makes everything as important as everything else. For political reporting, the mega-tweet eternal motion stream devalues perspective, judgment and reflection, enabling every 23-year old knucklehead with an iPhone to distort and drive a campaign narrative that favors the trivial over the substantive – Santorum’s wearing a sweater vest! — the immediate over the consequential – Trump’s endorsing Romney! – and events over ideas – Newt and Mitt are both headed to Tommy’s Ham House!

The result: a second-by-second, self-contained and self-referential closed feedback loop that creates what our friend Dan Balz critically described to media critic Michael Calderone as “just a flow of conventional wisdom.”

Political junkies, political operatives and political reporters consume most of this dross, and in this accelerated, 24/7 news cycle, a day feels like a week, with the afternoon’s agreed-upon media narrative getting turned on its head by the evening’s debate. Candidates rise, fall, and rise again, all choreographed to the rat-a-tat background noise of endless minutia.

“If you are off your computer for an hour, the volume of tweets and emails is overwhelming and just to get through that — and then you feel you’re in this circular conversation with people who are slightly disconnected with the real America,” Washington Post chief correspondent Dan Balz said back in Des Moines, Iowa last month.

Calculating how many professional journalists have wasted how many highly-paid hours tweeting the very latest, up-to-the-second irrelevancy about the Obama-Romney dog wars, Jon Huntsman’s Kurt Cobain joke and Mittens bad-mouthing homemade cookies in Pittsburgh is akin to counting all the grains of sand in the world. Not to mention Etch-A-Sketch and Rosengate:

That prompted Ann Romney to join Twitter or something and start warblogging, prompting a flurry of clarifications and counter-statements and whatnot, culminating in an appearance on Fox News this morning, when Ann Romney basically said that people should vote for her husband.

This would obviously be a real setback to Hilary Rosen’s campaign, if she were in a campaign or affiliated with a campaign, which she’s not. But that won’t stop it from being some sort of “Election 2012” thing. Romney surrogates are already on conference calls with reporters, pretending that Rosen is an official administration spokeswoman. The Obama campaign has already had to go to the trouble of distancing themselves.

The question is, will this “impact” the election? Will it “move the needle”? Will it be a “game changer”? Well, let me check real quick — ahh … okay, here we go: it says here that the presidential election will be decided by whoever takes a majority of electoral votes. So, I’m guessing … no?

It enables the spread of bad information. Nothing in the 2012 campaign illustrates the dark side of Twitter as much as the sensational story of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley getting indicted for tax fraud. Except she didn’t.

When a new political blog called the Palmetto Public Record posted a story in March claiming two of its sources expected Haley to be charged “as early as next week,” it took exactly two minutes – two minutes! – for a reporter at the Washington newspaper The Hill to tweet the news, which was promptly re-tweeted by BuzzFeed and the Washington Post (Hello, Janet Cooke!), followed soon after by stories posted on the Daily Caller, Daily Beast and Drudge.

Sadly (unless you were Haley) the story simply wasn’t true, as her office rather convincingly proved the next day by producing a letter from the IRS attesting to that fact, leading to a host of media skinbacks – many of them tweeted of course.

This episode is not the first time that a questionable Twitter report has roiled the 2012 elections — the first presidential campaign in which the microblogging service has been used broadly by news outlets as a way to report and break news.

And although many news organizations have set standards for the use of Twitter by their journalists, reporters remain largely free to exercise their own, unedited news judgment. (At least one staff member from The New York Times sent out a Twitter post about the initial report.)

For many, that is Twitter’s beauty: it is a conversational device where words are impermanent and always revisable. And as the Palmetto Public Record episode shows, anyone can inject himself into that conversation.

Anyone, indeed.

It makes people stupid. Exhibit A: See Weiner, A.

Twitter magnifies all our most asinine urges by eliminating the possibility for any sort of subtlety. In 140 characters, you can’t accomplish anything particularly wonderful. Sure, people have been rescued, money has been raised, the word has been spread in repressive regimes.

But by and large, Twitter is reserved for people to act like bigger idiots than they would otherwise. It is easy to be racist or sexist or generally asinine in 140 characters. It is impossible to be sublime. .. Twitter has an inexhaustible appetite for two things: one-liners and stupid platitudes about what women really want and Appreciating The Time You Have.

You can’t be subtle. Well, maybe you can, but in that case the only follower you will attract will be a spambot because you accidentally mentioned a brand of detergent by name.

Now if you’ll excuse us, we gotta tweet this post pronto (as Calbuzzblog on Twitter).

How the FPPC Can Legally Expose Sock Puppets

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

We were more than a little concerned when we read last week that Ann Ravel, chairwoman of California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, was considering regulations requiring bloggers to disclose if they’re being paid by political campaigns.

Not because we would ever even consider taking money to write something favorable or unfavorable about any candidate, campaign or cause (we have way too much fun being absolutely unaccountable to anyone), but because of our concerns about that whole freedom of speech, freedom of press thing.

So we rang up our old friend Ann to hear about her policy concerns, and to discuss how best to address them without running roughshod over the First Amendment. We’re happy to report, after our conversation, we think she agrees with us that the best way to confront secret payments to websites that propagandize for their retainers lies in stricter, more timely and precise reporting of campaign expenditures.

Ravel is right to worry that, at a time when voters increasingly get their political information from online sources, they need to know if what they’re reading is bought and paid for. There are, after all, scumbags out there who secretly take money from political entities and then use their platform,  including blogs, to support one candidate or cause and attack their opponents, never revealing that they’re tools.

But the FPPC exists to regulate and require disclosure of campaign fund-raising and expenditures – not to meddle with the free press, whether that’s KCRA or KNBC, the Los Angeles Times or San Jose Metro, Calbuzz or FlashReport. Requiring a newspaper (or its online web log), a bloviating blogger or non-partisan political news and analysis website (ahem, ahem) to print, broadcast or display any particular message is, on its face, a violation of the First Amendment.

Let the sunshine in: The way to best serve transparency, while respecting the First Amendment and staying within the purview of the FPPC, is to require political campaigns (and the consultants they hire) to disclose in detail who and when they pay media outlets, including blogs, and what they are paying for. And to require much more frequent and timely expenditure reports covering this area.

In the normal course of business, a news, analysis or aggregation web site may sell ad space to anyone who wants to buy that space. If a web site charges, say, $350 a month for a small spot ad (like those on the right-hand side of Calbuzz Page One or the left-hand side of this story page), and if a campaign buys that ad at the going commercial rate, then this is a purely commercial transaction. The campaign must report it as an expenditure, but the blog has no obligation to report anything to the FPPC.

But consider two variations on the theme:

1) The web site gives the ad space to the candidate or campaign. That’s a non-monetary contribution valued at the difference between the commercial rate and the amount paid for the ad by the campaign. If Calbuzz gave a candidate or cause free spot ad space, we’d be making a non-monetary contribution of $350 a month. (If our contributions reached the $10,000 level, we’d have to file as a major donor with the FPPC.) Whatever the amount of the free ad space, the campaign would have to report its value as a non-monetary contribution and everyone would know Calbuzz had given to that candidate or cause. [Note: We don’t do this.]

2) The web site receives substantially more than its commercial rate for an ad for a campaign or cause, like Red County did in 2010. As we reported then:

… for those of you who remember our report back in February when we noticed “a $20,000 disbursement to Green Faucet LLC, which is an investment firm owned by Chip Hanlon and also the parent company of his Red County web sites.” The payment was made about a week after Hanlon fired Aaron Park, the erstwhile, paid sock puppet for Meg rival Steve Poizner.

Hanlon told us the $20k was nothing more than payment for advertising on his web sites, but we found another Red County advertiser who was paying about $300 a month for the same size ad, suggesting the subsidy was something more than it was supposed to appear.[emphasis added]

No shit. Since then, Meg has paid Hanlon’s Green Faucet $15,000 a month for a total now of $110,000! Which means everything you read on Red County and from Hanlon is nothing more than sock puppetry of the first water.

This is what Ravel is most concerned about. As loathe as we are to stand up for the First Amendment rights of right-wing sock puppets, the solution is NOT to compel Red County to publish some sort of statement (although it probably would have to file as a major donor.)

Sloppy wet puppets: Instead, the Whitman campaign should have been required to demonstrate that the funds it paid to Red County were strictly for advertising at the standard commercial rate. Which, of course, they couldn’t. Instead there needs to be a category for expenditures that is something like “online propaganda” or “sloppy wet kisses” or “sock puppetry” or something that lets people know what the money was really spent for.

And if the funds are paid to a consultant, who then pays the blogger (or tweeter, Facebooker or emailer), the candidate should still have to detail what the money was spent on. The challenge would be finding a way to make the disclosure in real time; it would be worth exploring the feasibility of requiring the campaign to see that such paid messages contain a tiny url link to a campaign-hosted site, that says this message was bought and paid for by so-and-so.

As long as the FPPC’s web site remains the difficult-to-navigate, nearly impenetrable data labyrinth that it is, none of this will help average voters. But if Ravel hires a couple of 24-year-old web designers to make her a flashy new web site and put someone in charge of pulling out the news from the myriad reports that are filed, she just might have the impact she’s looking for.

We can see the Calbuzz headline now: “FPPC Fingers Red County as Whitman Sock Puppet.”

We’re all for disclosure and transparency. And freedom of speech.

PS: To see our earlier foray into the FPPC thicket, check here.