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Press Clips: Fun Facts & Fine Kerfuffles

Friday, July 31st, 2009

mbaldassareWelcome to the NFL: Torey Van Oot, the rookie California blogger hired by the Bee to juice up its online “Capitol Alert” (which has flagged considerably since the departure for the L.A. Times of the indefatigable Shane Goldmacher) set off a fine kerfuffle Thursday over polling, politics and the smash-mouth issue of offshore oil drilling in California.

Van Oot put up an early morning post about the new PPIC poll’s finding that a majority of Californians now favor offshore oil drilling. The item included an attack on the institute’s survey methodology by anti-drilling Assemblyman Pedro Nava, who called the results “completely worthless” and opined that “PPIC should find another line of work, if this is the best they can do.”

For those who know PPIC president Mark Baldassare (along with the Field Poll’s Mark torey22DiCamillo) as one of the smartest, most trustworthy and thoughtful pollsters in the nation, Nava’s wild man act was an hysteric, over-the-top, shoot-the-messenger rip job that ignored the rather important facts that a) PPIC has been asking the same question since 2003 and b) there’s undeniable evidence throughout their data that a significant shift in public opinion on the offshore issue has taken place (primarily among independents).

The piece was notable for one other reason: it carried not a word from Baldassare, or anyone at PPIC, responding to Nava’s charges, although he  directly assailed the professionalism and competence of the San Francisco-based outfit.

A few hours later, apparently after Baldassare and the Bee Blogger had a full and frank exchange of views, Van Oot posted an update that included a 243-word response from the pollster, which looked like a billboard slapped up on the page, setting the record straight about his methodology:

“At the end of the day, we feel it’s our obligation to as accurately as possible reflect the opinions of all Californians in our polling, so particularly on controversial issues like this one, we take special care to use national survey questions and repeat questions over time to give us a sense of whether opinions are changing,” he concluded.

A feperry white 2w hours after that, Nava issued a press release walking back his direct criticism of PPIC. Transforming himself into a journalism critic, he instead insisted that the media had “misled” the public by writing too narrowly about the offshore drilling question instead of taking a broader approach to other data about environmental issues that “should have been the focus of yesterday’s stories.”

Yo! Perry White! Here’s a tip from the political desk: When you’re in a hole, first stop digging.

World’s First Legislator: The Handbook of Political Writing Cliches requires that all stories about California’s budget include at least one use of the phrase “draconian cuts,” as confirmed by a random check of recent budget yarns in the Bee-minus, the Chron and the By God L.A. Times, as well a quick Google search of “draconian cuts California budget” (126,000 hits).

Ever desperate for a fresh angle, Calbuzz assigned our highly trained and highly paid Department of Evolutionary Linguistics to get to the bottom of this hoary phrase. A wide-ranging investigation, including an in-depth check of Wikipedia, revealed that it derives, neither from Harry Potter pal Draco Malfoy nor Star Wars Imperial Knight Antares Draco, but rather from the uni-named Draco, credited as “the first legislator of ancient Athens.”

Besides his more or less direct responsibility for the free cars, per diem payments and fulltime salaries for part-time work afforded today’s California lawmakers, Mr. Draco also laid down the first written constitution, a rather harsh collection of laws that required debtors to be forced into slavery and called for capital punishment for even minor offenses.

Draco, according to Plutarch, “when asked why he had fixed the punishment of death for most offences, answered that he considered these lesser crimes to deserve it, and that he had no greater punishment for more important ones.”

Ouch.

Eventually karmic justice caught up with Draco, who reportedly died after a demagogic performance at the Aeginetan theatre, when his supporters, in a traditional sign of approval,  “threw so many hats and shirts and cloaks on his head that he suffocated, and was buried in that selfsame theatre.”

Now there’s an idea for a ballot initiative to rein in the Legislature.

More fun facts about language: Calbuzz’s political correctness antennae stood straight up when the redoubtable David Dayen over at Calitics referred to our most recent budget rant, not once but thrice, as “shrill.”

Now while it’s true that the members of the Calbuzz Executive Content Production Team are not technically, well, of the female persuasion, we have been around long enough to know that calling someone “shrill” is just asking to be denounced by sensitive souls, such as ourselves, for some type of “phobia” or “ism.”

But now comes Dayen, graciously concealing his smirk at our utter lack of hipness, to disclose that “shrill” represents a compliment in what you call your online blogging community, high praise for cutting to the bone instead of mealy-mouthing an issue, as explained here.

So little time, so much to learn.

How to fix California: A prolific sort, Dayen churned out an excellent thumb-sucker on a California constitutional convention, one of a pair of intriguing posts this week that highlight the vast ideological divide over the ways and means needed to fix the state.

Chris Reed over at Politicker offered the second, a brisk policy prescription for the excessive spending and trough-feeding public employees whom he perceives as the fundamental cause of the Mess in Sacramento, a package which includes a tight spending cap, pension reform and restrictions on political donations by unions.To Dayen, though, the problem is much more one of structure: “Right now, we have a progressive legislature and a conservative system, which frustrates efforts at accountability.”

And there it is, spectator sports fans: two looks at the dysfunction of state government from opposite ends of the telescope, a case study of the political chasm a con con will have to confront and bridge.

Lou_Cannon-175Must reads of the week: For those looking for one piece on California’s woe that puts it all together, Lou Cannon offers up a smart and stylish overview on Politics Daily that shows why he’s a Hall of Fame political writer…Nice scooplet by Anthony York at Capitol Weekly, who reports that the final vote on last week’s defeat of Arnold’s offshore oil drilling proposal mysteriously disappeared from the official record of the Assembly….Finally, Kevin Roderick, the City of Angels bard who never sleeps, dashed off this very Calbuzz kind of item that demonstrates the true power and importance of links:

Best city for deli: L.A.?

From the Jewish Journal’s food blog, posted by editor Rob Eshman:

‘I just got a peek inside David Sax’s new book, “Save the Deli,“ due out Oct. 19, and can report that it is official: L.A. is the best deli city in America.

Bite that, New York….’”

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

Thursday, July 16th, 2009

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.

megcrop1

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.