Journalism and Democracy in California
San Jose State University Student Union
Héctor Tobar, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author
Rob Kuznia, Pulitzer Prize winner journalist and writer
Frances Dinkelspiel, author and journalists, co-founder of the local news site, Berkeleyside,
Rachael Myrow, KQED South Bay Arts & Culture Reporter
Rachael Myrow’s Opening Remarks:
Thank you so much for being here. What a thrill to be involved in this conversation, and because I’m going to be mouthing off as part of the panel in just a few moments –we lost a panelist last minute – probably to the Warriors game. Because of that, I’ll keep my opening remarks short and sweet.
I’d like to take you back to this last Election Day to talk about my Facebook Feed. I’m a journalist. I have been for 20 years. So predictably, a lot of people on my feed are journalists, too – and on Election Day, we vote. We post happy photos of our pets and our kids wearing the little stickers. In the run up to the Big Day, we post our stories about the various issues and races. We post other people’s stories. Who’s running? How are they running? What’s controversial? What information is being kept from you? Or just buried in the data?
All of this is a long way of saying something obvious: most reporters are true believers in democracy. We care about what’s happening; about what’s not happening that should be; about where the money is really going. Who’s making sure the promises of democracy are kept? And kept UP? Some of us are pit bulls about it. Some of us are terriers. Personally, I’m a corgi, but I have my moments. Seriously though, an awful lot of us got into news because we care about our democracy.
Now I know what you’re thinking. Seriously? What about all the endless stories about the Kardashians, and that goat that walked into a Starbucks? And the way politics is covered…more heat than light. The rest of the world? It’s like the world outside Hollywood and Washington DC doesn’t exist. If we’re talking about “The Media” like it was an individual, we’re talking about a Coked Up, superficial novelty junkie … But I’m here to tell you that’s not all. That there is actually a lot of great reporting going on, and I know this, because I read it and listen and watch every day. There’s a guy at the Silicon Valley Business Journal covering real estate like nobody else’s business. There’s a guy at the LA Times that is that terrier with his teeth in the behind of the California Coastal Commission. The Wall Street Journal breaks all the big Bay Area biotech stories. The Guardian: ON TOP of Edward Snowden and the controversy over government snooping. Pit bulls. Newspapers don’t have a lock on great journalism. AJ+ is putting out some of the best simple video explainers I’ve seen online. On the Radio: The Center For Investigative Reporting, This American Life, Fresh Air. See me afterwards for a longer list. The Pulitzer Prize folks have no shortage of great material to recognize with their awards.
I’ll tell you, my friends drive me nuts when they say, with conspiratorial conviction, that the “mainstream media” isn’t covering this or that. Because it’s JUST NOT TRUE. My friends just don’t bother to Google it. Or they’re getting their news from the wrong sources – the kind of outlets that piggy back on the good work of others but claim it as their own.
Now, the reporters I’m talking about – the good ones – might not have a big enough audience to move the needle on the public conversation. But I want to ask you tonight: Is that on them? Or is that on us?
From the inside of a newsroom, I can tell you that Beyoncé gets a gazillion clicks every time we write about her, while something like Measure AA on the ballot gets … way, way less. All props to the Queen Bee, but those online traffic numbers send a pretty clear message to weaker newsroom managers and gradually, eventually they cave to that message. They want the big audiences. They want to feel relevant. They want the advertising dollars. They want their company to stay in business.
I know I’m talking to true believers here, because you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t believe in democracy. Unless… some of you taking this for class credit? In which case, consider this a bully pulpit.
If you care about democracy, it’s up to you support it, starting by consuming the good stuff: the organic, locally grown, nutritionally sound journalism that will cost you a little bit more of your time and attention and possibly even money.
Journalists are real people paying the same rent you are. They might fall down on the job, or worse, tell boring stories, but overall, they’re attempting to educate us, day to day, so we know what’s happening, and how to mobilize, about any issue.
Is our democracy healthy? Obviously not. But that’s not a reason to detach and to say “It’s all corrupt. It’s hopeless.” It’s up to YOU where you choose to stand and fight. In the marketplace of ideas, the biggest battle ground for a democracy, the strongest weapon you have is your commitment to pay attention to what’s Really Going On. Thank you.