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Friday, March 28, 2014

California, Corruption, and the Media

Leland Yeea reformist California state senator, is under arrest for arms trafficking.  How did such a thing happen?  There are many potential explanations, but one may lie with the mass media.

As previous posts explained, there is evidence that corruption goes with having a capital city that lies beyond the main centers of population.  News organizations provide less coverage of state politics when their audiences are less concentrated around the capital.  Less press scrutiny means greater opportunities for getting away with corrupt activity.

This problem has always plagued California and its capital of Sacramento.  It has grown more acute in recent years.  as news organizations have closed or shrunk their capital bureaus.  The Sacramento Bee remains an important force in state journalism, and other organizations have first-rate reporters covering California politics. But they are stretched thin.

Long-form investigative journalism suffers.  Such reporting is not only costly and time-consuming, but it has uncertain payoffs.  (In a classic episode of Mary Tyler Moore, WJM-TV investigates a city councilman only to find that he is a saintly figure whose sole offense is a parking ticket that he got while delivering Easter baskets to an orphanage.)  Facing tough financial pressures, many news organizations will hesitate to invest in such efforts.

With so few people looking, a scandal usually has to grow very large -- and involve the FBI -- before it finally breaks into the news.  The same is true at the local level.  The vast corruption in the City of Bell was able to fester for years in part because the community had no newspaper of its own.  Organizations such as Patch have tried to fill the void, but their economic survival is in serious doubt.

And so it is quite possible that even nastier stories lurk in the California shadows, unknown and uncovered.