Enablers of the enemy

From the Winter 2017 issue of California Publisher

Newspapers and media are the “enemy of the people,” according to the president.

Well, if that’s the case, then my colleagues and I in Sacramento have apparently been running the Enemy of the People’s trade association: the California Enemy Association. We must be part of the problem. Who knew?

Because we all can change, and because no one of good conscience really wants to exist solely to support the Enemy of the People (EoP), perhaps we should re-examine some of the efforts of the California Newspaper Publishers Association to see what course corrections staff can suggest to the board of directors.

One of my mentors — Hal Fuson, formerly with the Copley Press — liked to say, “That drink is in us” after something bad happened, especially if the bad thing was a result of something we did wrong or failed to do at all. As we examine CNPA’s efforts over the years, we may find that many of the bad things the industry and its association poured its heart into are indeed “in us” and won’t be so easy to evacuate.

Take the whole Freedom of Information thing.

Over 60 years ago, the EoP got fed up with local government bodies making decisions behind closed doors and helped to pass the Brown Act. Stronger now than ever, the law presumes folks have a right to know what’s at stake in the local sphere before it’s decided and gives the public the right to be in the room and be heard when the action starts. Exceptions are narrow and based on damn good reasons.

This law is now over 65,000 words and could be tough to eradicate, especially after CNPA spent four long years putting this evil sentence into the state’s constitution: The people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business, and, therefore, the meetings of public bodies and the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny. Oy.

Rolling toward hell, the Enemy of the People, through the evil agent Riverside Press-Enterprise, went to the U.S. Supreme Court twice in a decade to establish courts as open and public institutions. In cases simply known as Press-Enterprise I and Press-Enterprise II, the high court ruled that judges in criminal proceedings can’t routinely close their doors to shut out the public. CNPA worked hard decades later to extend these principles to civil proceedings and court records. CNPA’s evil EoP members have had to run into court several times this year to remind judges that these bad principles still exist.

In 1968, CNPA helped establish the California Public Records Act, and the Enemy of the People has been trying to fix and “improve” it ever since. It’s been deployed to obtain the exact salaries of public officials and employees, expose the managers in places like the City of Bell and illuminate the pension system and its abuses. It’s been used to uncover death, destruction and mayhem; and to report the cost of the park’s new gazebo. This year’s sins include trying to eliminate delay in processing records requests and correct for the recent phenomenon of “reverse CPRA cases.”

It goes on and on with this stuff about the right to know and the right to speak. In the early 1990s, the EoP and CNPA helped enact the nation’s first Anti-SLAPP law, and it’s still one of the strongest. The law helps people with something to say from being bullied into silence by abusive and meritless lawsuits. The EoP’s trade association has fought back bills to criminalize libel, helped to pass the Journalist’s Shield Law (and fixed it when it broke) and passed the nation’s strongest protections for student journalists.

Like a drug addict, we can’t seem to get enough of this stuff. We mistakenly thought protecting the right to “tell it all” was also protecting the public’s right to “know it all.” Perhaps we were wrong and we should all wait to be told by those on high what to think, what to say and what to do.

I guess I’ll have to take it up with the board. Contact me anytime at (916) 288-6015 or tom@cnpa.com.