Opioids, extremism & Sacramento Bee alligator arms

“Long-time” readers of the Sacto Politico (we are just 14 months old) know my brand of media criticism can seem sharpest toward the Sacramento Bee. That’s partly because it’s my hometown daily and as such is avatar for so many of the shortcomings found in today’s shrunken, corporate newsrooms.

But this also reflects how regularly the Bee stops short of fully covering so many important local issues. Much of this results from what I call “alligator-arming the news.”

Take last week when the Bee reported on the record-setting number of 2020 opioid-related deaths (100,000 nationally). A sober, important topic to be sure about our nation’s forgotten epidemic. This included more than 5,000 California deaths, but the Bee’s story oddly stopped short of noting the easy-to-research Sacramento County total (106, or nearly double the 57 in 2019).

The Matsui-Opioid Connection

But the article’s flaws went deeper than this oversight. The Bee has long ignored the damaging role played by our donation-addicted political system in lengthening and deepening the opioid epidemic. Over more than two decades, the uncorrected criminal mislabeling of opioids as a safe remedy for common pain has left millions needlessly addicted and led to nearly as many U.S. deaths as Covid-19. Yet the Bee has never reported on the hundreds of thousands of dollars in opioid-industry donations taken by Sacramento County’s Congressional representatives over the last decade.

Leading the way has been Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA6), who during that time took more than $125,000. This included $36,500 last election cycle, with Ami Bera (D-CA7) – an actual licensed medical doctor – not far behind. In addition, all of their top opioid donors are currently being sued by Sacramento County to cover substantial local public health costs.

But far from shaming Bera and Matsui, the Bee’s most recent opioid story portrayed Matsui as a champion of opioid victims. “We need to address this overdose crisis head on, and... [get] life-saving tools into the hands of people who need it most,” Matsui was quoted. The Bee paper added, “Matsui has long pushed for expanding addiction care services and telemedicine options.”

But such post-addiction advocacy rings hollow when compared to the rest of her opioids record. This included in April 2016 when she (and Bera) failed to vote against an industry-written bill that kneecapped DEA enforcement power over opioid companies. Then this year, 120 Democrats in Congress signed a letter to their Congressional leadership lobbying to repeal a 2020 tax break that lets opioid companies write off and shift hundreds of billions of dollars in settlement costs onto the U.S. taxpayer. Naturally, Matsui and Bera were not among these signers, and the repeal effort failed.

The reporter of last week’s piece and her editors may have been unaware of all this, but that’s hardly a strong excuse. First, to effectively inform the public, it’s a news organization’s job to duly understand and research the issues they cover. You lasso in your D.C. bureau. You put in an additional call. You review your competitors’ reporting. In other words, you do the job your subscribers don’t have the time nor training to do themselves.

Second, before I launched the Sacto Politico, I personally reached out to multiple members of the Bee newsroom, including the then-head of the paper, with detailed background about the huge financial intersection between the opioid industry and local members of Congress. But none saw any public-interest news value there.

Going Soft on Far Right

Such alligator-arming and head-in-the-sand practices by the Bee don’t stop there. Just as concerning has been the Bee’s overall poor coverage of growing far-right extremism in the Sacramento area. Over the past year, I have spotlighted many examples of Bee reporting that either completely ignored or softened their reports on such extremism. This included:

  • Covering an August 2000 extremist rally with no mention of its ample extremist rhetoric and speakers. Instead, they portrayed it as a mainstream rally in support of law enforcement and against stay-at-home orders.

  • Failing to include the one local Congressional candidate with QAnon connections in its feature about QAnon candidates statewide. The Bee also failed to report on this candidate training his campaign using a recent national strategist from a major U.S. hate groups and not reporting $300,000 in dark donations. With most voters unaware of this, he would receive a shocking 43.4% of the general election vote and is running again.

  • Reporting on a March Recall Rally that featured California GOP Chair Jessica Patterson and Rocklin Asm. Kevin Kiley, but failing to note they shared the stage with a co-organizer who had recently called for armed civil war and other speakers with militia, hate group and QAnon links.

  • Later profiling that same co-organizer, but again making no mention of his videotaped call for armed civil war following Jan. 6. Instead, the Bee portrayed him as merely a hyperbolic anti-mask, anti-vaccination activist.

Such repeated alligator-arming on the obvious, growing threat posed by far-right extremism remains shocking. For proof, look no further than the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the foiled plan to kidnap the Michigan governor in 2019, the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, and the July indictments of two individuals connected to an alleged plot to blow up the State Democratic headquarters in Sacramento.

Jan. 6: To Bee or Not to Bee?

For the Bee, Jan. 6 does appear to have caused at least some re-examination of the paper’s previous head-in-the-sand approach on extremism. That’s because subsequently it did ramp up its quantity of extremist coverage, though not always the quality.

The one truly excellent piece of reporting came in January and February when the Bee revealed the Sacramento County GOP’s executive steering committee was about to swear-in a known local member of the Proud Boys. The Bee’s coverage led the local GOP to eventually announce they would block that individual. It was a perfect example of the power of disinfectant journalism.

But since then, the Bee’s output on local extremism has largely been a mixed bag of good intentions and uneven execution. Take this recent crescendo of coverage from Nov. 7 to 14:

  1. The nearly 5,000-word Nov. 7 feature: “The racists next door: Inside a California church that preaches a whites-only gospel.”

  2. The satiric Nov. 12 Jack Ohman opinion piece: “There are opportunists and scoundrels in Sacramento. And then there is Kevin Kiley.”

  3. And last, a 4,000-word Nov. 14 round-up feature: “Angry, violent, toxic: How extremists are drowning out local California governments”

The clearest positive about this trio is their quantity, as frequent exposure is essential in the battle against violent extremism. But in execution, each story demonstrated the Bee’s current unfortunate limitations as a news organization.

Take the first piece’s headline: “The racists next door: Inside a California church that preaches a whites-only gospel.” The reference to “racists next door” was misleading click-bait as “next door” ended up being 75 miles north of Sacramento in rural Brownsville, Calif. That’s as far away from Sacramento as Modesto.

Plus despite 5,000 words, the piece never established any real public threats emanating from the group, though its founder believes in replacement theory and attended the 2017 Unite the Right rally. The piece also reported 19 years ago the FBI opened and fairly quickly closed an investigation of the organization, and from pictures, it seems to have a tiny congregation.

If the church at some point is associated with future news events, the Bee’s piece could prove prescient, but for now, one wonders why the paper didn’t train its spotlight and limited staff resources on bigger and more impactful local targets. Like state GOP Chair Patterson and Asm. Kiley for lending their party’s imprimatur to that March Recall Rally. Or press all the mainstream local conservative groups that stood behind their endorsements of that local Congressional candidate with QAnon and hate group associations.

Kiley Eludes Satirical Sting

The headline for the second piece about Kevin Kiley (below) surely tantalized. Jack Ohman is an extremely talented satirist, both in cartoon and essay. Reading the “scoundrel” reference, I thought, “Wow. Is the Bee finally catching up on my reporting on Kiley’s dance with the dangerous far right?”

However, the piece fell short of this and reminded that satire that doesn’t fully hit its target still just counts as a miss. Ohman’s criticisms of Kiley mostly boiled down to Kiley changing stripes after 2016 and embracing Trumpism, and Ohman neglected any mention of Kiley sharing a stage with so many dangerously extreme speakers at that March Recall Rally.

In some ways, Ohman can be forgiven. Though he sits on the paper’s editorial board, his job is not to break news. As such, he is largely limited – as is most of Sacramento – to what his paper reports.

That said, one wonders if he only expanded his news consumption to include outlets like this, how sharply might his pointed quill have carved up Kiley’s appearance at that rally, which included his flogging his own signed books in a pop-up merch tent.

Kitchen Sink-ism

Last was the Nov. 14 feature “Angry, violent, toxic: How extremists are drowning out local California governments.” This piece was the best of the trio and featured an excellent and succinctly edited video featuring about a dozen examples of extremists in action at public meetings. The story’s angle about uncivil, threatening and disruptive behavior at public meetings was timely and important, but a few flaws blunted its ultimate quality.

One was omitting the best recent example of interruption of California government. This came in 2019 when an extreme anti-vaxxer temporarily shut down the state legislature by throwing from the viewing gallery a cup of alleged menstrual blood that splattered on lawmakers. A simple email to members of the McClatchy capitol bureau should have revealed this.

Even more significantly, the lengthy piece suffered from severe kitchen-sink-ism by wildly throwing in many anecdotes and photos unrelated to disruptive public meeting behavior. In fact, more than a third of its 4,000 words went off-topic in this way – detouring to detail legal recall efforts, permitted public demonstrations and individuals who held extreme views on masking and vaccines but never interrupted any public meetings or threatened officials.

Such conflation of issues in the story is also disconcerting given how well media outlets should understand and revere our First Amendment traditions. Central to the American right of free expression and a free press is Voltaire’s concept that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Proper limits do exist on free speech – shouting “fire” in a crowded theater – but news operations that fail to discriminate between disagreeable views and truly dangerous actions risk confounding – not clarifying – our public discourse. And losing readers in the process.

A good example of this was this last article’s mention of anti-mask, anti-vaxx Sacramento County Supervisor Sue Frost. She has become a regular punching bag of the Bee’s news and editorial teams. While it’s fair to smartly editorialize against any view including Frost’s Covid views, the manner of the Bee’s condemnations of Frost have bordered on extreme themselves. For example, they have criticized her for merely speaking at rallies attended by Proud Boys but clearly organized by others. This is excessive and unfair, especially as Frost has regularly condemned violent and radical groups.

Further, the Bee appears baldly hypocritical when, on the one hand, it condemns Frost and her public-health positions as “not fit to hold office” and a “disgrace.” But on the other hand, it not just blindly ignores Matsui and Bera’s unhelpful records during the opioid epidemic but endorses both as “smart elected leaders with a track record of focusing on issues that matter to their districts.”

Bee leadership may hope this year’s loose series of reports on extremism merits it Pulitzer Prize consideration in the public service category. But belated good intentions aside, the quality of the paper’s reporting, editing and editorializing not only fall far short of what the Pulitzer committee normally rewards, but also what the Sacramento community urgently needs.