In a roundabout way, the Sacramento Bee’s recent announcement of the imminent departure of its president and editor, Lauren Gustus, brings to mind one of the great slogans in newspaper history, though not in a good way.
That slogan is the one The Washington Post debuted in February 2017: “Democracy dies in darkness.” The terse tour-de-force motto underscores just how inextricably linked the health of any democracy is to a free, robust and principled press. Without local and national media outlets driven by the highest standards of journalism and public interest, the disinfecting sunshine needed for effective governance dims and darkness creeps in.
It is just such a media dark age that has crept into Sacramento. It’s a media market with little vim or vigor, and that provides too few checks on the powers that be. While Gustus is hardly solely responsible for this, her nearly three-year tenure overseeing The Bee – as well as nine other McClatchy Company publications – has furthered that darkness. The fact that she is moving from overseeing a combined daily circulation of roughly 300,000 to a Salt Lake City publication with a quarter that reach indicates an appropriate step back.
To be fair, Gustus was contacted for comment for this piece, but she did not respond. This was not surprising for a media executive who introduced herself to her new market by promising her new readers that she would practice “authentic listening,” a phrase of corporate jargon so hollow any self-respecting editor would have instantly redlined it.
Now I don’t speak as a distant critic pitching bombs from the far-away stands. I’ve met Gustus and experienced firsthand her shaky compass as a steward of quality journalism. As a former newspaper reporter and editor, I have also shaken my head at The Bee’s regular lapses in other areas during her tenure.
I have written previously about a few of these lapses, but one example I’ve never shared came from my stint as a Congressional candidate in the 2020 primary. Interestingly, it relates to the special webinar Gustus and The Bee would later host called “Disinformation in Local Elections: How to Spot It and What You Can Do.” When I later saw that webinar, I had to laugh because when such misinformation occurred in my race and involved The Bee’s good name, Gustus’ response was a literal shrug.
The episode involved my main opponent – the incumbent – who throughout the election prominently featured an out-of-date endorsement on his campaign home page. The endorsement came from The Bee two years earlier and before The Bee ultimately made its endorsement. Still, he featured it as “Latest News” on his home page and quoted The Bee as calling him the district’s “clear choice” for the primary.
Nowhere on the home page did it note the endorsement did not apply to the current primary. It was clear political misinformation, but I had to acknowledge the chutzpah of giving your misinformation credibility using the name of a major media outlet. So surely The Bee would be annoyed by this misuse of its good name and an out-of-date endorsement, right? Certainly they would make a quick phone call to chagrin the incumbent into correcting the website, right?
Nope. After the other campaign ignored my camp’s requests to correct their home page, my campaign reached out to several members of The Bee, including Gustus. None would return the calls or emails. When The Bee’s editorial board later had me in to interview for the actual endorsement, I brought the issue up directly with Gustus. This is when she shrugged.
When I asked if it concerned her that voters could be deceived and that a Bee endorsement was being misused, she fumbled around with different excuses. She first said her paper couldn’t be expected to look into every allegation. When I noted it didn’t require anything other than looking at a home page, she then said, “Well, technically until we issue a new endorsement, our old endorsement remains in effect. So it’s not inaccurate.”
Huh? Before I could respond, she walked off. Perhaps this was an example of her “active listening,” but it sure struck me as pure media apathy. After all, the idea any politician previously endorsed by a publication could fairly promote themselves in the next election cycle as the still-endorsed pick in mailers, TV ads or online was clearly ridiculous.
Then some months later, there was Gustus on her paper’s disinformation webinar preaching the best ways for the public to combat political falsehoods. This included relying on trusted publications like The Bee, which she said work extremely hard to combat political misinformation.
Under Gustus’ leadership, her paper has practiced other questionable ethics. As I’ve written previously, this year the McClatchy chain instructed its papers to make no presidential endorsements if all candidates could not be interviewed. However, that didn’t keep The Bee from making a Vice Presidential endorsement, recommending in its July 31 editorial Joe Biden select the progressive Southern California U.S. Rep. Karen Bass. At the same time, the editorial questioned Kamala Harris’ character about when she had learned about a harassment case involving two past staffers while she was California attorney general.
Once the case became public, Harris fired the accused staffer then on her Senate team, but in the eyes of the Sacramento Bee, this disqualified Harris for higher office. Perhaps a fair position, but what The Bee did not disclose in its unsigned editorial was that The Bee’s opinion editor, Gil Duran, had been a former top aide to Harris. The D.C.-based publication Politico even reported that “the [editorial] board under Duran has written critically about Harris” before. But The Bee did not disclose this connection, although such disclosures in the interest of transparency have become common, including in The Sacto Politico.
The suggestion that the editorial arose from a political ax to grind had added weight given that The Bee seldom endorses progressive Democrats such as Bass. In the March primaries, the paper even seemed to go out of its way to smear progressive candidate and now City Council Member-elect Katie Valenzuela by connecting her to independent literature that attacked her opponent. Despite having no evidence to support this, editorial board member Marcos Breton wrote in a column, “Valenzuela has said all the right things about how she doesn’t approve of the door hangers, but come on. She is benefiting from them.”
Then a couple weeks later in The Bee’s endorsement of Valenzuela’s opponent, the paper erroneously smeared her again as having filed a frivolous complaint against her opponent, which she never had. A later online version of the endorsement removed the reference.
Call all this understaffed sloppiness, but it also appears to reflect a ragged commitment to journalistic basics. And responsibility for that fairly resides with the paper’s leadership, up to and including Gustus.
A successor to Gustus has not been announced. What McClatchy’s new hedge-fund owners will do is anyone’s guess. They could leave the post empty to save payroll. But if they wish to fill it, an experienced replacement would not be hard to find given the industry’s contractions. Plus given how many young reporters and editors have been hired recently, it would be good to bring in someone with a proven commitment to principled, public-interest-driven journalism.
In other words, someone to provide an extra flashlight or two to help The Bee scramble its way back from the creeping darkness.