The best weapon journalists have against questionable politics is good, thoughtful journalism.
But such an arrow is once again missing from the Sacramento Bee’s quiver in its latest war of diatribes with career bomb-thrower Asm. Kevin Kiley (R-Rocklin). Two weekends ago, the Trump-endorsed candidate for Congress trekked to Texas for the annual Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference. There Kiley gave a standard red-meat-for-Red-States speech decrying Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state of affairs in Democratic-controlled California.
Some of his criticisms were obvious and fair. Some were over the top, but all were performative by design to fundraise from the MAGA base and perhaps irritate a few California liberals.
None of this was new or surprising. Some might even call the five-minute speech a “dog bites man” story not worth much coverage. I thought it deserved no more than a 278-character tweet about its more awkward moments. Yet the Bee rose to Kiley’s bait and devoted more than 2,300 repetitive words spread across four different articles to cover, criticize and dissect it.
Overkill to be sure, especially for a newspaper with ever-shrinking newsroom resources. Unfortunately, the Bee again missed a golden opportunity to invest some of its precious staff hours and column inches into quality reporting about the highly competitive but undercovered CA-3 Congressional race. In many ways, this 2022 midterm race is a microcosm of the fight for control of the U.S. House of Representatives and America’s democratic future. It pits the Millennial Republican Kevin Kiley – whose political ambitions have made him ever more radical-friendly – against the moderate Democrat and Navy veteran Dr. Kermit Jones, who served two tours of duty in Iraq. The race has also attracted more than $3 million in donations, but in the absence of much deep coverage, most prognosticators have called the open seat a likely Republican win, though Trump would have won the new district in 2020 by just 1.9 percentage points.
But by overfocusing on a five-minute performative speech, the Bee is emphasizing and rewarding bombast over substance – both Kiley’s bombast and its own. So Kiley spoke of California as a Progressive hell hole, and the Bee countered by heckling Kiley as a “flyweight” and “dyspeptic,” and CPAC as “a mentally ill theme park of alt-right grievances.” Much heat, but little illumination.
From Kiley, such antics are not surprising. He’s making his third attempt to use such provocative histrionics to leapfrog out of the State Assembly back bench into some higher office. So far, the strategy has failed. In 2020, he lost his State Senate bid despite going incredibly negative against a stronger Republican foe. Then in last year’s Newsom recall, he ran as a replacement candidate, but despite being included in four regional debates, he netted just 3.5% of all replacement recall votes. (If you include voters who left Question 2 blank, Kiley attracted less than 2% of the vote.)
But also not surprising was the Bee’s resource-wasting. This past spring, the paper went on a similar tirade after three local GOP candidates (including Kiley) rejected Bee invitations for endorsement interviews. The candidates cited the Bee’s penchant for name-calling, mischaracterizations, and ambush tactics, and the Bee’s Editorial Board quickly proved their point by responding with, not one, but three name-calling pieces, and ambushing a fourth Republican candidate who had accepted their invitation.
Now, a finely crafted jeremiad from a skilled, respected pen will always have its place, but the Bee’s repetitive screeds have seldom added to civic understanding and crowds out coverage of far more important issues. Take how the Bee’s four recent pieces against Kiley’s CPAC speech made just three passing mentions of Kiley’s Congressional opponent, Dr. Jones. This probably quite pleased the Kiley camp. One opinion piece even failed to mention Jones at all, and despite the many days of coverage, the Bee never saw fit to feature a reaction from the Jones camp or any voters in the CA-3.
This suggests the CA-3 voters and the pivotal House race are afterthoughts in the Bee’s over-personalized war with Kiley. And news coverage that forgets both its audience and its newsworthy context has a name: bad journalism.
The vast, redesigned CA-3 stretches across 10 different counties and includes growing Sacramento suburbs like Folsom and Roseville. If the Bee had sent a reporter out to canvass voters, it likely would have found many other issues of greater interest. These would include inflation, suppressing wildfires, the need to expand rural broadband access, and reversing the widespread closure of rural hospitals and clinics. Many of these are top issues addressed by Jones and his website, whereas Kiley’s website – perhaps tellingly – doesn’t even have an “issues” section.
Another Bee opinion piece written by Melinda Henneberger did take Kiley to task on one issue that was a small part of Kiley’s brief CPAC speech: homelessness. This is of course a major California issue, especially in urban areas where the problem is most concentrated. But in the highly exurban and rural CA-3, the issue would seem far less critical to Nov. 8 voters. Even more puzzling was when Henneberger asked, “If elected, what would Kiley be doing differently [than Jones] on the key issues of homelessness and climate?” This is certainly a valid and potentially useful question; however, Henneberger never thought to share Jones’ position on either issue to help readers judge for themselves.
The Bee could have also used one of its four pieces to finally report on Kiley’s local ties among radical extremists. At the top of the list is Kiley having served as a featured speaker at a March 2021 far-right rally. This happened not in far-away Texas, but in the Bee’s front yard: outside the Sacramento state capitol. The rally was co-organized by an individual who had shortly before called for Americans to arm for civil war, and half of the lineup featured speakers with established ties to a large national hate group, QAnon and militias.
So why did Kiley choose to share a stage with this gang? What does it say about his decision-making? In hindsight, does he regret his participation or denounce their beliefs? Kiley won’t talk to SactoPolitico.com on these issues, but given that bigger news outlets like the Bee won’t press him for answers, can you blame his silence? As he ducks beneath the water line, the Bee only indirectly splashes at his ripples.
But this ignoring of Kiley’s local extremist connections felt especially glaring given how critical the Bee was of the far-right company Kiley kept at CPAC. This included the prime minister of Hungary – an “authoritarian loon” in Bee-speak; Steven Bannon; radical U.S. Reps. Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz; convicted Jan. 6 insurgent Brandon Straka who has a Sacramento connection; and of course the Jan. 6 insurrection leader himself Donald Trump.
So why not localize this criticism and spotlight Kiley’s more concerning local efforts to sidle up for political gain with extremists? Why not invest a little staff time to buttonhole the recalcitrant Kiley at a State Assembly committee meeting and press him to explain speaking at that March 2021 rally?
Instead, the Bee lazily focused on Kiley’s use an old, completely accurate factoid about how California’s 2020 population dip caused U-Haul to at times have no one-way trailer rentals available in high population areas. The Bee even devoted an entire article to fact-check this point, even though it had been widely reported back then and fact-checked again as accurate seven months ago by Snopes.com. So just more wasted column inches.
Plus, if the U-Haul claim hadn’t been accurate, shouldn’t readers have expected the Bee to have noted this in its original news story on the speech? Or are Bee readers wrong to assume Bee regularly fact checks such easy to verify claims by politicians before publishing?
Again, the best weapon journalists always have is good, thoughtful journalism.
These standards of good journalism also begged for the Bee to use Kiley’s speech as a springboard into a far deeper and more valuable exploration of the CA-3 race, its candidates and their positions. Instead the Bee let a politician it clearly despises use provocative rhetoric to control the topic and hog the political spotlight. It’s like the Bee learned nothing from the Trump years.
And like Trump, Kiley quickly issued a fundraising email leveraging the Bee’s overkill coverage. Fairly, he characterized the coverage as “an absolute conniption,” but he also chose to echo the militant rhetoric common to the far-right extremists he’s been currying by saying, “It appears we are over the target.” (Such mock bellicosity from Kiley seems akin to the infamous fist pump fellow Ivy Leaguer Sen. Josh Hawley gave the Jan. 6 insurrections.)
But don’t expect to read about any of this in the Bee. This was all less important to it than repetitively expressing a pretty bland “hot take” for Kiley to love California or leave it – a sentiment that lacked any prosaic verve or intellectual heft when used six decades ago against Vietnam War protesters.
The Bee recently announced hiring two “enterprise” political reporters. Even though the Bee has officially demoted election coverage from its home page, one hopes editors assign these new hires to political issues of high value to subscribers and the body politic. But since neither reporter has any recent local electoral experience, we perhaps should not expect too much enterprising insight right away. This is a pity given less than 60 days remain before mail-in ballots go out.