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    California cracks down on press access, our right to know
    • April 14, 2023

    Most everyone seems to think that members of the press operate hand in glove with Big Government, serving as some kind of public-relations agency for the electeds and their minions, offering up without skepticism what tidbits the bureaucracies in our various capitols and executive offices disseminate as “news.”

    Those everyones have never been reporters.

    The reality is that oftentimes actual, timely facts from government sources can be rare as hens’ teeth, especially if the information sought by journalists is about anything at all deemed controversial by those who supposedly serve the public in government.

    And the really bad news for the free flow of information to the public who pays for all that government — pays for its press offices, too — is that the situation has only gotten worse after COVID-19 restrictions made it much harder for reporters from newspapers, radio and television statements and online news organizations to penetrate the walls put up by city halls, county governments and most especially state capitols.

    That has been particularly true in California, where pandemic shutdowns came earliest, lasted longest and often continue until this day. After generations of reporters being able to pick up information vital to a free press by just hanging around, talking to officials they bump into either on or off the record simply by being physically there, of a sudden government buildings were shut down and official meetings went online. There were no hallways in which to encounter sources and hear the latest informally. Everything had to be done by telephone. Which, way more than by a real question asked face to face, can go unanswered.

    And what, in a slightly post-pandemic California, has been the response to a fresh new reopening of government offices and what should be increased communication between government officials, their lackeys and the press?

    Why, some press offices for various agencies are, for instance, eliminating their telephones altogether, demanding that all inquiries be made by email.

    Such is the real and enormously troubling news gathered by journalism organization CalMatters reporter Alexei Koseff in Sacramento in a major new project story published last week by CapRadio,  headlined “A failure to communicate: California government cuts back press access.”

    In massive detail, the story describes a Gov. Gavin Newsom administration that, very much contrary to public myths about journos and liberal politicians, has lowered the cone of silence: “Many of the standard features of government beat reporting — including in-person press conferences, with an opportunity for follow-up questions, and media phone lines where journalists could talk to a live staffer — disappeared three years ago with the shutdown orders and have been slow to return, if at all,” Koseff reports. “Changes that reporters and public information officers adopted to do their jobs virtually in a strange new stay-at-home world became ingrained, encouraging practices, such as written statements instead of interviews, that offer less clarity and greater distance between state government and the people it serves.”

    David Loy, the legal director of the First Amendment Coalition, correctly says that what is at risk right now in California is a decline of “open, honest and transparent communication” essential to the functioning of democracy.

    Now, Sacramento government departments routinely ignore questions from reporters, block the release of information, refuse to give reporters telephone numbers to call when emails are not replied to and seemingly purposely slow-walk crucial material: “We know we missed your deadline, but hopefully this information is still useful and of value for you!” one agency wrote to a reporter when it was too late.

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    It’s not as if there is a shortage of communications workers in Sacramento: 435 employees in the executive branch alone, with annual total salaries that cost taxpayers something north of $36 million. There are hundreds of other supposed press aides working in the Legislature and other state departments. Citizens and journalists alike need to demand that they start picking up the phone, and responding to the public’s right to know.

    ​ Orange County Register