Evaluating print and broadcast news in the San Francisco Bay Area from A to F.
E-mail to a friend | Printer-friendly version | Discuss story

Commentary

Can California still be considered a democracy?

California's official Voter Guide has grown to 191 pages for the Nov. 7 election. Casting an informed vote is becoming more burdensome at the same time as politicians are devaluing votes by drawing safe districts and allowing contributors a greater voice in Sacramento.

In a true democracy, power flows upward from the consent of the governed – all of the governed.

But consider a shocking new study by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Just 15% of the state's adults constitute the majority in a typical state election, says PPIC Research Director Mark Baldassare. They make political decisions for the rest of us. And that 15% is substantially older, whiter and richer than Californians as a whole.

That might not matter if their opinions mirrored the majority's. But they don't. They are considerably more conservative than the majority.

The most likely voters like Arnold better, and government solutions and taxes less, than the majority of Californians.

You think this is simply a matter of personal choice? Non-voters snooze so they deserve to lose?

John McManus

Eventually, we all lose when democracy becomes unrepresentative. The vast resources of government and the force of law side with the politically adept, dividing society into haves and have-nots. That fuels lawlessness and violence.

Democracy's weakest link has always been the limited willingness of average people to assume the responsibilities of citizenship – becoming informed enough to vote for their own interests.

But rather than brace that link, our political leaders chop at it. They create voting districts to protect incumbents from the people's will. They elevate the campaign contributors’ interests above the public's. They wink at cheap labor crossing the border while denying these immigrants a say at the polls.

A single vote, among millions, is little enough reward for doing the daily work of becoming informed. Yet it's been devalued.

So what has this to do with journalism?

The kind of reporting that empowers citizenship -- news that alerts us to how power is being exercised in our name by politicians and under our laws and policies by corporations -- is an endangered species in today's market-driven newsroom.

That's not just the fault of news execs, who are failing their own professional standards. By stacking the electoral system against participation, politicians discourage demand for serious news.

The result is a dangerous spiral of apathy. The public doesn't demand news of political significance because there's little reward for casting an informed vote. So news media shift their focus to better-selling, more entertaining stories. And elections are decided by the 15% "majority."

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

WEEKLY UPDATES

More...
A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle

Hearst

San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

 

Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

Site highlights

THE GROWTH OF FREE NEWSPAPERS

The three-part series follows the rise of three Bay Area handouts:
• Part 1: At free dailies, advertisers sometimes call the shots
• Part 2: Free daily papers: more local but often superficial
• Part 3: Free papers' growth threatens traditional news
• See also: SF Examiner and Independent agree to end payola restaurant reviews
• And: The free tabloid that wasn't: East Bay's aborted Daily Flash

FATE OF KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS

Lou Alexander started a firestorm with his original guest commentary predicting the company would be sold. Several other experts on newspapers have weighed in:
Newspapers can't cut their way back into Wall Street investors' hearts, by Stephen R. Lacy; Alexander responds
Humbler profits won't encourage buyouts, by John Morton; Alexander responds
Newspapers can't maintain monopoly profits because they've lost their monopolies, by Philip Meyer
Knight Ridder in grave jeopardy, by Lou Alexander...

KQED-FM AUDIO PERSPECTIVES BY JOHN MCMANUS

Leakers and plumbers: There's no difference between a good leak and a bad leak? Journalists need a shield law. 11/22/05
Unintended consequences: How Craigslist and similar services are sucking revenue from faltering newspapers. 9/13/05
Is CPB irrelevant? As Congress moves to cut public broadcasting funds, has CPB become obsolete in the modern marketplace. 6/26/05
The paradox of news: There's more news available and its cheaper than ever before, but fewer young people are interested. 5/12/05

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Most recent updatesHow the Bay Area's most popular media stack up.Talk about Bay Area journalism in our on-line discussion forum. A printable news scorecard you can use at home or in school. Raves and rants aimed at the local media. What would you do if you were the editor? Upcoming happenings and calls for public action. Let 'em know! Contact a local newsroom.Codes of ethics, local media advocates and journalism tools. Tip us off about the local media, or tell us how we're doing.Oops.A comprehensive list of past GTN exclusives.