Analysis

Media and the state Capitol: A lawyer’s view

The state Capitol in Sacramento, viewed from 10th Street toward the West Steps.(Photo: Timothy Boomer)

(Ed’s Note: This is the latest in a series of articles on state lawmaking. It is intended as a sort of classroom primer for those interested in Capitol issues.)

Love ’em or hate ’em, reporters play an important role in the legislative process — as well as with legislative strategy and ethics — in California.

They see the media as tools to be used. Reporters, knowing that, tend to be wary.

Because of this influence, the media in many ways are commonly viewed as a fourth branch of government (or “fourth estate,” as the cliché goes). They don’t approve or reject legislation, but their coverage affects those who do and they often influence the fate of bills.

They can push an issue or a bill to the forefront of the Legislature’s attention.  Their coverage of an issue or a bill can help or hurt its chances of success. And, of course, perhaps most importantly, they can bring to light what is happening behind the scenes during the legislative session.

As political observers have long noted, the media have its own biases in coverage, or lack of coverage, regarding state legislative issues. The media may highlight a bill or issue due to the interest of a reporter or editor — an interest presumably based on news merits — regardless of whether readers or viewers find it of interest to them.

As a result, the media can impact pending legislation by drawing attention to the measure and getting the public at large to be aware of pending bills.

Just like with political campaigns, proponents and opponents of certain legislation will attempt to create earned- and paid-media opportunities for their respective points of view. They see the media as tools to be used. Reporters, knowing that, tend to be wary.

In recent years, public relations and public affairs firms have worked on grassroots and media efforts to supplement traditional lobbying work done for or against pending legislation or regulations. This usually only occurs on major legislation with major interest groups on either or both sides of a bill or issue before the Legislature.

The media also play a role in state Capitol ethics because they cover stories about ethics issues within the Capitol community.

The media also come into play with legislative strategy as lawmakers, staff and interest groups will determine whether a bill is newsworthy.

If so, they may attempt to pitch a story either pro or con, likely targeting the Capitol Press Corps or perhaps their local newspaper or TV station in their district. They might produce an opinion piece or a letter to the editor in hopes of getting their viewpoint specifically covered by the newspaper.

In some instances, the issue may be news-worthy enough to warrant a planned press conference and, with it, possible television coverage. Either side will look to capitalize on the news coverage to advance their point of view.

A newspaper’s editorial board, or their featured columnists, also play a role in shaping public opinion. Their editorials can impact the legislative process because they often are regarded as a trustworthy and informed voice on key issues. A major newspaper’s editorial board typically includes several full-time opinion writers and their endorsements are highly sought in political campaigns and legislative efforts.

Editorials, of course, are produced independently of news stories — a sacrosanct separation in all good newspapers — but that distinction sometimes is lost on readers.

The media also play a role in state Capitol ethics because they cover stories about ethics issues within the Capitol community.

For example, they may publish articles on investigations by the Fair Political Practices Commission and that panel’s assessment of fines. Similarly, the 2014 coverage of three suspended state senators and their related criminal conduct sparked numerous news stories that portrayed the Legislature in a negative light.

At times elected officials pursue “legislation by headline” because the media create an atmosphere in which the public takes interest and some legislators may want to appear responsive to major issues garnering press coverage

Unfortunately, there are a dwindling number of members of the Capitol Press Corps with only The Sacramento Bee,  the Los Angeles Times and The Associated Press employing more than one reporter in their Capitol Bureau.

With so few reporters, not many bills get written about, with the exception of the state budget and a handful of high profile measures that attract statewide attention and usually have powerful and vocal interest groups on both sides of the issue.

Some media outlets may tend to ignore the press releases and story pitches by legislative offices, even though legislators and their staff generally spend time and effort writing press releases and attempting to get coverage of their key legislation.

More often, the local newspapers will provide some coverage about the legislator’s bill and legislative offices can utilize social media to interact directly with the public.

The media also tend to cover the state budget and gubernatorial actions more than most legislation. Legislation is sometimes driven by media coverage.

As some Capitol staffers have said, at times elected officials pursue “legislation by headline” because the media create an atmosphere in which the public takes interest and some legislators may want to appear responsive to major issues garnering press coverage that is read by their constituents.

Both Capitol insiders and the Capitol Press Corps benefit from working together. For example, reporters need insiders to provide leads and background info for stories, while legislators and staff seek positive press coverage for their legislation.

In the state Capitol, Room 1190 is down the hall from the governor’s office and is the press conference room that is equipped for news media. The governor’s press conferences often are held there, as are briefings by legislators. The Senate and Assembly have rooms in the old section of the Capitol where press conferences are held, in addition to 1190.

Both houses of the Legislature also televise select committee hearings and all floor sessions. For the public’s viewing, there is CalChannel for free on cable TV that shows selected hearings and most floor sessions, but it is only one channel. Otherwise, there are two Assembly and two Senate channels which can be subscribed to from cable TV at a premium price.  The individual houses (through their respective Rules Committees) determine which hearings they want to televise.

This may change with the voters’ adoption of Proposition 54 in November. Beginning January 1, 2018, that ballot measure requires the Legislature to make audiovisual recordings of all its proceedings, except closed session proceedings, and post them on the Internet.

In addition, Prop. 54 authorizes any person to record legislative proceedings by audio or video means, except closed session proceedings. Finally, the newly-adopted ballot measure allows recordings of legislative proceedings to be used for any legitimate purpose without payment of any fee to the State.

Ed’s Note: Chris Micheli, a lobbyist and an adjunct professor in the Capital Lawyering Program for the McGeorge School of Law, is a principal with the Sacramento-based government relations firm of Aprea & Micheli.

 


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