Back when the Sacramento Bee prided itself on being the journal of record for the state capitol, the newspaper had a local news section that billed itself as “Superior California.” It was a dig that irritated many of the southern Californians who worked under the capitol's golden dome, since it implied that the lower part of the state was “inferior California.”
The Bee still covers the state capitol and still carries news of the Sacramento Valley region, but it has long since abandoned any pretense of superiority. In fact, it has in recent years abandoned any pretense of journalism. The Bee's lack of editorial integrity and journalistic judgment was in full display on page one of the edition for Tuesday, March 16, 2010. The day's top story was emblazoned with an eye-catching headline:
Speaker's top aide
gets $65,000 raise
The article had the undoubtedly desired effect: hundreds of people crowding into the Bee's website to post denunciations of the greedy profiteers in state government and a raft of furious letters to the editor. The Bee basks in the glow of cupidity revealed.
There is only one problem with this supposedly newsworthy story. It turns out that the Bee could have published the exact same article with the following headline instead:
New Speaker's top aide gets exactly
same salary as old Speaker's top aide
Of course, that would hardly be interesting, exciting, or rabble-rousing. Not front-page news. The Bee knows its job, but that job does not appear to be journalism.
The focus of the Bee's faux exposé is a woman who worked as chief of staff for John Pérez, who until last month was merely one of eighty members of the state assembly. Now, however, Pérez has been elevated to the position of speaker, the lower chamber's top job. He brought his office chief of staff into the speaker's office, appointing her to a brand-new job that now involves working with all eighty assembly members' offices at the same time.
Am I splitting hairs when I insist that it is misleading to describe her new salary as a pay raise in a newspaper headline? What she has is an entirely new job. She will be making significantly more money than before, but her responsibilities have taken a great leap upward. The Bee makes it sound as if her boss simply decided to capriciously give her a big fat pay raise.
One is welcome to debate whether the speaker's top staff assistant should earn more than he does (she'll make $190,000 while he earns $110,000—recently cut back from $134,000 because elected officials' salaries were reduced in consequence of the recession). That's a legitimate argument. What the Bee is doing, however, is a bastard form of journalism.
It's mere sensationalism.