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Jan. 5, 2020

Letter to CapRadio

February 20, 2020

 

Nick Miller

News Director

Capital Public Radio

7055 Folsom Boulevard

Sacramento, CA 95826

Mr. Miller,

 

Have you ever had a lifelong hero crumble before your eyes? Did you ever look up to a Bill Cosby, a Lance Armstrong, a crusading Eliot Spitzer, or any of the cheating Houston Astros – only to be terrifically disappointed by revelations of their true mettle?

 

That happened to me this week. Ever since entering journalism school, I’ve esteemed Public Radio. Though I started my career as a print reporter, I always considered NPR and its affiliates to be our profession’s gold standard. The Mother Teresa of broadcast news. Hiring and featuring female reporters well before the rest of the industry. Daniel Schorr making Nixon’s enemies list. Nina Totenberg breaking the Anita Hill story. Terry Gross not being cowed by Hillary Clinton. No matter how underpaid or what fads and corporate consolidations shrank quality news elsewhere, the newsrooms of public radio were always there to put civic and professional values first.

 

We listeners proudly supported our public radio stations if only so there could be one place free from bottom-line corporatization, one place we could trust to strengthen our public square, public institutions and democratic values.

 

But this week, one of my heroes fell. I learned that Capital Public Radio, under your news direction Mr. Miller, is failing its mission, failing its listeners, and failing our democracy. That’s because over the last few days, you and other members of your station confirmed to some of my campaign supporters and then directly to me that a news blackout exists toward my Congressional race. Learning this cleared up the mystery of why over nearly 9 marathon months of my campaign we have never received a single response to any of our calls, offers of exclusives, news releases or follow-up messages.

 

No matter how many local endorsements we earned, how many supporters we enlisted, how many delegate votes we got at the state Democratic convention, your station expressed zero interest in our smart, principled and ever-growing Progressive campaign. No matter how much real news we broke and tried to offer exclusively to your team (because of my deep respect for public radio), you still ignored us. It apparently did not matter that we were pitching incontrovertible FEC-filed evidence of Rep. Ami Bera’s fundraising ties to many of the largest opioid makers and distributors in the U.S. It apparently did not matter that all these donors are currently being sued by Sacramento County, or that our county suffers an opioids death rate twice the state average. It also apparently did not matter when we unearthed that last year Bera raised more than $150,000 from 69 corporations fined a combined $99 billion since 2000. Nor did it matter that, in contrast, from the start of my campaign I have stuck to the most principled fundraising pledge in the nation. No matter any of this, your response was always the same: a silent “not of interest to our listeners.”

But this week, what explanation did my supporters get when they contacted your station – per your on-air promotions asking for listener feedback – and asked for more coverage of me and the CA-7 primary race? First, your ombudsman said your station’s decision to not cover my Congressional primary race was a result of needing to stay focused only where “a genuine contest was likely.” I responded that our primary is actually highly competitive with four opponents vying for the second of the Top Two slots on the November ballot (with the incumbent, as usual, guaranteed the other spot). I further noted that election demographics clearly showed Bera to be vulnerable on his left from a principled Progressive Democrat like myself and that it’s a fascinating question how deeply I might be able to dig into Bera’s shallow, untested base.

You ignored this information and next responded that your station has limited resources and staffing. That “we do not have the resources to cover every election contest in our audience region.” But this was disingenuous. I’m a regular listener, and I haven’t heard any coverage of any other local contests. It’s possible you covered something here or there that I missed, but to claim your coverage of so many other “genuine contests” crowded out my primary is insincere at best. Plus, I have been running for nearly 9 months. That’s 41 weeks of on-air morning and afternoon news roundups. 37 weeks and about 160 hours of public affairs programming on your “Insight” program. That’s not “limited resources”? That’s clearly a “news blackout,” and not just any news blackout. It's a news blackout of our local democracy.

You also suggested your newsroom was choosing to focus “on other election goals: clarifying voter misinformation, educating people about the mechanics of voting and the process, working on participatory journalism projects.” I found this particularly stunning. What news director prioritizes coverage of election processes over any coverage of the elections themselves? If true, this in effect says “our elections don’t matter,” and “informing our listeners even a little bit about their local races is a waste of time.” Stunning. I never expected to hear this kind of “media apathy” from the public radio station I financially supported. It is nothing less than a journalistic shrug at our local elections.

 

Further, this alibi doesn’t hold water in another crucial way. The type of stories you claim needing to prioritize included stories about “clarifying voter misinformation.” Strange, I have yet to hear any such locally reported stories on your station, save a recent “Insight” interview in which the invited expert explained how media outlets should properly expose unethical campaign tactics – advice your station has clearly not put into practice. How do I know this? Because my campaign reached out multiple times in January to interest you in covering a blatantly misleading example of voter misinformation committed by my opponent Ami Bera. This example even caused us to file formal complaints at the state and federal levels. So this story should have been firmly in the wheelhouse of your professed election-season news focus. You should have been frothing to receive such a perfect local example of “voter misinformation,” a story that your team could easily have developed into a full-blown piece for potential pick-up by your national parent news programs. But what was CapRadio's response to our news releases, calls and emails? More crickets.

I’m a former journalist. When a source keeps changing their story and trying out all sorts of different alibis on you, that’s usually telling. I personally feel you may just be very embarrassed by what a very poor choice you’ve made to turn your back on Public Radio’s long, proud history of local election coverage. I think you may be embarrassed for failing to illuminate bad-for-our-democracy public officials like Bera whose tactless fundraising has exploited the weakest, most flawed parts of our election system regardless of how much his corporate donors’ interests diverge from his constituents’ interests.

Further, you disagree with my calling any of this a "news blackout," yet you don’t dispute that every element of the definition of a blackout applies here: a conscious decision to provide no media coverage of otherwise newsworthy individuals, groups and events. Plus, you made it clear in your emails that it is unlikely this position will change in the final two weeks of the election. 

Now, journalists regularly tell the public that journalism is the only profession protected by name in the U.S. Constitution. But with such unique protection should come great responsibility. So if you do not regret your decision to ignore covering our local elections, then you’ve only added further shame on yourself.

In one of your many emails (strange how much time you had to email me while claiming you couldn’t talk by phone until three days later), you also wrote, “I’m disappointed to learn that you are considering ending your membership with CapRadio. But I also want to make it clear the newsroom cannot be influenced by such considerations.” I am glad you gave yourself a chance to appear to stand on some kind of great journalistic principle. But once again, you were being completely disingenuous, perhaps to yourself. I’m a former journalist. Such threats are amateurish and beneath me, and I of course threatened nothing of the sort.

But yes, I did say I am considering ending my and my wife’s monthly donation level. After all, in this market, if I wanted to listen and support a public radio station that has no interest in covering Sacramento’s “genuine” local elections, then I have a very good option [San Francisco’s KQED public radio station]. And for you to be ignorant of that obvious option and not factor it into your news decisions, that suggests someone who has lost his connection with the true civic information needs of his listenership.

It is such a depressing time for our democracy. A major reason I ran is because I was frustrated by how few good stewards existed in politics. Plus, no fellow Democrat had ever primaried Bera. But given how much I know about government, policy and campaigns, I had to admit to myself that if not me to run, then who? The same goes for CapRadio. If your station won’t cover our elections or candidates like me who are for the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and exposing and giving genuine opposition to powerful incumbents like Bera, then what media outlet will? Not the Bankrupt Sac Bee. Not TV.

In the past, I always counted on the answer being, “Well, of course, my local public radio station will be that principled source of coverage.” Even before The Washington Post adopted the motto, “Democracy dies in darkness,” I felt public radio would always be there to shine that critical disinfecting light needed for our democracy to survive. That was part of why local public radio was one of my heroes.

But this week, I lost one of those heroes.

Sincerely,

Jeff Burdick

Democratic Candidate for CA-7

BurdickForCongress.com