California Senate Bill 911, “California Public Interest Media Act of 2022,” was introduced in February and the Senate Governmental Organizations Committee held a hearing on the bill last week.
By an 8-4 vote, the bill was approved and referred to the Senate’s Appropriation Committee for assessment of its fiscal commitments. Sen. Melissa Melendez who represents Idyllwild was one of the four members opposing the bill. When asked why, she said, “The intent of the bill seems honorable, in practice, but creating a government entity — even an independent, bipartisan one — to support the media seems fraught with potential issues. For example, if the intent is to foster good, and quality reporting or unbiased information on the actions of government, it could easily be manipulated when the watchdogs are funded from the very entity they are supposed to be watching.”
“Senate Bill 911! It’s a very apt number because SB 911 responds to an emergency, a real emergency, the threat posed to our democracy by misinformation,” stated Sen. Steven Glazer (D-Contra Costa), the bill’s author, as he began the discussion during the committee hearing.
“In the Internet Age, access to information and to methods of threading misinformation has become so cheap anyone can do it. Good, old fashioned, fact-based news is not cheap,” he continued. False information “… deliberately undermines our institutions — government, academia and the media — all in an effort to convince people that none of these groups can be trusted.”
Since 2004, when there were about 9,000 U.S. newspapers — daily and weekly — more than a quarter have been lost; most in small communities, creating what Penelope Muse Abernathy, Knight chair of Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina, School of Journalism and Media, describes as “news deserts.”
“No state has been spared the death of a newspaper…,” according to Glazer. Since 2004, California has lost 25% of its local news media.
Speaking in support of the bill, Jessica Gonzalez, co-CEO of Free Press, said bluntly, “We shouldn’t have to rely on local government actors — whether they be school boards, law enforcement, air quality management boards, or city councils — as our sole sources of information.”
The purpose of SB 911 is to encourage independent, local public service news coverage. This would be achieved through grants to local media organizations and journalists to support coverage of local public affairs. This bill is modeled after the California Arts Council and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, two organizations providing public funding of independent arts and media.
Ultimately, Glazer and his fellow sponsors hope this will achieve an environment of public trust in which all news organizations are free from influence.
Since its introduction, Glazer, in cooperation with many colleagues, has made amendments to the proposed legislation. For example, recipients of these grants must be California-owned entities.
The bill would created a 15-member board to consider grants. The bill now prohibits the board “from discriminating for or against a news organization on the basis of political partisanship.”
Another is that this legislation, if passed, will sunset January 1, 2028.
After several colleagues, all of whom supported the goal, spoke in favor and some raised questions or preferred a different means to achieve these goals, Glazer said he would work with them to modify and improve the bill.
In concluding the discussion, he averred, “[the demise of local news media] is a slow-motion crash: We’re all watching it in front of us. We all know how important oversight is to a thriving democracy; we know that is a crucial element. We have to find a way to shore up that foundation.”