Imagine hearing a story about a governor whose administration had bungled a $6.4 billion bridge project and potentially put thousands of lives at risk, but had refused to hold anyone accountable for it. And what if another agency in that same governor’s administration had allowed oil companies to inject toxins into underground drinking water supplies for years? And what if that governor had also steadfastly declined to address the fact that another state agency had developed a scandalously close relationship with a big power company it was supposed to regulate? And to top it off, what if that same governor had pushed relentlessly for a $25 billion infrastructure project that would mostly benefit Big Agribusiness, while potentially ruining the most important ecological area of his state?
You’d think the governor might be embattled, right? That he would be dogged by reporters and news organizations demanding some sort of accountability? Well, you’d be wrong. Because we have that governor right here in California — Jerry Brown — and he has yet to face any sort of tough questioning from the mainstream press, despite having overseen all the problems described above.
Instead, Brown has soared to sky-high approval ratings as California’s press corps has showered him with praise, repeatedly describing him as “pragmatic” and “able to get things done.” The press has refused to even bring up the fact that state agencies under Brown’s influence and command have been repeatedly rocked by incompetence and scandal. Indeed, Brown has received a monumentally huge Free Pass.
Why? The state’s rebounding economy is likely one factor. Politicians often get credit when the economy booms, and get blamed when it busts, regardless of whether they’ve actually had anything to do with it. Such is the case with Brown. He has arguably had little impact on an economic comeback that’s been largely driven by the tech sector. Yet he’s riding high nonetheless.
But a strong economy alone doesn’t normally inoculate a mayor, governor, or president from press criticism, particularly when that executive’s administration has repeatedly made headlines for ineptitude and ineffectiveness. Take Barack Obama. Under his watch, the nation’s economy, like that of California, has made a remarkable turnaround. By the end of 2014, the US unemployment rate was just 5.6 percent, down from a high of 10.2 percent during the president’s first year in office. Likewise, the stock market has surged to a record 17,000 points this year, after plummeting to 6,500 during the height of the Great Recession.
Yet the increasingly healthy economy has not prevented the nation’s press corps from relentlessly questioning Obama’s every misstep — even when they aren’t actually missteps (see Benghazi and Ebola). Not surprisingly, the president’s approval rating is nowhere near Brown’s.
So what’s the explanation for Brown’s free pass? Another factor likely has to do with how meek and moderate the Republican Party is in California. In fact, many Republicans seem to genuinely like Brown. And why not? He’s a fiscal conservative who at times is more likely to oppose a spending plan put forward by a member of his own party than one from the GOP.
Moreover, the mainstream press, out of an apparent fear of being viewed as biased, has traditionally been reluctant to ask a politician tough questions or criticize him or her if the opposing political party is not willing to do so. Again, look at Obama. In Washington, DC, Republicans have turned criticism of the president into a national pastime, and the press, in turn, has gladly played along.
But the biggest reason that California’s press corps has overlooked the fact that our governor has no clothes may be his centrist politics. As I noted in a cover story last fall, media critics have long pointed out that claims by the mainstream press of being “unbiased” are often untrue, particularly when it comes to political reporting (see “The Myth of the Unbiased Media,” 10/22). The mainstream press, in its effort to be viewed as “neutral,” has often embraced centrist politicians and described them in favorable terms, as being “practical” and “able to reach across the aisle,” while portraying liberals and conservatives as ideologues.
Brown, of course, is a diehard centrist. It’s why he’s never been asked a tough question — let alone been held accountable — for the fact that Caltrans, a state agency directly under his command, repeatedly botched aspects of the $6.4 billion Bay Bridge project on his watch, from broken steel rods to key sections of the span that leak like a sieve whenever it rains.
Likewise, the governor has escaped press criticism despite his public embrace of ex-CPUC President Michael Peevey — a top state regulator who had cultivated a cozy relationship with PG&E and worked to help the utility find a favorable judge at a time when he should have been scrutinizing it for blowing up a San Bruno neighborhood. And, of course, the press has mostly refused to go after the governor over his crazy plan to build two giant water tunnels underneath the fragile Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta so that Big Ag can keeping growing water-intensive crops in the western San Joaquin Valley desert.
For a centrist like Brown, it couldn’t be a better setup.