Robert Price

Friday, May 30 2014 01:04 PM

SOUND OFF: How dare a state agency tattle on a private citizen

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    Robert Price is The Californian's executive editor. Email him at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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By Robert Price

Reader: Since when does a state agency CALL THE NEWSPAPER and give private information about a person's taxes to the paper? ("State: GOP firm owes more than $46,000," May 29) And I do not want to hear that it was to correct an error. Then my question would be how did the paper get the information in the first place?

A state agency should NOT CALL A NEWSPAPER and give out information about a citizen. A state agency should tell the newspaper to talk to the people involved. They are not at liberty to give out information.

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This feedback forum is designed to give readers a way to voice criticisms and compliments or ask questions about The Californian's news coverage. Your questions -- which may be edited for space -- are answered here each Saturday.

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-- Irene Edmonds

Price: Well, plug your ears, Irene, because that's exactly why the California Franchise Tax Board supplied that information. After having confirmed Tuesday that Western Pacific Research, the Republican political consultancy firm owned by Mark and Cathy Abernathy, had  been suspended as an active corporation due to delinquent taxes, a FTB representative called back the next day to say the amount owed by the Abernathys’ company was not the $7,066 an agency official originally reported to us but rather $46,414.

It seems that KGET, in the course of following up on James Burger's May 28 story, called the tax board to confirm the numbers he reported in The Californian. It was only then that officials at the state agency realized they had erred and that WPR owed six times what they, and we, had reported. Agency officials rightly called Burger with the same corrected dollar figure they had given the TV station.

As to your larger point, we print unflattering information provided by government agencies about private citizens all the time. Attorneys who've been disbarred, doctors and real estate brokers who've lost their licenses, business owners who've been fined for polluting state waterways, politicians (and campaign consultants) who've run afoul of election laws, parolees at large, etc. This sort of thing isn't private information, it's public, and government agencies, from municipal to federal, often send out press releases to announce it.

The FTB refused to answer certain questions about WPR because of disclosure restrictions. But tax debt is public. If I know where you live, I can find out how much you pay in property taxes because it's public information.

Where did we get the information in the first place? Someone who pays close attention to local campaign finance requirements and related election activity pointed out that WPR’s corporate status had been suspended. We set out to find out why. 

 We more often receive tips from candidates' opposition-research teams, both in Republican vs. Democrat and Republican vs. Republican races. In most instances the charges raised don't rise to the level of a story, but if they check out, as this one did, we independently confirm and report what we find.

That's what we did in the case of another recent accusation -- a much, much less egregious accusation -- concerning Democratic Congressional candidate Amanda Renteria and an apparent mixup on the property taxes she owed on a home in Washington, D.C. I don't recall hearing you complain about that one, Irene.

***

Reader: As a longtime subscriber to The Bakersfield Californian, I enjoy seeing photos and stories about local events and happenings in our community. I just want to express how disappointed our family was this morning to open the paper and discover that graduation at Frontier High School was not covered (in the May 30 Californian). You've had full page photo coverage of many high schools in the Bakersfield area this week but no mention of Frontier. It's really disappointing that the 535 graduates weren't acknowledged in any way. With one of the largest graduating classes in the area, there is a lot of great kids, doing a lot of great things at Frontier. It would have been nice to see that recognized in the paper.

-- Michelle Clark

Price: You are absolutely correct, Michelle. But it wasn't for lack of trying. We published full-page photo galleries of the graduation ceremonies of 15 high schools this month, including six in Thursday's paper and five in Friday's. That's without a doubt the greatest number of individual high school graduations we've ever attempted. If we could have covered every single one, we would have; as it was, we tapped our resources and tested our deadlines to the max.

Things went better than we could have expected, however, and we're emboldened enough now to set a more ambitious goal for next year: We want to photograph every Bakersfield-area graduation, period.

I'm sorry we missed Frontier's graduation. It's not too late to celebrate it, though. Email your favorite graduation photo, no matter what the school, to Digital Content Editor Christine Peterson at cpeterson@bakersfield.com. We'll publish some of the best photos in the newspaper and post many more at bakersfield.com. Please be sure to include names, the school where the photo was taken, relevant details and the name of the photographer.

Reader: Your political correctness has gone amok. It's gone awry. There are hundreds of graduates in Kern County (this year) and of all the graduates (pictured in the six-page photo gallery May 29), you have to put in just Hispanics. What about others? What about blacks? What about caucasians? It looks like only Hispanics graduated. This is not diverse. This is just racist.

-- No name, via voicemail

Price: Wow. Just wow.

I saw kids of every race, including a huge photo of a very cool interracial hug shared among four young men from South High School. How you missed that I have no idea. I saw blacks, whites, browns, blonds, brunettes and possibly one redhead (I couldn't be sure). And that was just in Thursday's paper. It never would have occurred to me to check, but since you brought it up, ma'am, I evaluated Friday's five full-page photo galleries, too, and found not only a wide array of races and ethnicities but also many examples of cross-ethnic friendship and affection. It was actually pretty wonderful.

Proof again that no good deed goes unpunished. We see what we choose to see.

***

Price: I've misplaced the email, but this week a reader pointed out that, although he loved our May 25 publication of College-Bound Seniors, one thing was missing -- Military-Bound Seniors. It seems just as important, he wrote, for us to recognize those newly minted high school graduates who have elected to bypass college (for now, at least) and serve our country in the armed forces.

I think that's a great idea. Although we periodically update our readers with news of local men and women serving in the military in our semi-regular feature We Salute, it's not enough. Lifestyles editor Jennifer Self, who supervised the daunting task of assembling those nearly 1,000 college-bound seniors, agrees. We'll look at some options and announce a plan soon.

Reader: I'm not sure how many kids on the south side read the paper (and saw The Californian's College-Bound Seniors pages). Maybe next time send notices to the schools, and teachers can make announcements or something. Just a suggestion for the more unfortunate children. It just seems to me that BHS gets more coverage than any other school in Bakersfield. It's quite annoying.

-- Lizz Nevertripping Valleygirl

(via Facebook)

Price: For weeks prior to the big day, The Californian published notices asking graduating seniors (or their families) to submit their photos and college information. Everyone in Kern County was invited to participate, and nearly 1,000 seniors did so.

As it turns out, several schools, including some you might consider to be in less-affluent neighborhoods, sent us entire photo discs of their college-bound seniors. So someone at those schools read our many notices. Most schools know we've celebrated college-bound seniors in this way for many years and are good partners in sharing their kids' accomplishments.

That said, we'll see if we can do an even more thorough job of getting the word out next year. Consider this your first notice.

By the way, if you're implying Bakersfield High School was overrepresented, you're off the mark. Among the 24 schools that participated, Stockdale High had 215 students included in our College-Bound Seniors; North had 146; East had 121; South had 56; West had 49; and Bakersfield Christian had 27. BHS was way down there with 21. Don't see your school on this list? Get off your hiney next year and send us some photos. It's free.

***

Reader: Thank God for Beth Brookhart Pandol ("Tired rhetoric undermines hard work of Central Valley growers," May 12) for taking to task ultraliberal columnist Froma Harrop for her column on our state's water issues ("Even in drought, there are fortunes to be made," May 6). Harrop of course takes the typical leftist position that success and profit promotes all that is evil in our country and that the agricultural industry is a prime example. She ignores the real culprits, lame politicians, misguided environmentalists and incompetent bureaucrats.

Liberals rarely give any credit to those entrepreneurs who create millions of jobs and opportunities that enable us to enjoy a quality of life that is the greatest that the world has ever known. They do this at enormous personal financial risk and sacrifice.

Unfortunately The Californian's premise for a balanced op-ed page is three liberal columnists to maybe one conservative.

-- Jack Balfanz

Price: It's interesting, Jack, that you would give us credit for achieving some semblance of balance in our Opinion pages by publishing Pandol's response to Harrop and then accuse us of failing to achieve balance.

You probably don't want to hear this but, for the record, our conservative syndicated columnists may slightly outnumber our liberal syndicated columnists. Rich Lowry is the editor of the National Review, the standard by which all conservative publications are judged; Michael Gerson was a speech writer for George W. Bush, the most conservative president we've had in a quarter-century; Debra Saunders of the San Francisco Chronicle, who blogs as the "Token Conservative," has previously worked for conservative advocacy groups and for a Republican leader of the California State Assembly; and Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee, who covers state government policy issues, is an unabashed fiscal conservative.

On the flip side are left-leaners Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post (who has been known to go after deserving Democrats with great vigor) and Harrop, formerly of the Providence (R.I.) Journal. I'd call Esther Cepeda of the Chicago Sun-Times a full-on moderate, but some would say she leans left.

In any case, it's pretty equal, and that's by design.

***

Reader: Where were pictures of Gabriel Gaeta (Frontier HS) in Sunday's paper? He not only placed 2nd in the 110-meter high hurdles, but he also won the 300 hurdles. There are pictures of other local athletes who didn't even place in the top 10 in their respective events.

That's respectable that pictures of local athletes were published, but Wasco HS was also there, and no pictures of any of their athletes were posted either. Why not?

The Fresno Bee takes care of the Fresno-area athletes. The Californian should do the same.

-- Chris Ruiz

Price: I asked Director of Audience Development Louis Amestoy, who is heavily involved in our prep coverage, to respond.

Amestoy: "Thanks for your questions about Saturday's track and field coverage of the Central Section championships, Chris. There was no intent by Nick Ellis to leave out Gabe Gaeta's performance, but it was more of timing and circumstance. When Nick was shooting the 110 highs, he was focused on the leader and that was BHS' Derrick Vickers, who ended up hitting a hurdle. Nick stayed with that image and missed the finish. By the time the 300 hurdles were getting ready to run, Nick had to get back so he could send the images he had for the newspaper and online. Unfortunately, we missed not only Gabe's run but also Morganne Hill's effort in the 300 hurdles. It's the reality of our business.

"However, what you probably didn't know is that The Californian provided video coverage of every race run at the meet. The Fresno Bee did not. In fact, our coverage featured a live blog, video, photo galleries and a story in the newspaper. We covered it to the best of our ability. Thanks for your note."

I would add this: The photos we choose for publication tend to be the ones that best convey human emotion, drama and/or photographic artistry. Sometimes that's the winner of the race (or the spelling bee or the science fair). Often it's not.

***

Readers: As longtime readers and college sports fans, we've detected some unevenness in The Californian's coverage of women's sports. The latest is reflected in your coverage of championships for collegiate baseball and softball. Over the past two weeks the NCAA Division I women's softball playoffs have taken place, beginning with regional playoffs and followed by a weekend of Super Regionals that determined the eight teams for the World Series in Oklahoma City. There was heavy television coverage.

We know The Californian can't cover these playoffs in person, but ample information exists through wire services to which the paper subscribes, so that's no excuse.

Throughout those playoffs there was not a single word in The Cal sports section -- not even scores listed in the "agate" stats at the end of the sports section. But when the 64 teams for the men's baseball tournament were announced, The Californian printed a 689-word story (yes, we counted them) with photo and caption plus 29 column inches on the stat page (yes, we measured them).

As of Wednesday's edition still not a word about the Women's College World Series on the eve of opening day games. Another contrast was the NBA draft, which earned heavy coverage. Not so for the WNBA.

We know women earn 30 percent less pay than men and guess we should expect 30 less sports coverage, but jeez guys, a bit more balance, please.

-- Jan and Dennis McCall

Price: We've dropped the ball on college softball, no question. But it's not too late: The Women's College World Series began Friday in Oklahoma City and we intend to publish coverage every day.

As for the WNBA: There's just no comparison with the NBA. People don't seem to care that much, and our analytics back that up. That doesn't mean we'll ignore it completely -- which came first, the lack of coverage or the lack of interest? -- but at present they're worlds apart.

***

Reader: I want to congratulate your newspaper for publishing "The Legacy of the Greatest Generation," with Monday's edition. The collection of stories written by Steven Mayer, as well as those by Robert Price and Sofiea Clerico, pay deserved tribute to the local men, women and their families who gave so much to protect freedom-loving Americans as well as those in so many other countries. You helped us remember. I think I can speak for those of us who lived through those years and lost family and friends: THANK YOU.

-- Mary K. Shell

Price: Thank you, Mary. We heard from many, many readers about this. Steve Mayer and designer Glenn Hammett did a superlative job.

Executive Editor Robert Price and The Californian welcome your comments and suggestions. To offer your input by phone, please call 395-7649 and leave your comments in a voice-mail message or send an email to soundoff@bakersfield.com. Please include your name and phone number. Phone numbers and addresses won't be published.

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