Daniel Weintraub, chief of staff to state Sen. Steve Glazer, speaks at an Assembly committee hearing in Sacramento on Wednesday, July 29.
A bill to fund California journalism currently working its way through the state legislature cleared another hurdle on June 29. But concerns remain from a variety of media groups about SB 911, authored by Sen. Steve Glazer (D-Orinda), which would create a California Board to Fund Public Interest Media, with $25 million currently allocated in the pending budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year.
The Assembly Accountability and Administrative Review Committee voted 4-3 to advance the bill to the same legislative body’s Appropriations Committee.
Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach), chair of the committee that took action Wednesday, called for a two-week window for her committee and bill proponents and opposition to make improvements to the proposed legislation. Without those changes it would be brought back to committee and not advanced.
Earlier in the hearing, Petrie-Norris had addressed her concerns to Glazer’s chief of staff, Daniel Weintraub, a former longtime reporter at the Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times, who spoke in place of the senator, who was out sick.
“As the senator knows,”Petrie-Norris said, “and as I believe you Mr. Weintraub know, I and others have a lot of questions and concerns about the solution that’s been laid out in this bill.”
The solution, as it currently sits, would be to create a board of political appointees to dispense funds to applicants. Weintraub said early in the hearing that 25 percent of the grant money would be reserved for ethnic media, while 25 percent would go to media for small communities.
“In my view, nothing is more important to the survival of our democracy than a free press and that is what this bill is all about,” Weintraub said early in the hearing.
Most speakers who followed Weintraub were not enthusiastic about the bill, with 12 members of the public speaking against the bill. Aside from Weintraub, just one person spoke in support of the bill, with another saying they would offer support if the bill were amended.
“This bill is fundamentally flawed,” said California News Publishers Association general counsel Brittney Barsotti, whose group is opposing SB 911. “It is based off a model that really forces philanthropy or… would benefit large nonprofits over the small businesses that are ethnic media and local media.”
Some ethnic media veterans, such as Oakland Post publisher Paul Cobb spoke out against the proposed funding mechanism.
“Our theme song will be, for every media, ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,’ because every one of us will be lining up to figure out how do we get our news media welfare check so we can stay in existence?” Cobb said. “I’ve been fighting this fight since I marched across the Selma bridge with Martin Luther King in 1965 and I’ve seen a lot of what has happened to minority media throughout the years.”
Other speakers expressed concern about a variety of topics related to the bill, including the possibility that coverage could be shaped by the funding board, the question of whether ethnic media would be sufficiently funded, or the fact that funding would be available to organizations in existence for only one year.
“Ultimately, this gets into civil rights because it’s access, it’s what people hear, and it’s the information that goes out,” Rev. Shane Harris, president and founder of San Diego-based People’s Association of Justice Advocates said during the hearing.
Democracy Demands Action
Near the end of discussion, Weintraub suggested to Petrie-Norris that some of the concerns from the public were overblown.
“I think the bill with the suggestions that you’ve made in the analysis is a lot clearer than some of the folks who have spoken, or are trying to throw a lot of extraneous issues into it,” Weintraub said. “And so actually, I’m pretty confident, and the senator’s pretty confident, that… this isn’t as difficult as people fear.”
In an emailed statement through a spokesman following the hearing, Glazer said the committee’s action that day represented a positive step. “During the past two decades, we have seen a significant decline of local news media,” Glazer said, “a crisis that has opened the door to misinformation and conspiracy theories that ultimately threaten our democracy.”
Glazer added that he and others would be working with stakeholders and the committee in coming weeks so they could “refine this proposal so that it works for California and for our ethnic media partners.”