Secondly, Walters, who writes regularly about redevelopment and includes the names of bill sponsors in his reporting—“Newspapers always say who the sponsor is; it’s boilerplate basically”—says that the L.A. Weekly actually missed the more public-serving story in choosing to go after Fuentes as an individual. “The story is that this development agency wanted to change the nature of ‘blight’ in Los Angeles for some specific reason,” Walters told me over the phone from Sacramento. “The story was to find out the specific reason—usually a shopping center, factory, sports arena. The fact that this run-of-the-mill journeyman assemblyman carried the thing is really beside the point. If it hadn’t been him, it would have been somebody else from L.A. because the CRA wanted somebody to bring this bill. The real story is why.”
But that argument seems to hinge on the assumption that “sponsored bills” are something people know about—that the fact of their sponsorship is not news. Jill Stewart says “the public has no idea” about sponsored bills. De Sa agrees, adding that it is also not widely known just how involved sponsors have become in legislation. “We found enough of a pattern where the sponsor is not just bringing an idea to the to the legislator’s office but actually taking on the role of what we would assume is a legislative staffer,” says de Sa. “They produce fact sheets, write speeches for the quote-unquote author or legislator to deliver at committee hearings.”
The Sacramento Bee’s other Dan—columnist Dan Morain—remembers the “What else is new?” reaction to de Sa’s series. But he did not share it. “I don’t view it as a scandal,” he says of the “sponsored bills” stories. “I view it as really interesting expository journalism. There ought to be more of it.” When I ask if sponsored bills are something Californians didn’t already know, he says: “It’s common knowledge among about a thousand people out of the thirty-seven million who live in California that bills are sponsored. If you cover Sacramento, if you work in the capitol, you know about sponsored bills. The vast majority of people have no clue that bills are written by lobbyists.”
The debate echoes the questions surrounding the release of the WikiLeaks war logs: just because the information was already available in some capacity, does that mean new reporting which provides detail and context is of little value? “It’s real easy to become jaded and take the opinion that there is no news story, that it’s old hat,” says Morain. “Maybe I’m naïve or have blinders on but I don’t believe that’s true. What those of us know who work around legislators or Congress or whatever is not what most voters know. And we ought to tell them.”
With de Sa’s second series in the works and Jill Stewart’s plans to mine the database for more sensational stories, people are soon likely to know more. De Sa offered this hint of what we can expect from her new reporting on just how closely involved lobbyists have become with drafting bills and the speeches supporting them. “Working on this second piece, I am finding out that a lot of legislators misspeak in hearings and misrepresent their bills,” says de Sa. “‘Oh shit, is that what it says?’ They can’t even defend their first drafts. They need to make amendments to their own bill.” We look forward to that story, and the stories that come out of it.
*Correction: This post originally reported that Assembly Bill 2531 was mentioned in Karen de Sa’s original series. It was not.