San Jose Mercury News: Anja Niedringhaus' slaying diminishes our eyes on the world
You probably didn't know who Anja Niedringhaus was until she was slain in Afghanistan last week. But for years, you've been seeing the world through her eyes.
The photographs ... you will either recognize or, upon seeing them, wish you'd been paying attention at the time.
Her calling was to capture the humanity of the moment: joyous, tragic or that vast space of life in between. How much better might we appreciate our own culture had she turned her lens on us? But her work for The Associated Press was in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan — the places where the most violent history of our age has unfolded. Her work in Iraq won a Pulitzer Prize.
Journalists' lives increasingly are in peril. Their work was more widely respected in war zones of generations past. Reporters Without Borders says 70 were killed on the job in 2013. More have died in Iraq than in any previous war. Niedringhaus was the 26th to die in Afghanistan.
There is another peril diminishing our eyes on the world: The shrinkage of the news industry, with fewer media companies that can afford to send journalists to far off lands in an age when information is assumed to be available to consumers free or at little cost.
As recently as a decade ago, nearly every major American newspaper and other media outlet had overseas bureaus in key cities and routinely sent reporters and photographers around the globe for lengthy assignments. Today news agencies like The Associated Press still have a persistent presence in places like Afghanistan, but only a few newspapers and web sites are able to do more than parachute in for big stories and then leave to keep down costs.
Neighborhood bloggers cannot show us life in Afghanistan. Television, including cable, shows major events of the day but rarely can put them in perspective with everyday life in these places. Pictures and videos from unknown sources appear online, but motivations and credibility of the posts may be in doubt.
Since 1846, the AP cooperative has been the eyes and ears of member media in Washington or Moscow or Kabul. This is the family that mourns Niedringhaus today.
We are part of that family, and we join them.
San Francisco Chronicle: Give California voters back their voice
It will take months, no, years, to assess the damage from the fallout of the scandals that have engulfed the California Senate this year. Yet one of the clearest casualties is also one of the least reported ones: voter representation.
Millions of Californians currently are without representation in the state Senate, thanks to the suspension of Democratic Sens. Leland Yee of San Francisco, Ron Calderon of Montebello (Los Angeles County) and Rod Wright of Inglewood (Los Angeles County).
The state Senate chose to suspend these three rather than expel them. We have called upon the state Senate to expel all three — Yee has been indicted on federal charges of corruption and gun trafficking; Calderon has been indicted on federal corruption charges; and Wright has been convicted on multiple felony counts of perjury and voter fraud — and we believe there is no excuse for the Senate leaders to allow them to remain in their positions. One of the many reasons why they need to go is that their constituents are not getting any service at all.
State Senate President Pro Tem, Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has insisted that these three senators' constituents are indeed getting services — just not from their elected representatives.
"The voters still have the services of (these senators') professional staff, who are working hard to address constituent issues," Steinberg said.
It's true that many legislative staff members are not only excellent at their jobs but dedicated to serving constituents. Their contributions in these difficult times are much appreciated. But it's still no substitute for the advocacy and power of an elected official.
"In this case, it's particularly egregious since the voters have been getting bad representation all along," said Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. "No political system has an ideal solution to the problem of corruption."
Typically, the easy solution would be to force these senators out and replace them. We might not even need to replace Yee and Calderon — both of them represented districts that will disappear in the next election, thanks to redistricting. Both state senators were also termed out — so voters in their districts will be getting new representatives soon anyway.
Historically, California has replaced elected representatives through expensive, low-turnout special elections. A smarter way would be to allow the governor to appoint a legislator to fill the vacancy. Steinberg has written a state constitutional amendment that would allow this; this latest round of scandals should persuade state senators to pass SCA16 as quickly as possible.
But even SCA16 may not have made an enormous difference in this case — because the senators won't resign, and the Senate hasn't been willing to do the right thing and expel them. You can't fill a vacancy that's not vacant.
"I have specifically called on them to resign," Steinberg said. He added that it was not "politically advantageous" for the Senate to expel all three, but that it had so far not done so because the cases of both Yee and Calderon remain in court, and because Wright's verdict has not yet been "entered into the record" by a final judge.
Considering the millions of Californians who have lost their voices in the state Senate, these are thin excuses.
Maybe it would be politically advantageous for the state Senate to do the right thing — and all the more reason to do it.
Chico Enterprise-Record: In drought, guard our groundwater
When it comes to the water that sits in north state aquifers, we trust our local counties to safeguard it and determine how to use it much more than we trust the state to manage it.
Even though water is abundant in the north state, we generally know how valuable the resource is. We manage it wisely for the most part.
Especially in a drought, other areas covet our water. Despite vague remarks of indifference by water managers south of the delta, the underground reservoir here is coveted as much as the water in the above-ground reservoirs. And just like the building of Shasta, Trinity and Oroville dams was done solely to capture that blue resource, we know in this state that no expense is too great and no justification too exaggerated for getting their hands on any water source. Ask the folks in the Owens Valley or Trinity County.
And in a drought, that's when the pressures are ramped up to get that underground water, since there's not as much of it sitting in those reservoirs.
We ran articles last week about the folly of San Joaquin Valley farmers replacing row crops, which can be fallowed during a drought, with orchards. Fruit and nut trees are huge investments, so farmers simply can't quit watering for a year. The trees would die.
Instead, they drill deeper for groundwater when there is no surface water. That has caused the land to sink and the water table to fall in some places, permanently damaging the aquifer.
Many counties, even those to the south where water is a more scarce resource, are not managing their groundwater at all. It's almost an anything-goes scenario. That has prompted state legislators to declare they must do something — and with our legislators, it's always more of a threat than a declaration when they say they want to fix something. We aren't likely to approve of the "fixes."
Sen. Fran Pavley of Calabasas says she wants to make groundwater management a personal priority. Why would a state senator from Southern California be interested in statewide groundwater rules? Care to guess?
Statewide restrictions to solve problems that are occurring in places like the San Joaquin Valley and Paso Robles are a wonderful idea, but we still get nervous when we hear the state talking about how it needs to do a better job of "integrated groundwater management." To us, that sounds like somebody saying we need to tap into areas where there's a lot of groundwater and quit draining areas where the groundwater has been nearly sucked dry.
A better solution than "share and share alike," we believe, is for local areas to decide their own groundwater management, within reason. The state seems to be saying, in its new "California Water Action Plan," that if local groundwater basins or counties don't effectively manage their aquifers, the state will slap restrictions on them.
That should be good incentive for our area to come up with its own plan. As Paul Gosselin, director of Butte County's Department of Water and Resource Conservation, told the county Butte County Water Commission last week: "If the state came in and started making land-use decisions, it would be disastrous."
The answer, Gosselin said, is for the county to come up with its own plan, with targets for how much groundwater can be pumped each year, then monitoring the totals. The county, he said, would be required to do compliance reports every five years to prove it is following the plan. It will be expensive, and may be just one more cost for farmers and water users, but it's better than the alternative of putting the state in charge.
Rahm Emanuel, formerly Barack Obama's chief of staff, once elucidated an unspoken maxim that many politicians follow: "You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that, it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before."
If that means the state will stop counties from pumping too much groundwater, that's excellent. If that means the state will use the drought as an opportunity to suck more groundwater out of the north to get through the crisis, we're concerned.
Lompoc Record: Cleaning up behind politicians
A wave of important elections will occur over the next couple of years, which seems like a good reason for some plain talk about the corruption tsunami sweeping through Sacramento.
Political scandals currently involving several high-ranking members of the California Legislature are the most discouraging we've seen in years. Every time a reporter turns over a rock, something loathsome seems to slither out.
The state Senate last week took the unprecedented step of suspending three of its members, Leland Yee of San Francisco, Ron Calderone of Montebello, and Rod Wright of Baldwin Hills. All are Democrats — and all of them part of the political establishment long enough to know better than to dabble in the kinds of criminal activities and malfeasance they've been accused of.
Yee's situation appears to be the most appalling. He's been an outspoken crusader on behalf of gun control, yet the FBI has issued a 137-page affidavit accusing Yee of being involved in helping a known criminal traffic in automatic rifles and rocket launchers. The federal charges against Yee range from a firearms-dealing conspiracy, to public corruption. Yee's main political fund-raising consultant and confidante has been charged with murder-for-hire and narcotics schemes.
Sounds like a plot line for an Tom Clancy thriller. But sadly, this is real life, and it needs to change.
The Senate's suspension of the three members should be just the start of a movement to clean up the flow of corruption bubbling in and around state government.
Toward that end, and after the suspension vote, Senate leaders pledged to begin rewriting the state's campaign financing regulations. Another significant step was the cancellation of the Senate's annual Pro Tem Cup in San Diego, a fund-raising golf tournament for legislative Democrats, at which ticket prices can soar as high as $65,000 a person.
As one might expect, an eruption of political scandal of this magnitude is drawing a lot of attention. A candidate for the office of Secretary of State, Dan Schnur, has already used the scandals to launch a scathing rebuke of current political practices, and of lawmakers he believes aren't acting aggressively enough to deal with mounting ethical violations.
We agree, completely. And we're reasonably certain we aren't the only Californians who are bone-tired of reading about podium-pounding lawmakers who turn out to be corrupt.
Sen. Richard Roth, a Riverside Democrat, said last week what California needs is a legislative ethics ombudsman, sort of a traffic cop assigned to root out corruption and malfeasance.
That sounds to us like yet another Band-aid for a gushing chest wound. Ombudsmen can be bought off, like so many other politicians.
What California government really needs is a zero-tolerance policy. In a metaphorical sense, that would be something like this — if a lawmaker is caught with his hand in a corrupted cookie jar, he loses the hand.
In real life, you might translate that to be a policy requiring automatic resignation of any elected official who breaks the law. Perhaps suspending the offender when charges are filed, then firing him or her upon conviction.
If that seems to violate your concept of due process, and you believe politicians to be just like us, consider that, in a general sense, too many elected officials believe they're better than us, different in a special way.
In fact, it seems to us far worse when the people who create the laws break them. It's just wrong on so many levels.
Politics can be, and is dirty — but it should not involve breaking laws.
Los Angeles Times: LAPD disconnect isn't good for police or the public
For 12 years, in the aftermath of the Rampart corruption scandal, the Los Angeles Police Department operated under a federal consent decree that forced major changes on the long-troubled, much-criticized department. The LAPD was overseen by outsiders, its decisions second-guessed by judges and monitors because it couldn't be trusted to govern itself. Only after a long list of wide-ranging reforms was instituted was the federal order finally lifted in 2013. Among the final requirements was the installation of in-car video cameras and voice-monitoring equipment to record encounters between police and the public.
So naturally it comes as a grave disappointment, if not exactly a shock, to learn just a year later that some LAPD officers tampered with many of those devices in an apparent effort to render them ineffective. The department needs to figure out how that was allowed to happen, and must take strong actions to ensure that nothing like it happens again. Officers must be made to understand that sabotage will not be tolerated, and that the department's leaders intend to continue on the road to enlightened, reformed policing.
So far, video cameras and recording devices have been installed in only about 300 patrol cars. The cameras turn on when the cars' lights and sirens go on or when they are manually activated. They record stops and encounters that occur in front of the vehicles. In addition, officers wear transmitters on their belts that relay their voices to antennas in the cars. Audio can be recorded from hundreds of yards away.
Except, that is, if the antenna is removed, as happened with some 90 cars, mostly in Southeast Division, which covers Watts, Jordan Downs and Nickerson Gardens and where there is a long history of rocky relationships and mistrust between LAPD officers and minority communities. Although the department appears to have put new rules in place to deal with the antenna problem, which emerged last summer, it did not try to identify those responsible because cars are driven by multiple officers and the dismantlings could have occurred at any point over several years. A separate investigation is now underway into whether officers are damaging their transmitters.
One of the advantages of the recording program, and one reason deliberate sabotage is so frustrating, is that the devices aren't designed only to catch the police misbehaving. The point is to create an objective record of interactions between police and the public, and ultimately to reduce conflict. Recording traffic stops, shootings and other encounters can help discourage — or document — police misconduct and can also serve to clear officers if they are falsely accused of wrongdoing.
Chief Charlie Beck has said that he is committed to continued reform and that he is a strong supporter of the recording program. But the fact that the Police Commission and the LAPD Inspector General were not immediately informed of the problems is troubling. These were serious infractions, and the department's leaders must make it clear that they will not be ignored.
Orange County Register: A vote against competition
It is no secret that labor unions have tremendous pull with Democratic politicians in Sacramento, but that love affair went to new heights last week when the Assembly passed a union-backed resolution calling for an end to the common practice of contracting out certain services to private-sector providers.
Assembly Resolution 29, sponsored by Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles, asserts that "the Assembly opposes outsourcing of public services and assets, which harms transparency, accountability, shared prosperity and competition, and supports processes that give public service workers the opportunity to develop their own plan on how to deliver cost-effective, high-quality services."
In fact, the resolution seeks to eliminate transparency, accountability and competition completely and rely for services instead on government monopolies.
The nonbinding measure also ominously declares that "the Assembly intends to introduce and advocate for responsible outsourcing legislation."
Competition provides the impetus for providing goods and services at the highest quality and the lowest cost. It is precisely the lack of competition that has led to government inefficiency. How often have we heard public employee unions loudly complain about a contracting proposal, only to find that, when they are forced to compete with the private sector they discover they can do the job for much less. And in the rare case that you get a really bad contractor, you can fire him. Try doing that with a government agency.
To be sure, there are good and bad ways of doing contracting. Governments should use a transparent, competitive bidding process, utilize performance-based contracting — which spells out desired service levels and rewards contractors for exceeding goals and punishes them for poor performance — and maintain strong contract oversight.
Many of the things government does are clearly commercial in nature, and can be found in the Yellow Pages. It would be a grievous mistake to deny the benefits and successes of outsourcing and rely instead on monopolistic bureaucracies whose budgets are determined by political influence, rather than by economic conditions and how well they serve their customers.