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Recall Totaled: Newsom Survives, But Will Journalism That Matters Prevail?

Ten years after Capital & Main was founded, one thing is still clear: we ignore economic inequality at our peril.




Newspaper boxes in Pasadena, CA. Photo: Hyeoncheol Gim / EyeEm.

Journalism loves nothing more than a crisis. Wars, natural disasters, pandemics — the stories stemming from calamity are endless, and need to be told.

Political crises are no less irresistible, though not all are created equal when it comes to import. In the case of yesterday’s gubernatorial recall election, the media’s fervor was matched by what was at stake for California residents. From climate change to homelessness to the COVID-19 pandemic, the election was a clear referendum on policy choices with life-and-death consequences.

Newsom’s hard-fought victory leaves in its wake pressing questions, and not only about the perversion of democracy that could have elevated a candidate who won millions fewer votes than the incumbent to the governor’s office. At the top of the list is whether the media, at long last, will turn their gaze to the seething inequality that undergirds this once Golden State.

Newsom’s hard-fought victory leaves in its wake pressing questions. At the top of the list is whether the media, at long last, will turn their gaze to the seething inequality that undergirds this once Golden State.

L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez nailed it when he wrote last weekend that “if the recall election is about leadership failures and the many problems that have resulted — including homelessness, crime, the state of public schools and the quality of life — a major reason for all these woes has been virtually ignored before and during the campaign. A staggering level of income inequality has affected nearly every aspect of life from cradle to grave, making California home to both the United States’ largest economy and the nation’s highest rate of poverty when the cost of living is factored in.”

Lopez knows as well as anyone that the press is drawn to the mayhem that the recall embodied. But what about a slow-motion cataclysm? Can journalists muster the endurance and creativity to capture a drama that unfolds like the steady erosion of a house’s foundation, often invisibly, with little to signal the tectonic change underway?

*   *   *

The answer is a resounding yes, and the aspiration to shine a light on California’s staggering inequality has everything to do with the founding of Capital & Main on this day 10 years ago. Though the country was still emerging from the worst economic upheaval since the Great Depression, the near demise of the world’s most powerful financial market was a distant memory. And while the devastation resulting from that existential threat to capitalism, and from decades of less dramatic setbacks to the American dream, was widespread, the suffering was mostly quiet — certainly not the stuff of cable news headlines or front page exclusives.

Our challenge was formidable: how to bring to life the sometimes mundane, but always consequential, reality of economic pain. Could we tell a compelling story about a phenomenon that lacked the visceral urgency most of us seek in our consumption of news?

We think we have mostly succeeded in our quest to produce arresting journalism on the ubiquitous presence of economic inequality. But, 10 years into this project, one thing is indisputably clear: We ignore economic inequality at our peril.

The effort to recall Newsom may have had its roots in the far-right politics of Trumpism, but it was fueled in significant measure by the Dickensian scenes playing out right now across California. The legions of the unhoused who occupy public spaces are only the most obvious manifestation of extreme inequality in a state with far more billionaires than any other in the nation. Essential workers in health care, dining, public transit and agriculture falling ill and dying during the pandemic, while others earned a comfortable living without ever leaving home, offers another stark reminder of the brutal divide defining life in the world’s fifth largest economy.

As we start our second decade at Capital & Main, we hope to play a catalytic role in spurring more media coverage of California’s festering inequity.

Newsom, of course, is hardly responsible for the chasm between the rich and everyone else. Nearly 50 years of massive pay disparities are the main culprit, and Newsom, to his credit, has come down more often than not on the side of those trying to narrow the gap.

But in an age of radical economic imbalances, incrementalism has become the enemy of real progress. Decades of rising inequality have nurtured a deepening civic desperation for solutions bold enough to tackle the enormous problems we now face.

It is the responsibility of journalists to report, in unrelenting fashion, on the economic polarization of this moment. Along with climate change, this is the biggest story of the early 21st century, and must be front and center in the daily news cycle. The entry points are endless — gentrification, the gig economy, the racial wealth gap, gender disparities, the social determinants of health, digital redlining. All offer rich material for investigative and narrative reporting as well as for solutions driven journalism.

As we start our second decade at Capital & Main, we hope to play a catalytic role in spurring more media coverage of California’s festering inequity. This fall we will launch a column on health, wealth and race, and in 2022 we will debut a second column on workers, jobs and the California economy. These features will complement our continuing national coverage of income inequality and our expanded reporting on climate change, including a future series on job quality in the rapidly growing clean energy economy.

The challenges facing a divided, unequal California — and country — are immense. Journalism must meet the moment by elevating inequality to its rightful place as one of the leading stories of our time.

Copyright 2021 Capital & Main

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