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 Posted August 26, 2003
Gravity of recall election should
shake up journalists
By Jim Bettinger

A friend of mine from the Washington press corps called me Wednesday. ``I'm on your coast,'' she exulted. ``I'm out here to cover the freak show!''

The day before, the New York Times headlined its Page One story on the recall, ``How to run a recall election: Begin by juggling the alphabet,'' and took delight that one elections office analyst plays percussion part time in a Latin jazz band.

California reporters, editors and producers cannot afford the same mirth. They're wrestling with one of the biggest challenges faced by any press corps, at a time in which economic straits, audience fragmentation and declining esteem already beset them. The quality of the coverage that the Golden State's news media provide will indicate whether they will be an essential player in 21st-century democracy, or just a constitutionally protected way to make money.

Part of the challenge is the quirkiness of this particular election. News organizations pride themselves on reacting quickly to the unexpected and the unforeseen, but they like political events that arrive on schedule. A newspaper or television station planning election coverage will have many elements -- travel budgets, extra space and air time, even vacation block-out periods -- locked up by the end of the year before.

Reporters, editors and producers are used to these cycles. But this recall disrupts them. August is a month to take off. August is the time to recover from the annual state budget debacle. Not this year.

Most news organizations are leaner than they were a couple of years ago, with fewer people, less space and smaller budgets. And what have they gotten? One hundred thirty-five candidates, a ballot on steroids, impenetrable election-law esoterica -- and Arnold.

For some, Schwarzenegger's entry into the race was a godsend: At least they wouldn't be covering the same old suits. Schwarzenegger brings celebrity, glamour, panache, money, even a Kennedy connection. He's easy to cover, especially if you don't know a lot about state government and would rather not learn -- just write about his movies. He makes this race interesting.

Journalists' attitude

If you're covering government and politics in the 21st century, interesting is good. Citizen participation in politics is at discouraging lows. Cynicism is high, and so is disdain for the entire process. Although they come at it from a different angle, journalists' attitudes mesh with this torpor. Mainstream newsroom culture and mores predispose journalists to view events from a sardonic, ironic distance. For some, perhaps for many, not caring about the outcome of an election is a badge of honor. Journalists have readers and viewers, not voters.

This isn't all bad. We don't want journalists to be too close to the people they cover. We want them to be disinterested in the outcome, rather than caring so much about who wins that it skews their coverage. But this leads to who's-ahead, what's-the-strategy, why-did-he-do-that stories, which have drama and crackle, at the expense of boring policy stories (which I don't always read, either).

Schwarzenegger and his people aim to take advantage of that. No 20-page policy statements for him, by golly! His campaign chairman told a columnist last week: ``This is not a position election. This is a character election.''

CNN political analyst William Schneider thinks that could work. ``The voters Schwarzenegger needs most, young people and independents, don't read newspapers,'' he told the Los Angeles Times. ``He's going to go around the political press and speak directly through them, through the vehicle of his celebrity and the access it gives him to the entertainment media and foreign press.''

Indeed, the images of reporters following him around give the impression that he is answering questions, even when he isn't.

But some of the issues in this recall may be beyond the boundaries of 21st-century mainstream journalism.

Submitted for your consideration: Should Davis be recalled, a new Republican governor will face Sisyphean challenges in governing. This new governor -- let's call him Gov. Schwarzenegger -- will have to work with an Assembly controlled 48-32 by Democrats, a Senate controlled 25-15 by Democrats, and a phalanx of Democratic statewide elected officials, one of whom (the lieutenant governor) he will have just defeated, and none of whom has the slightest incentive for him to succeed. It is almost certain that he will have been elected with less than half the vote, maybe less than a third, and likely less than the recalled governor: Whatever a mandate is, he's likely not to have one.

How will this Gov. Schwarzenegger -- or Gov. Simon, Gov. McClintock, Gov. Ueberroth, or Gov. Huffington -- govern?

Don't look for that story, even though the scenario it describes is one that ought to concern you. It would by definition have to be speculative, assertive, unbalanced and risky. And were I still city editor at the Mercury News, I wouldn't have the foggiest idea how to frame it.

Or consider another potential impact of a successful recall -- it could raise questions about the legitimacy of elections in other states. Twenty-five years ago, Proposition 13 set off a spate of tax-limit referendums across the country. Will a recalled Gray Davis set off similar recalls? It's hard, maybe impossible, to write about ramifications such as these. But it does not mean they are not real.

Possible solutions

With all this, it's going to be up to the state's journalists and news organizations to make their journalism part of the political process -- or else abandon the state's immediate future to institutions that are probably not up to the job. In the spirit of offering solutions, here are some ways that they could do it:

Set the agenda. Determine which candidates are serious, cover their character and their positions intently, and ignore the others, even if they run buck-naked down Hollywood Boulevard (well, maybe that earns a photo inside the newspaper). Organize debates or town hall forums in which a group of journalists and members of the public can question the candidates. Shame anyone who won't participate.

Don't treat the election as a wide-open primary. Davis is right about one thing -- this is a recall, and the first question to be answered is: Shall Governor Gray Davis be recalled? As much as recall proponents would like to blur the distinction, they are asking voters to overturn the results of an election, not just vote for their favorite candidate.

Resist focusing on Those Wacky Californians. I know it's hard to pass up these entertainments, but every one of those stories reinforces the notion that this is just a big and irrelevant circus (no offense to the circus). That means Gary Coleman's 15 minutes are up now.

Be a concierge for voters. State and county officials are going to have their hands full just getting enough polling places. Newspapers, in particular, will have to provide the voters with the kind of information they need to make their choice, and make it count. This probably means tasks as tedious as a crib sheet on finding your candidate in that randomized morass of a ballot.

Use the Web. Post candidates' position papers, financial statements, schedules -- everything that information-hungry voters might want to see.

Spend money. Covering elections is expensive. There are all those reporters traveling to all those places with all those candidates, and then clearing out newspaper pages and airtime for their reports. There are polls, forums, overtime, pizza for the copy desk. Do it.

And maybe most important, recognize and accept your importance in this process. As earnest and wonky as it seems, now is not the time to be distant, ironic and smug. Now is the time to become essential to people who care about the political process.

Because this time, it counts.

JIM BETTINGER (jimb@stanford.edu) is director of the John S. Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists at Stanford University and a former Mercury News city editor. This article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News Perspective section, on August 17, 2003. Re-printed with the permission of the author.

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