Celebrity appeal pumps up capital press corp

Reporters came for the star, but many stay for the substance

By Michael Stoll
Posted May 3, 2004

John Lobertini, a reporter for San Francisco's KPIX Channel 5, in the state capitol interviewing Lenny Goldberg, a lobbyist for The Utility Reform Network. (Photo by Michael Stoll.)

SACRAMENTO -- Lured by the glamour of a mega movie star in the governor's office, California's news media have also rediscovered the value of serious news from the capital.

The full-time press corps here has expanded by at least half a dozen reporters -- most representing newspapers -- since Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his run for governor last summer. Despite the occasional lifestyle dispatch, TV and newspaper bureaus are devoting most of their energy to scrutinizing the management of an economically shell-shocked state.

"Schwarzenegger's appeal is so strong that it allows the news editors and directors to invest in public policy," said Jack Kavanagh, editor of the California politics Web site Rough & Tumble.

The turnabout can be seen in the number of newspaper stories written. Mr. Kavanagh estimates that he now reads and links to 25% more political stories from the capital than a year ago -- and most of them are not about the governor's exercise regimen.

With few exceptions, the major newspapers in the state have each added staff. In the Bay Area, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times each has an additional journalist stationed in Sacramento. The latter two, both owned by the Knight Ridder chain, are combining their bureaus. The Oakland Tribune so far has not augmented its one-person bureau, though it does share stories with sister papers in Los Angeles, which have added Sacramento staff.

Television newscasters' commitment to covering the capital has been mixed. All the Bay Area TV stations, which for more than a decade have abandoned Sacramento in favor of cheaper syndication services and occasional road trips to the capital, made promises last fall that they were going to open Sacramento bureaus. Some have, some have not and others have only kicked in money to share a news crew. Overall, however, the presence is larger than it has been in years. Radio reporters, too, are spending more time in the capital rotunda.

Sacramento press corps questions state Treasurer Phil Angelides at a press conference last week. (Photo by Michael Stoll.)

Some media critics warned last October, when Gray Davis was recalled and Mr. Schwarzenegger was elected, that Hollywood gossip was poised to drown out much-needed coverage of a state government in financial meltdown. More than 200 reporters from all over the world converged on the city for the January inauguration -- bringing 125 TV cameras and many unfamiliar faces from the entertainment media. Some of those stories are still being done.

"Reporters are intrigued by what he wears, his boot collection, the brand of cigars he smokes," said Terri Carbaugh, deputy press secretary for the governor and press secretary for his wife, Maria Shriver. "For Maria, what kind of perfume she wears, is her suit khaki?"

Although he does not think celebrity coverage has "gone wild," Phil Yost, the chief editorial writer for the Mercury News, noted dryly that the best-covered event in weeks at the capitol was the appointment of Clint Eastwood and Danny de Vito to the state Film Commission on April 15. The Mercury News gave the event four column inches.

Still, most of the fluffy lifestyle coverage has dissipated and been replaced by issue reporting, say journalists, academics and aides to politicians. Tracy Fairchild, communications director for state Sen. Jackie Speier, D-San Francisco, recalls that it has been at least 10 years since all the TV networks had bureaus in the capital. The increased interest is energizing the senator's constituency, Ms. Fairchild said.

"It's forcing people to look at what's happening," she said, citing the work of the Los Angeles Times in exposing what she said was a misguided effort by the governor to save money by firing the prisons' independent auditor. "People are more engaged in state government than they used to be."

Waiting for fame to fade

Veteran reporters in Sacramento who had always been doing serious state government news said that in order to make their bureaus more palatable to editors back home, working with limited resources, they played up the movie star "angle" on the story. But now even those editors are starting to realize that the storyline about Mr. Schwarzenegger is essentially political, not personal.

"People covered him early on to see if he would fall on his face, and he didn’t," said Barbara O'Connor, a professor of political communication at Sacramento Sate University.

One barrier to better coverage is that it takes time to train reporters to understand state government. Another is that the governor has succeeded at controlling the press by refusing to answer questions at events and caging journalists behind barricades, out of earshot. Numerous reporters and columnists across the state have complained that Mr. Schwarzenegger controls the press more than any governor in decades.

Mark Gladstone, who has reported from Sacramento for 20 years, for the Los Angeles Times and now as bureau chief for the Mercury News, remembers that even Gov. Ronald Reagan made it easy on reporters, holding regular press conferences that would stretch for 45 minutes.

Ultimately the worst that could happen to the Sacramento press corps is that Californians lose interest in Mr. Schwarzenegger, sending the news media elsewhere for news. The inauguration marked the peak of press interest. With the release of the governor's budget proposal on Jan. 9, and then the compromise legislation on workers' compensation on April 16, the crowd of reporters has gotten noticeably smaller -- so small that events can again be scheduled in the press gallery, Room 1190, which can comfortably accommodate fewer than 100 people.

But that may be more a cyclical ebbing than a downward trend. Last year 201 journalists were issued press credentials by the office of Gov. Gray Davis. So far this year, under Gov. Schwarzenegger, 296 have picked them up and an additional 106 have been approved.

"The question now becomes, as the bloom comes off the flower, do they maintain their bureaus here?" asked A.G. Block, editor of the California Journal, a monthly magazine of politics. "Schwarzenegger has the capability to put any issue on the front burner and to surround it with his magnitude, his energy. There are a lot of stories underneath that and they don't get reported."

Backing off from full bureaus

Many broadcasters had promised to cover the first 100 days of the Schwarzenegger administration. But Prof. O'Connor said many of them scaled back their coverage after just a few weeks.

The Bay Area stations in the ABC and NBC networks have partnered with California stations within their networks in Los Angeles and Fresno to increase Sacramento coverage. KGO Channel 7, the ABC station, has supplied a photographer to work with reporter Nanette Miranda of KABC in Los Angeles. KNTV Channel 11, the NBC station, has supplied a photographer to work with reporter Conan Nolan of KNBC in Los Angeles. Mr. Nolan gets to Sacramento "at least once a week," he said.

KRON Channel 4, wary of the cost of establishing bureaus by itself, is still taking reports directly from a Sacramento station. KRON's news director, Stacy Owen was quoted in the Sacramento Bee last October saying that KRON had plans to open a bureau there. Ms. Owen did not respond to a request for elaboration. Spokesman Jeffrey Weinstock, when asked about plans for a Sacramento bureau, responded, "No comment."

KTVU Channel 2 political editor Randy Shandobil, who is now occupied with national politics in an election year as well as international politics, has handed off the Sacramento beat to Jim Vargas. Mr. Vargas drives here about three times a week, more time than Mr. Shandobil used to spend, he said, sometimes staying in a hotel for a week at a time for an important story. Mr. Shandobil stressed that his station was much less "personality driven" than its competitors, and not very interested in Mr. Schwarzenegger's lifestyle.

KPIX sets up shop

The only Bay Area station to set up its own full-time bureau was KPIX Channel 5 in San Francisco, which assigned reporter John Lobertini to Sacramento in October. Mr. Lobertini, who had covered the Bay Area for the CBS station for more than four years, is now based in the capital, where he's spending 85% to 90% of his time covering politics. Occasionally he will get roped into covering the Scott Peterson murder investigation, Indian gaming, Travis Air Force Base or snowstorms in the Sierra. Politics, he said, typically isn't TV-friendly. "If you do five stories a week out of committee rooms or in the hallway of the capitol, they all start to look the same," he said.

That was exactly the kind of story he was doing last Tuesday, waiting outside Room 112 in the capitol, where politicians held hearings on proposals to reform electricity regulation. He has done more than 100 energy stories in his career, he said, but it's always a challenge to turn it into good television. He corners the newsmakers and calls them by their first names.

Recently he did an enterprising three-minute story on how Mr. Schwarzenegger was a more prolific fund-raiser than Davis, who was considered the "pay-for-play governor." But he always encounters one big frustration: Rarely is he given more than three minutes for any story.

(It remains to be seen whether some broadcasters will devote significant airtime to political stories even if they have the reporters in place. KPIX, for example, aired the least campaign-related coverage of any Bay Area newscast before the March 2 election, as measured by Grade the News -- less than two minutes per day, on average, for its most-watched evening newscast.)

Another broadcaster to plant a flag in Sacramento is KQED public radio, with reporter John Myers. The station, which recently acquired a second station in Sacramento to repeat much of its content, has built a brand-new studio one block from the capitol and plans to use it to host public-affairs programs with newsmakers. Myers contributes to the California Report, a consortium of public broadcast stations statewide.

There is some tension between electronic and print media. Some newspaper reporters say that television tends to trivialize some issues when it seeks out telegenic subjects. Some even argue that the reporters' focus has shifted with the political winds.

"Television characterizes things as a victory, or not, for Arnold," said Robert Salladay, who early this year was hired away from the Chronicle to work in the Los Angeles Times' bureau. "They're paying attention to it because Arnold's paying attention to it. Before, big business was the bogeyman. Now it's big government, and that's all because Arnold changed the agenda."

Flowering competition

While some of the news media were motivated by the celebrity story, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to be interested in Sacramento now. The energy crisis, the state's financial catastrophe and the unprecedented recall of a sitting governor all make for good stories, regardless of who the governor is.

Lynda Gledhill, a Sacramento bureau reporter for the Chronicle, said the news media reacted with appropriate attention to the unprecedented recall of a governor, what she called a "true overthrow of government."

The beginning of 2004 has been a healthy time for the press in Sacramento because news organizations are now competing with one another for stories in a way they couldn't just a few months ago, said Daniel Weintraub, a political columnist and prolific blogger for the Sacramento Bee.

"People are competing to uncover what the administration is planning to do and competing to explain how Schwarzenegger arrives at his decisions and brokers deals," Mr. Weintraub said. "His celebrity is the least interesting thing to me, and I think that's the case with most people."