California Recall Energizes TV News, Voters
By Lou Cannon
Once upon a time, the doings of state government were big news in California. When Ronald Reagan was governor (1967-75), ten television stations had bureaus in the state capital of Sacramento and politics was a staple of local television news throughout the state. Much of the coverage was lively, bright and critical.
Coverage of state government and politics by the electronic media, the principal source of news for most Californians, declined after the Reagan years. It enjoyed a brief revival in 1978, when voter approval of Proposition 13 touched off a national anti-tax revolution. But political coverage has since become pass. While television now boasts technological advantages such as mini-cameras and communications satellites that were unknown in the Reagan era, no station outside Sacramento currently maintains a state capital bureau.
This decline in state political coverage paralleled (and encouraged) the dropout of the electorate. Gov. Gray Davis, a drab moderate Democrat best known for his fundraising skills, won a second term in 2002 after an uninspiring campaign against novice Republican conservative William Simon Jr. that produced the lowest general election turnout of eligible voters in California's history. Davis received a million and a half votes less than when he was first elected in 1998.
Now, in a state where politics is otherwise eclipsed by the new television season, the tribulations of Los Angeles Laker star Kobe Bryant, or the San Francisco Bay Area's two premier baseball teams, the recall election has captured center stage. The anticipated replacement of Davis by actor Arnold Schwarzenneger, who announced his candidacy on the Tonight show, is an international story. But regardless of what happens next Tuesday, the recall election has changed the dynamics of electronic news coverage in a state in which politics normally gets less coverage than a freeway car chase. Academics and leading newspapers have editorially condemned the recall as a dangerous exercise in direct democracy. The Los Angeles Times said that the recall "doesn't make sense" and is "undemocratic." The San Francisco Chronicle said the recall raises "false expectations." These newspapers, as well as The Sacramento Bee and the San Jose Mercury News, none of them Davis boosters, have opposed the recall while timidly declining to recommend a replacement candidate.
What media and academic critics of the media miss is the positive impact it has had on kindling the interest of ordinary Californians in an otherwise mystifying political process. "There has been a public discourse about the problems of California on a magnitude that I have never seen," says A.G. Block, publisher of California Journal, a non-partisan magazine devoted to state government and politics.
Block particularly credits two candidates who trail in the public opinion pollsRepublican conservative Tom McClintock and Green Party nominee Peter Camejo, both of them highly informed partisans who set a high standard for civil discourse in a televised debate sponsored by the California Broadcasters Association. McClintock advanced a detailed plan for cutting the state budget, which suffers from a hair-curling structural deficit. Camejo gave an intelligent and passionate defense of a single-payer health system, probably the first such exposition ever heard on prime-time California television.
While not the equal in debate of McClintock and Camejo, Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and Republican Schwarzennegerthe leading candidates to replace Davis if he is recalled--also made substantive proposals. Schwarzenneger often is dismissed as celebrity candidate. Celebrity he certainly is, but he has proposed a serious environmental program and a plan to make California's toothless public-records law apply to the staff memoranda of public officials.
The recall process has had a constructive impact on Gov. Davis, who was a remote chief executive as California has suffered through energy and fiscal crises. In the current campaign, Davis has vigorously interacted with ordinary voters as never before, defending his record in a series of town meetings. Friends and foes alike agree that he might never have faced recall had he done this when energy costs were exploding.
Democracy, as Tocqueville observed in the early days of the American republic, is an untidy process. Davis contributed to this untidiness in 2002, spending millions of dollars in a successful effort to discredit moderate former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, whom Simon defeated in the Republican primary.
Now, Davis is fighting an up-hill battle against Schwarzenneger, a moderate like Riordan, on such social issues as abortion and gay rights. Whatever happens, the recall has arguably been useful to laid-back California. It has involved voters in politics and promoted television coverage of state issues, a benefit to democracy no matter what the outcome.
If Schwarzenegger wins, perhaps television will even cover Sacramento once again.
Lou Cannon worked 26 years for The Washington Post and is now a contributing editor to California Journal. He is the author of several books about Ronald Reagan, including the recently published "Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power" (PublicAffairs).