San Diego San Diegans who relied on TV news as their main source for information on state and local politics during last year's campaign for governor of California were shortchanged, says Martin Kaplan, Ph.D., associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California (USC).
In a study he released last December, Kaplan found that San Diego's four major TV news stations gave the least coverage of the gubernatorial election between Democrat Gray Davis and Republican Dan Lungren of any of the five markets he studied. (The others were Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Bakersfield.)
According to Kaplan's study, San Diego's local TV news shows devoted only 0.10 percent of their total air time in the last 12 weeks before the election to coverage of the gubernatorial campaign -- a bit more than one-third of a second per hour, and far less than the average of 0.31 percent in all five markets Kaplan studied. Even San Diego's market leader in gubernatorial coverage, KGTV-Channel 10, devoted only 36 minutes and 47 seconds, or 0.15 percent of their total news time, to it -- less than half the state average. And the two stations in Kaplan's study that gave the race the least coverage were both in San Diego: KNSD-Channel 39 (cable 7), which gave it only 0.09 percent of their total local news time (20 minutes, 40 seconds); and KFMB-Channel 8, which gave it 0.11 percent (30 minutes, 16 seconds).
Jim Sanders, news director for Channel 39 -- the station with the lowest rating in Kaplan's study -- said he hadn't seen the study and therefore couldn't comment on it. "I think we did a good job covering the gubernatorial election, as we did on all elections," Sanders said. "We tried very hard to be appropriate and responsible in our coverage."
Fred D'Ambrosi, news director for both Channel 8 and its companion radio station, KFMB AM 760 (which broadcasts the San Diego Padres' games), called Kaplan's study "kind of a bogus comparison." D'Ambrosi said his station might come up short in the kind of comparison Kaplan did because its daily news show is an hour longer than Channel 10's -- even though, according to Kaplan's figures, Channel 10 broadcast six more minutes of total gubernatorial coverage even with an hour less time each day.
D'Ambrosi attributed the relative lack of coverage of the gubernatorial race on local TV to the failure of the candidates to appear in San Diego. "[Gray Davis] never campaigned here," he said. "I'm trying to remember how often those guys were down here. Maybe Davis, with his San Diego ties, didn't think he had to, and maybe Lungren didn't either since he figured San Diego is Republican country and he'd win anyway." (In fact, Democrat Davis carried San Diego County, with 47.3 percent of the vote to Lungren's 44.3 percent.)
Though Kaplan's associate, Matt Hale, didn't think Channel 10 had too much to be proud of either, the station did distinguish itself from its competitors in San Diego not only by sponsoring the first of the four campaign debates that did take place between Davis and Lungren, but also by joining an "intervention" effort sponsored by a group with which Kaplan was involved.
A Washington, D.C.-based group called the Alliance for Better Campaigns, founded by former Washington Post political reporter Paul Taylor, set up pilot projects in ten states, including California, to get more exposure for statewide political campaigns on local TV news. Taylor, an old acquaintance of Kaplan's, recruited him to direct the California effort.
Kaplan, in turn, recruited two people who'd been involved in rival campaigns in the 1994 gubernatorial election -- Dan Schnur, former press secretary to Republican governor Pete Wilson; and Michael Reese, deputy campaign manager to his Democratic challenger, Kathleen Brown -- to set up eight "mini-debates" between Davis and Lungren. These would have aired regularly on the local news shows of the four stations in the organizing group -- Channel 10 in San Diego, KCBS-Channel 2 in L.A., KXTV-Channel 10 in Sacramento, and KRON-Channel 4 in San Francisco -- and also would have been made available via satellite to any other stations that wanted to carry them.
"They had a tentative commitment for eight five-minute mini-debates, and we said yes," said Channel 10 executive producer Lee Swanson. "We hardly even thought about it. Then they went to try to firm it up, and Lungren and Davis weren't as committed as we thought. By the time they got four stations committed, the first field poll on the governor's race had come out, and the candidates looked at where they stood in the poll and came to opposite conclusions as to whether they stood to gain by participating."
"We were delighted that the stations agreed to do that," Kaplan said. "One of the alleged points of greatest resistance to good campaign coverage is that the broadcasters don't want to carry it. Unfortunately, we didn't have the two candidates say yes. We only had one. Only Lungren agreed. So we were unable to actually deliver the candidates to the eight events, and because of that we changed our plan and decided we would deliver other candidates and issues to the broadcasters."
"I was really disappointed with Davis and Lungren for not agreeing to the mini-debates," Swanson added. "It was a chance for them to give longer answers to questions about the issues each week, and they chose to speak in 15- and 30-second sound bites rather than five-minute dissertations."
After an abortive try to get the two major-party candidates for U.S. Senate -- Democrat Barbara Boxer and Republican Matt Fong -- to do the debates instead of the gubernatorial candidates, Schnur and Reese cut back the number of mini-debates to four and focused them instead on races lower down on the ballot. The candidates for attorney general and state superintendent of public instruction each did a mini-debate in this format, and the other two were about Propositions 5 (the Indian gaming initiative) and 10 (the tobacco tax). "In the case of the superintendent of public instruction, there would have been just about zero television coverage of that race" if the mini-debate hadn't aired, Kaplan said.