continued Channel 10 also moved aggressively to get an hour-long debate between the gubernatorial candidates to San Diego. "The day that I saw on the Associated Press wire that the candidates had agreed to the debates, we called them and said we wanted to televise them," Swanson said. "I don't know who did it in other places, but they came to us because we'd expressed interest in doing it." As a result, Channel 10 aired the first debate in San Diego and showed the other three debates on their affiliated cable-only channel, 15.
Channel 8's D'Ambrosi said his station didn't carry the gubernatorial debates because it would have involved pre-empting national programming from the station's affiliated network, CBS. "I'm pretty sure we were approached, and the night they picked was a bad night to pre-empt," D'Ambrosi said. "60 Minutes or something was on."
After being told that the first Davis-Lungren debate, held in San Diego and sponsored by Channel 10, took place on Friday, July 31, 1998 -- not a Sunday, when 60 Minutes airs -- D'Ambrosi conferred with his program director, Judy Vance, and explained, "We were offered the full debate package, and Judy Vance said she turned it down because we have a limited number of prime-time pre-emptions under our new network contract with CBS. They're very limited, and all the pre-emptions were spoken for. Either we had already used them or already had something blocked in to use them for."
Kaplan said that he wasn't attempting to make any particular station or market look bad in his study. Rather, he explained, he was trying to document that the level of political coverage on local TV news as a whole has dropped drastically since author Mary Ellen Leary did a similar study of the 1974 California gubernatorial election and published it in her book Phantom Politics. Leary said the lack of campaign coverage on local TV was "eroding the democratic process ... [and] demoralizing the hopes that television can enhance the process of leadership selection in this country." Yet, according to her study, TV stations in California devoted 2.8 percent of their total news time to the governor's election in 1974 -- over 20 times the percentage Kaplan found in his study of 1998.
Asked why the level of coverage has fallen so dramatically in the last quarter-century, Kaplan said, "Well, it started low to begin with. I think, to some degree, there is the conventional wisdom that politics is a turnoff to audiences; that it's not entertaining, and the viewer will change the station if there is political news. Interestingly, no stations seemed to test that assumption. Instead, they simply declined to air political news. Now, the reasons that politics are said to be an audience turnoff include all the things that have happened to politics in the last quarter-century: how polarized, how negative, how simplistic, how dominated by ads and special interests and so on. So all the factors that contribute to making the public cynical and turned-off about politics have perhaps had an impact on the amount of time that broadcasters want to give to it."
Another factor Kaplan discussed is the erosion of the idea that the broadcast airwaves belong to "the people" and that broadcasters are merely license holders, not property owners. "We tend to forget that television, in particular, is not only a for-profit business. It's also a licensed activity, and its license is given by the public. Until not too long ago, there was the expectation that the public got something in return for it. There were expectations of public-affairs programming and children's programming, which was a quid pro quo for getting their licenses. That idea seems awfully quaint now, and perhaps the public would be well served if it would agitate for getting something back for the license."
The difficulty in getting political coverage on local TV news has made political candidates even more dependent than they were before on expensive 30- to 60-second TV commercial spots, Kaplan explained. While these paid ads are among the most widely criticized features of current political campaigning -- they're regularly accused of being overly negative, misleading, long on empty image-building and short on substance -- they've become the only way many candidates for office can get their message on TV.
"Every political campaign I've ever been involved in has always had a huge priority on having enough money to run paid media, to get their message out in an unfiltered way, usually through spot ads; and then, of course, other methods, like direct mail," Kaplan explained. "At the same time that you're doing that, the goal is to make sure the 'free media' or 'earned media' -- the coverage of campaign events -- that you get is consistent with that message. The difference is there's now no such thing as free media anymore. There is only paid media."
Asked if there might be a vicious cycle working here -- that the less the media cover politics, the less important politics seem to the average viewers who get most of their information on the outside world from TV news -- Kaplan said, "I think that's true, although I suspect if you ask people whether politics is not covered by the media, they'd probably disagree. It's just that what passes for politics being covered is soap opera, horse races, and mud wrestling: anything that can be reduced to motives or personality. Anything that can be presented as a poll. Any time there is combat between polarized extremes. Any time there is emotion and passion. That's the kind of stuff that TV does a good job of covering. When anything requires careful thought, splitting differences, finding consensus, analyzing positions which are not that far apart, actually understanding data or complicated questions, those things don't make for good, short stories. They're not about people and heroes and villains."
Ironically, Channel 10's Swanson made the same criticism Kaplan did, and in just about the same language. "When you say TV doesn't think people are interested in politics and doesn't go out to ask people if that's true, I think there's a tendency to cover politics as a horse race," he said. "If we attempt to cover politics as issues that affect people's lives -- if we explain not only, 'This is what so-and-so has to say about Social Security,' but, 'This is how it would affect you' -- then I think people care deeply. If you just approach it as who's up and who's down, it's only moderately interesting."