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.
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."
Asked about Kaplan's comment that local TV news directors do little political coverage because they assume that such coverage would turn off viewers, Channel 39's Sanders said, "I don't subscribe to that assumption.... It's important to cover the issues and candidates as best you can, give it a local focus and center it on the issues that directly affect people's lives." Sanders also said that the multi-station efforts Kaplan's group is trying to set up -- "the opportunity to work with other media in other parts of the state so we don't have to depend on the candidates coming to town" -- would help get more air time for political campaigns on local TV news. "We also need to pay attention to observations like the professor's and take to heart the fact that we need to examine what we do and how we do it very closely," Sanders added.