In late September, a celebrity candidate’s presence at the so-called Super Bowl of recall debates made television history and commanded huge overnight ratings. Fourteen days later, the same candidate’s first post-election press conference resembled a presidential swearing-in, with Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger fielding questions from a phalanx of journalists from around the globe. According to one Los Angeles Times report, the “camera shutters fired at a pace that nearly drowned out the answers when the movie star parted his hands or pointed a finger to illustrate a point.”
To say we can expect more of the same is an understatement. In fact, capital news coverage in Sacramento is clearly set to make a mighty comeback.
Several decades ago, news of what California lawmakers were doing (or not) in Sacramento was considered major tidings up and down the state, the coveted beat of veteran reporters.
But we’ve since witnessed devolution of state political coverage. Bureaus were shuttered, stories were chopped, and fewer reporters were assigned. Some of the large dailies—like the Los Angeles Times and The Mercury News of San Jose—kept bureaus open, yes, but their staffs were diminished. Many medium-sized newspapers and especially TV stations simply closed up shop and went home. Media outlets only covered Sacramento politics on an as-needed basis because political stories were seen as boring, non-visual and not sexy. They lacked the urgency and drama of a murder or car chase.
In part, this occurred because Capitol press corps reporters became notorious for performing pack journalism at its worst. Often, reporters lacked the time, training (how many really knew how to read a budget?) and desire to dig beneath the surface and show regular people how power actually is executed in California.
Today, thanks to the celebrity of Schwarzenegger, capital news coverage is back with a bullet, and a bigger pack is converging. Television news directors who never dreamed of covering state budgets and bureaucracies are suddenly clamoring to set up offices here. Among others, three Los Angeles network affiliates—KABC, KNBC and KCBS—are opening new bureaus and media-partnership arrangements in Sacramento.
University of California, Berkeley, journalism Dean Orville Schell has called Schwarzenegger “a test-tube baby born of the media and entertainment, the final genetically engineered creature where currency in one realm has become irrevocable currency in the other.” And yes, these entertainment-government lines have now been blurred without apology in California.
But it strikes us, as we undergo Week One of Governor Arnold’s era, that perhaps something unexpectedly positive may come of it all yet. A new and intense media focus on statehouse politics (even if it’s sometimes from Entertainment Tonight) may reveal truths about the enormous power politicians have to create winners and losers in our society. And let’s hope that more awareness from citizens can only help as we seek to solve California’s host of serious problems.