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September 13, 2003

How Do You Cover 133 Candidates for Governor?

Follow the idea race. It might lead somewhere. Better than "probable winners win our attention because they're probably going to win."

Published (in a different version) as “The Recall: Who’s ahead in the idea race?” Sacramento Bee, Sep. 14, 2003. New: See the comment section where an ombudsman and political editor react.

Tony Marcano, ombudsman of the Sacramento Bee, asks a good question: “how does a newspaper go about effectively covering 133 candidates” in the California recall? “There’s no precedent for it. There’s nothing in the universal campaign coverage playbook about how to handle a three-digit candidates’ list, particularly one with such a motley cast of characters.”

That “universal campaign coverage playbook” (I would love a copy) may have little to say about hundreds of candidates at once. But that doesn’t leave journalists in California without herd principles. Here the playbook turns to more general advice: when in doubt assume the story is about winning because it’s neutral and we know how to do it. If your Aunt was a threat to win, we’d cover her. And so the Bee’s political editor, Amy Chance, who must find a practical answer to Marcano’s question, goes by the book. The Bee’s editors, she says:

have to acknowledge up front that limited time, space, manpower and other resources prevent us from treating all of the candidates as though they had an equal shot at election. We try to concentrate the bulk of our resources on those with organized campaigns who have a realistic chance at winning.

Sounds reasonable, if a bit herdish. Except that as Marcano points out, certain candidates, if they were taken more seriously by the press, might stand a better chance at winning. (Your Aunt, for example.) That sounds reasonable too. But they can’t both be right. Both views can’t be realistic, either. This is where press think—which doesn’t have to mean group think—starts to factor in.

Go back to Amy Chance’s way of stating the choices before her as editor. One option is abstract, inflexible, also sentimental about democracy: “treating all of the candidates as though they had an equal shot.” The other choice (focus on the possible winners) is savvy, hard-headed, within the received wisdom of the press, and adaptable to changing circumstances, like minor candidate’s sudden surge in the polls. By “choosing” in a rhetorical contest that is actually no-contest, Chance is not so much stating an argument as crying: we have no choice, so this is way we do it. We let the default narrative in. Which means winning will determine who wins news attention at the Bee… fair, right? (Puzzle in news think: can a circular practice ever be fair?)

The Sacramento Bee has 12 reporters working on the statewide election. This is a serious crew under Amy Chance. What’s big at the Bee is politics, which is also the talk of the town, the local industry. Let’s agree with Chance that part of the recall drama is about winning at the ballot box in October, certainly an important story. Except that it’s not a story, but a story pattern made of many newsy political items accumulating week to week. For talking about this pattern, I prefer the more theatrical term master narrative. (Read what that means.) If part of the master narrative distributes news items over the Likely to Win candidates, then another part can sprinkle news over the Something to Say group. If reporters on both trails meet at the same event, it must be an important event.

Let’s give the second narrative a name: the idea race. It’s news about the recall that tells us who’s floating new, interesting, counter-intuitive or maybe even useful ideas for California, which people should be talking about anyway. If reporters are allowed to gauge who’s ahead in the money race, in the polls, and among campaign insiders, they can certainly be permitted to judge who’s a player in the game of offering fresh wisdom, inventive proposals or a more nuanced diagnosis of the state’s problems. From there it’s easy: you just cover the players. It might even prove refreshing to ask who’s winning the idea race?

Now you don’t have to cover all 133 candidates, because not all will meet the basic test of having something on point and original to say to voters. But symbolic candidacies might, which is how the minor chord becomes a major. Now you don’t have to limit your coverage to the well organized campaigns that have “a realistic chance at winning” because—speaking realistically now—they may have nothing original or on point in their standard spiel, and the spiel may substandard but all you get, stop after stop.

In horse race coverage, you pay a penality for not being a threat to win or finish in the money. Those rules are clear so let their be no whiners. In idea race coverage, you pay a penality for being programmed by others to say only the most calculated things, for giving away your mind and public soul or never having one. Let there be no whiners, but different winners.

Where’s the space going to come from for this second narrative, the so-called idea race? Newspaper journalists love to ask you things like that. But Marcano’s a newspaper guy and he has an answer. One part of recall coverage that seems “out of whack” to him is “the continual handicapping of the campaign, mostly laying odds on Bustamante and Schwarzenegger.” This is apt criticism. (It’s also criticism that’s been playing for 20 years on the conference circuit wherever post-mortems on election coverage are done. But that’s history.) Drop the handicapping now because it is banal, pre-emptive, the “horse race” at its worst. Then you have room to experiment. Which might also help the Bee’s ombudsman in fencing with pesky readers who insist on some better principle for distributing press attention. Better than winners win our best attention because they’re the best bet to win.

The kind of thing I am talking about is done, of course, when reporters pick apart what a candidate has said. But it depends on how you do it. Here is Daniel Weintraub, political reporter, author of the “Campaign Insider” weblog for the Sacramento Bee, doing it to the most visible candidate in the recall. He is forming a journalistic judgment about whether Schwarzenegger has been willing to even put forward an idea:

…But of course, while Arnold might support “higher wages” as a concept (who doesn’t?), he does not, as far as we know, support any government mandate that would seek to increase the minimum wage or create a living wage. Although I have seen candidates tell the truth in these situations (Bill Simon among them), it is probably not reasonable to expect a politician to volunteer a disagreeable position. An honest answer might be that he will do all he can to help the private sector create high-paying jobs. But Arnold doesn’t even offer that level of specificity. A question from a nearby reporter about the prevailing wage – the government-mandated wage standard that forces public agencies to pay what amount to union wages on construction projects – goes unanswered. So too do questions about the 8-hour-day overtime standard and about the state’s new paid family leave program, which business groups say should top the list of anyone looking to lift oppressive government regulations off their backs. He offered a few more statistics and a new anecdote illustrating problems in the workers compensation system for injured workers, but still no proposals for how to fix the troubled program.

That’s the scene of a candidate running a bit behind in the idea race. Now can you tell me who’s ahead?

Read about NPR’s ombudsman grappling with the same issue: should there be “equivalent” coverage of candidates for President?

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 13, 2003 12:38 PM