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California Trend?

If it’s true that what starts in California becomes a national trend, maybe there’s reason to hope that intense local media coverage of the Golden State’s gubernatorial recall race will translate into a decision by television stations across the country to stop profiteering from politics and start covering it. Just in case, Congress should pass legislation requiring it.

As various news organizations have reported with some amazement, the state that invented so-called “stump-free campaigning” — in which candidates for office simply raise money for television ads — now is rediscovering event-based campaigning, which local television is covering almost blow-by-blow.

The Washington Post this week quoted Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California, as estimating that California’s largest-market television stations had devoted as much air time in the first few days of the recall campaign as in the final 11 weeks of the 1998 gubernatorial race. California stations also devoted precious little time to covering the 2002 race, while collecting millions in advertising buys from the campaigns of Gov. Gray Davis (D) and his GOP challenger, businessman Bill Simon.

This is, of course, a national pattern — in fact, a national disgrace. As Kaplan testified to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in July, a study of 10,000 top-rated half-hour news shows on 122 stations in the top 50 media markets during the seven weeks before the 2002 elections showed that only 44 percent carried any campaign coverage at all. Most of the stories were broadcast during the last two weeks of the campaign. Most of the reports were less than 90 seconds long, and nearly half were “horserace” reports rather than analyses of issues.

Fewer than 30 percent of the campaign stories included the candidates actually speaking — and when they did, the average soundbite was 12 seconds long. In the meantime, campaign ads outnumbered campaign stories by 4-to-1. Broadcasters spent little covering campaigns but collected an estimated $1 billion in ad revenues.

Should we expect a reversal now that California has set an example? Meredith McGehee, executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, doubts it, as do we. “If money is the mother’s milk of politics,” she said, “then celebrity is the crack cocaine. Without Arnold Schwarzenegger in the governor’s race, it would be same-old, same-old. I’m glad to see this turnaround, but surely it’s an aberration.”

Surely, it is. To ensure that local television does the right thing, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) have introduced legislation requiring TV and radio stations, as part of the public interest obligation they incur when they receive a free broadcast license, to air at least two hours a week of candidate-centered or issue-centered programming during the lead-up to elections. It’s the least the stations should do.

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