Television turned yesterday's election in California into a mixture of civics lesson and all-out celebrity gawk yesterday, as the networks and news channels attempted to figure out what the recall election really meant.
Based on exit polls, the answer wasn't all that tough to discern. A breath past 11 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, the news channels and networks projected Arnold Schwarzenegger to have won big in his bid to become governor. In the words of NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw last night, California experienced "a political earthquake."
On its surface, the news media had been leading with this question: Would voters appalled by the state's weak economy and budget woes toss the listless Gov. Gray Davis from office just a year after re-electing him?
But the overwhelming subtext on TV was this: Would the guy who once played Conan the Barbarian on screen lead the nation's most-populous state in real life? Even after the actor's vague statements last week seeming to acknowledge that he had sexually harassed women, in a media strategy that MSNBC's Chris Matthews yesterday dubbed "grope-a-dope"?
Early in the day, television news officials cautioned that an answer to the question of whether Davis was recalled might not arrive definitively for days. Network and cable news executives prepared anxiously for Florida-style confusion. Yet, even by early evening, reporters and anchors offered broad hints about the direction of the vote. Around 6 p.m., Kelly Wallace told viewers about "upbeat" Schwarzenegger aides who were sharing specific campaign polling figures from previous days that reflected no damage from articles in the Los Angeles Times over the past week that cataloged accusations of sexual harassment by the action star over a period of 25 years.
Tony Snow of Fox News reported that Davis' job disapproval ratings from voters surveyed yesterday stood at 73 percent - an astonishingly high degree of disgust on the day he was fighting for his career.
For those seeking to interpret the signs, the television correspondents were collectively sending a big flare into the sky to tell viewers that Schwarzenegger would win easily.
By 10:30 p.m., MSNBC's Matthews had jettisoned restraint. "One of the reasons the recall will pass is the anger at the size of the deficit," he told commentator Larry Elder in making the case that Schwarzenegger will confront difficult budget choices. Inexplicably, Matthews continued his chat fest for minutes after the polls closed, relegating the projections of Davis' recall and Schwarzenegger's victory to the crawl at the bottom of the screen.
CBS' Dan Rather, ABC's Peter Jennings and NBC's Brokaw all narrated their evening newscasts from Los Angeles. Meanwhile, cable outfits boosted their coverage far beyond what they would typically have for an off-year election.
"Bluntly, I wouldn't be out here were it not for the presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger," Bob Franken, a correspondent for CNN, said in a phone interview from California yesterday.
A throng of television cameras and microphones surrounded Schwarzenegger when he emerged from the private home in Pacific Palisades where he cast his vote for himself, accompanied by his wife, NBC reporter Maria Shriver.
(Shriver's own celebrity was underscored by a WJZ-TV news report yesterday afternoon reminding viewers of her identity as a niece of President John F. Kennedy, a member of the influential Shriver clan of Maryland, and a former junior news staffer at Baltimore's WJZ-TV. "Leave no opportunity to promote WJZ behind" - That's the station's campaign platform.)
The news media itself became part of the narrative, as television stories yesterday reflected anger at the press - specifically the Los Angeles Times, which, like The Sun, is owned by Chicago-based Tribune Co. Though the newspaper stated that its reporting on Schwarzenegger did not originate from the Davis camp, many voters and Republicans accused the paper of acting in concert with the Democratic governor. One MSNBC graphic asked whether the accusations "backfired" with voters, as though the Times had sought Schwarzenegger's defeat in publishing the articles.
On Fox News, Jill Stewart, a syndicated columnist and former Times reporter, repeated her allegation that the paper had held back a story that would have shown Davis to be abusive to employees. The Times released a statement saying it had not been able to verify any credible accusations against Davis. Fox anchor Shepard Smith pressed Stewart about her charges, interrupting Davis' defenders and critics alike.
Schwarzenegger had limited his exposure to the news media during the campaign, but sat for interviews with Jennings and Brokaw. His final interviews, according to reports yesterday, were with Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood.
Television news is unlikely to give such sustained coverage to Schwarzenegger's likely next role: governing California.