Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Media Musings, Take 6

"Gee. Governor, your hair smells terrific..."

The San Francisco Chronicle takes a few well-deserved swipes at the fawning treatment California Gov. Schwarzenegger continues to get from the brunt of the California news media.

Reporter Carla Marinucci recaps some of the oh-so-probing (perhaps not the right word to use when discussing the Golden State Groper) questions that Ahnold has weathered from Los Angeles radio stations ...

"You've got the best suits I've ever seen. Are they custom-made or are they off the rack?"

"I've got to ask you, governor. A lot of the guys we talk to ... say their wives turned them on to country music. Does Maria like it, as well?''

"You have done so much in your life. You won what, five Mr. Universe titles, I believe -- is that right?"

"You sound terrific. The energy you have is unbelievable. How do you do that every day?''

"Do you miss the movies?"

That's right. The era of Woodward and Bernstein has been supplanted by the decade of James Lipton.

Marinucci muses:

"More than 16 months into the job he won during an unprecedented recall election, Schwarzenegger's current California media tour to promote his plans for reforming state government looks like a resounding success -- if only because the California media, rather than turning up the heat, often ends up in marshmallow mode with the state's famous governor.

"'It's hard to imagine any world leader getting this type of treatment. All I know is, people who have spent their lives in the media business ought to have tougher questions for the governor,' said Doug Heller of ArnoldWatch.org, which is run by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. 'If you're a news reporter, the only time you should be asking about wearing a certain suit is to find out if he's using sweatshop labor.'''

Well, actually, we disagree emphatically with the aforementioned sentiment from Doug Heller. Not that the public needs to know about Ahnold's suits, mind you, but there is a legitimate place for feature stories of public figures -- and a number of reporters do hang on to an unfortunate and misguided notion that the only real journalism is that of the negative, "gotcha" variety.

Nevertheless, the Chronicle piece does make a salient point in blaming some of the "surfeit of sweetness" on the fact that news media outlets increasingly shun the "beat" system in which reporters are assigned specific topics.

"'Part of the reason [Schwarzenegger] is so successful at managing the media is that there are so few reporters who cover state government on a regular basis,' said Barbara O'Connor, a political science professor at California State University Sacramento. 'He has made himself available to the Capitol press corps on a limited basis. But it's clear that this governor wants to set the media agenda in the way we haven't seen in a long time. And because of his celebrity status, he is successful at doing that.'"

O'Connor might not realize how right she is. As a former news reporter (modesty forbids I disclose further details of where I was employed, but suffice it to say I once had lunch with Dan Abrams -- yes, the Dan Abrams -- and broke a really big story about squirrels), I can attest to the value of the "beat" system. It cut down on instances of reportorial ignorance and ensured that a reporter would have enough depth of knowledge of a subject to avoid an overabundance of softball questions.


And more troubling news regarding the world of TV news. A study published in USA Today indicates that the TV news media is growing ever more neglectful of local political news.

"In the month leading up to last Election Day, just 8 percent of the local evening newscasts in 11 of the nation's largest TV markets devoted time to local races and issues ...

"Over the same period, 55 percent of the newscasts included reports about the presidential race. And 'eight times more coverage went to stories about accidental injuries' than to local races and issues, their report concludes."

And all of that would be less worrisome if not for the fact that upwards of 60 percent of the population get most of their news from local TV.

Which might explain, too, why most people are, well, stupid.


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