Media Criticized for Slanted Coverage of Recall

By | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

( - Media observers told that coverage of the California recall election has been less than superb, criticizing network news programs, magazines and newspapers for ignoring substantive issues, portraying the recall as a "circus" and playing into Democratic Gov. Gray Davis's campaign strategy.

Hugh Hewitt, a conservative talk radio host and columnist from Orange County, Calif., said the problem partly "reflects a fundamental inability of East Coast reporters to understand West Coast politics." He noted that Republican candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger has repeatedly been asked irrelevant questions in television interviews.

"There's a huge crisis in California. It's economic, Arnold is speaking to it, and a number of interviewers... are asking him about things like gay marriage, which is irrelevant in California."

California voters in 2000 passed Proposition 22, which added a provision to the state constitution defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

"If there was even an inch of understanding about California political dynamics, they wouldn't ask that," Hewitt explained. "Rather, they would ask questions such as, to Cruz Bustamante, 'Will you repeal the car tax?' which is widely believed to be illegal and probably the driving issue behind the recall and the almost inevitable exit of Davis from office. And they don't bring up the car tax tripling. So they have to work a little harder."

Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the Media Research Center, the parent organization of, said reporters are covering the bizarre aspects of the recall at the expense of serious, substantive issues.

"The media are not holding Davis accountable for his fiscal record, and one of the reasons they're not is that it makes for boring news stories," Graham said. "They don't want to bog down into fiscal minutiae when they can be focusing on [former Diff'rent Strokes star] Gary Coleman."

By characterizing the recall as a circus and ignoring serious issues salient to California, Graham believes, networks and newspapers are only helping Davis and recall opponents.

"It helps Davis to characterize it as a circus. Davis doesn't want the people to vote on Davis, he wants them to vote on it being unfair and a circus," said Graham. "So it helps Davis, but it also helps the media because they don't want to focus on the serious issues, they want to make it a tabloid story."

Hewitt also criticized the media's focus on celebrity candidates such as pornographer Larry Flynt and syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington, whom he believes have little chance of replacing Davis as governor. As an example, he noted that Huffington was a featured guest on Sunday's This Week with George Stephanopoulos and that Monday's Washington Post "spilled a ton of ink" on her.

"Arianna won't get 5 percent of the vote. She is a cartoon, a very sweet cartoon... and when it comes to self-promotion, she wrote the book, but she's not a serious political candidate. And for the Post to spend that much time on her is really just absurd and reflects the big chasm between East Coast writing and West Coast reality," Hewitt said.

Hewitt believes the media should focus on the two most serious candidates: Schwarzenegger and Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat.

"The real race is between Schwarzenegger and Bustamante, no one else matters... but they're spending an enormous amount of resources on sideshows like Arianna," Hewitt said. "And covering anyone else is just an exercise really in helping Cruz because the more you focus on the choice between a sophisticated businessman like Schwarzenegger and an apparatchik like Cruz, the easier it becomes."

Hewitt explained that while it is understandable serious reporters will poke fun at the bizarre aspects of the campaign, the story is not being covered with the seriousness it requires.

"It's very serious because the flight of business and intellectual capital from the state is enormous," Hewitt said. "When it comes down to it, it's a large portion of the national economy, the vibrancy of which is an essential ingredient to national economic recovery. We'd be well on our way if it wasn't for the California morass. And they owe the people of California and the United States much better coverage then they're producing - or at least, sophisticated coverage."

In addition to trying to portray the recall as a circus, Davis has also denounced it as a right wing, partisan effort. In a "Media Reality Check" published by the MRC, Graham documented how the media have apparently accepted that view.

A Newsweek cover story, for example, described recall founder Ted Costa as an "earnest crank" and characterized the recall as "a civic crackup." Graham also accused the New York Times and CBS News of labeling recall proponent and former gubernatorial candidate Rep. Darrell Issa as a conservative - but failing to label recall opponents or even Green Party candidate Peter Camejo as liberal.

Graham told that if the tables were turned and a Republican governor were being recalled, the media would portray recall supporters as concerned citizens, not left wing partisans.

"If this was a recall against [former California] Gov. Pete Wilson, the people who signed up to get this recall passed would not have been 'cranks,' they would have been presented as non-partisan, non-ideological citizens acting in the public interest," explained Graham, who added: "That's the way liberals are usually presented by the media, as non-partisans working in the public interest. In this case, since this recall was started by conservatives worried about taxes, it's being presented as a tool of the right wing."

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