Fairness in Media

I am old enough to remember when media coverage of politics – TV and radio only in those days – was governed by the FCC’s fairness doctrine. The fairness doctrine said, essentially, that if you wanted to report on an election, all sides, and all candidates, needed to be given equal time.

This was both useful, and boring. It was useful because it meant that the public at large could hear underfunded candidates, and get to know them. It was boring because vanity candidates and single-issue candidates got as much time as more serious contenders, and voters as a result, sometimes didn’t listen to everyone worth listening to.

By 1980, you could make a case that the fairness doctrine needed tweaking, perhaps along the lines of the two-tiered system in use for the 2016 Republican debates, but less arbitrary. Then Ronald Reagan was elected, and the fairness doctrine was thrown out entirely, for ideological reasons. This had a number of obvious effects, one of which was that it aided in the rise of what might be called prejudice-enforcing reporting, of which Fox News is the primary, but by no means the only, current example.

Newspapers and magazines were not subject to the fairness doctrine, and, historically, some newspaper owners, like Colonel McCormick in Chicago and William Randolph Hearst, used their papers for propaganda purposes, but by 1980, there was genuine consensus among newspapers that opinion belonged only on editorial pages, and that reporting should be fair and objective.

But the Reagan Revolution brought genuine change to the media world, and I would argue that it was felt locally. When I became active in Sonoma County politics in 1984, I began to notice something about the local paper, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. The headlines placed on stories, especially politically charged stories, often didn’t fit the content of the stories. Sometimes, the headline would flatly contradict the plain meaning of the story beneath. Sometimes, the story and headline would match well enough, but the effect would still be misleading because crucial facts would either be left out of the story (probably by an editor; reporters weren’t usually the problem), or crucial facts would be buried so that their significance would be easy to miss (editors again).

An especially suspicious use of the newspaper took place in 1992. For several election cycles, The Press Democrat had conducted two polls on the Santa Rosa City Council race – one three weeks before the election, to see what the voter’s initial choices were, and again one week before the election, to see what the changes were as the election drew near. In those pre-absentee-voting days, candidates had grown used to timing their mailers for this pattern. But 1992 was different – the first poll was taken four weeks before the election and, by an odd coincidence, the newspaper’s favorite candidate happened to be the only candidate to time her first mail piece to arrive exactly four weeks before the election date. The Press Democrat was then able to report that their candidate was comfortably in the lead…

In the 2016 election, the Press Democrat has apparently given up on such subtle tactics. Recently, in honor of Women’s History Month, the newspaper published a list of twenty-five “women who shaped the North Coast”.   I was immediately interested – my late wife, Senator Pat Wiggins, was an obvious candidate, and so was my friend, Senator Noreen Evans.   I looked at the article, but neither was on the list. “Oh, well,” you might think, “all the women who are on the list are worthy, and if you are limiting yourself to twenty-five, someone has to go. And besides, Noreen is running for Fifth District Supervisor; it wouldn’t be appropriate to give her free publicity in this context.”

A few days later, a second list was published in honor of Women’s History Month: “30 women you should know in Sonoma County.”   Number 28 on that list just happens to be Noreen’s opponent in the Fifth District race, a woman who is supported by one of the owners of the Press Democrat and his friends.   Apparently you should know her because she was the first to enter the race.

Sigh, it never ends.



It was only to be expected, I guess.  When I was young, I felt affronted by the prospect of death; as I age, death seems , while still frightening, increasingly natural.

Death’s Blue-Eyed Boy

My father was certain
What would happen.”Like snuffing out a candle,” he’d say.
“Like turning out all the lights in the world at once.”

I have a different take on death:
I think I’ll pass
Into an alternate universe
Where I’ll get another chance
To do it right.


Acting Locally

From time to time, people who know how interested in politics I am ask me if I watch the Presidential debates.  I always reply: “No, I’m not interested,” and try to change the subject.

But why don’t I want to watch?  There’s plenty of drama.  Donald Trump talks about whatever comes into his head, without a trace of a normal person’s filter.   He gets the most attention, but there’s lot’s more – Ted  Cruz, smarmy and smug, but obviously intelligent. There’s Ben Carson, who seems to be running in order to sell his books.  There’s Bernie Sanders, challenging us all to have a better vision of what’s politically possible. And finally, there’s Hilary Clinton, brimming with competence,  but oddly uninspiring.

All in all, the story line for the Republican and Democratic nominations is as intriguing as any I can remember.  but I have never felt the urge to watch a single debate.  Part of the reason is that social media gives me the highlights almost as soon as they happen;  I don’t really need to sit passively in front of a television screen.  But a more important reason is that there is virtually nothing I can do to influence the outcome.  At the moment , I am deeply engaged in the race for an important local office – the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.  I am supporting a candidate I believe in.  I know that by involving myself in the race, I can make a difference, and I get a great deal of satisfaction, from knowing that.  I’m sorry to say that, for the moment, I’ve lost all sense that involvement in national politics can matter.  I’m sure that as 2016 moves along, that will change.  But for now,  I’m thinking locally and acting locally.


Reality Show Politics

Today, a friend asked me why I never seem to want to talk about national politics.  Anyone who knows me is aware of my willingness to discuss politics in general, and state and local politics in particular.  So why do I avoid talking about national politics?

I thought about it for a while, and replied that national politics didn’t feel like real politics to me — it was more like watching a reality show.  The kind of politics I like is about people; about understanding their needs and about representing their interests.  It’s about listening; not about showing off.

A reality show is different from a documentary; the focus is on drama and personal conflict, rather than on education.  In a similar fashion, a national political campaign today is different from a local grass-roots political campaign; the focus is on drama and personal conflict (not to mention name-calling), rather than on getting to know all the residents of a district and understanding their needs.

To be fair, a certain amouat of hyperbole and name-calling has always been a part of national political campaigns since the founding of this country.  For example, Abraham Lincoln was called a “gorilla”, an “idiot”, and a “coward” during the 1864 campaign.  But we used also to have a tradition of statesmanship.  In 1944, FDR and Wendell Wilkie seriously discussed forming a national unity government, on the premise that uniting to win the war was more important than partisan politics.  We also used to have a tradition of putting the interests of the country above the interests of getting elected.  A good case can be made that George H. W. Bush was denied reelection in 1992 because of his decision to support new taxes that he felt the country needed.

When I look at the kind of national political campaign we have as 2016 approaches, I am reminded of the stages of my reaction when I discovered that there was a reality show  called “Dating Naked.”  My first reaction was: “this has to be a joke.”

Then I realized it was serious, and I wept for the country.

The Cage

The following verse is from 1969.  As is the case with many of the pieces I wrote at that time, I have no memory of composing it.   It seemed to spring, fully-written, into my mind.   I think is is a reflection of my state of mind at that time, which was that the loneliness I felt was a hopeless condition.


The Cage

The floor is made of matted straw —
Enough to make his blisters raw,
Enough to make a catch-as-can
Pallet for a weary man.
At each new  dimming of the light,
Begins a wakeful-watching night.
He gazes at the distant stars,
Checkered through the criss-cross bars.
His face seems old, or maybe tired,
The spark of youth long since expired.
He’s dressed in ragged, khaki shorts —
Large holes expose his nether parts.

Tonight, a woman with a pin
Tries to pick-lock her way in.
From her, a sharp, triumphant shout —
And, suddenly the gate swings out
The man runs out, and pulls up short,
A sudden wrenching at his heart,
He’d better take it stage-by-stage,
His only home has been a cage.

He squints at his new and larger room,
And makes out nothing in the gloom,
Nothing but a dreary night,
Somehow the outside isn’t right.
Is he free?  Or trapped? Or who can tell?
He looks back at  his former cell,
And slowly, seeming satisfied,
The woman locks herself inside.