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.

 

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.

 

More Than Possible

“Politics is the art of the possible.”

The phrase, practically a cliché in political circles, is usually attributed to Otto von Bismarck , the Prussian politician who unified Germany in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century.  Bismarck, of course, said it in German : Die Politik ist die Lehre vom Möglichen.  The word he used for”possible”,  “Möglichen”, can have the connotation of “maximum possible”,  which is very different from the usual American interpretation of the phrase: “You have to settle for what you can get.”

It’s not true – you don’t have to settle for what you can get.  In every political situation, there is a range of possible and realistic political outcomes.  An effective politician understands that, and works to go as far to the top of that range as she or he can.

It is true, that the first step in analyzing any particular situation is to determine the lowest common denominator, the most achievable favorable outcome.  It is also true that you need to devise a strategy that make sure that the lowest common denominator is achieved.   But it is not true that you have to stop there.  Some politicians use the fact that “you can’t always get everything you want,” as an excuse for not working as hard as possible.  But the best politicians never stop working until a given process is complete, never stop getting just a little bit more.

So don’t be fooled by cynical political types who make fun of citizens who want a completely satisfying solution to a problem — an end to capital punishment, say, or a tax system that makes sense.  If it is in the best interest of the people she or he represents, the right sort of politician will take his or her job seriously, and work to get the people their heart’s desire.

Political Season

For the ordinary citizen, the political season is a short two month period from Labor Day to the November election day of an even-numbered year.   Most ordinary civic-minded citizens of our democracy limit their interest to that brief expanse of time.  Sadly, an ever-increasing number of our citizens don’t even have that much involvement..but that’s the subject of a different post.

For those of us who have an interest in influencing the selection of candidates we select to represent us, political season begins on Labor Day of the odd-numbered year, and continues until the final election of the cycle.  Here in heavily-Democratic Sonoma County, that means that politicians of all persuasions (except the most conservative) will be gathering  at the Carpenter’s Hall on Corby Avenue in Santa Rosa, for  a Labor Day breakfast of pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon, along with enough networking to stock a sales convention.

Who is running for the open seats?  One State Senator is term-limited, and several seats are coming open on City Councils around the County.

What entrenched incumbents have been caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar?  Here in the County, it was a neighbor’s window screen, but it’s the same idea.

Who is up-and-coming, and who is over the hill?   Gossip, gossip, gossip.  Politics thrives on gossip, and only the very best politicians know when to gossip, and when to keep their mouths shut.

For those of us who are engaged, it is only a game we are playing,  but a game that is vital to our country’s survival.  Like profession football, politics is a team sport that tends to be dominated by players with large egos,  On September 7th,  I will be there for the kickoff.   I hope many of you join me.

Politics Isn’t a Dirty Word

As we prepare for the 2016 campaign season, it’s time for another of my brief essays.   Consider the following conversation:

“Where’ll we go for dinner tonight?”
“I don’t know – where would you like to go?
“Maybe sushi…or pizza.”
“I don’t feel like pizza – let’s do sushi.”
“Ok.”

Sound familiar, even banal?   How many times have you had a conversation like that? I know the answer – a lot.

Well, I’m here to tell you – that’s politics, the decision-making process associated with any form of governance.   Governance is merely the exercise of control over a system or process – in this case, the breaking of daily bread.  Politics in this broad sense is fundamental to our daily lives.  We are all truly politicians.

Why, then, is politics considered a dirty word in some circles, to the point where some candidates for public office are reluctant to reveal their political backgrounds when they publish their ballot statements?   Governance requires that some person or some body of persons be in control.  And those that Roosevelt called “malefactors of great wealth” have engaged in a lengthy propaganda campaign to help insure that they remain the body of people in control.

DON’T BUY IT.  Politics is essential to democracy. Politics is us.

Political Conventions

In the last thirty years, I have attended a number of California  state-wide political conventions, mostly because my late wife, Pat Wiggins, was an active politician and officeholder.  Much useful work was done at these conventions on identifying public policy ideas and in developing relationships, but they had very little effect on the selection of the Party’s nominees for the various state offices.  But there was a time when conventions mattered…

In the summer of 1956, my family had just moved into our new home on Watt Avenue in Sacramento, right across from the bowling alley.    My father had just surprised the family by bringing home a new television set to replace the cheap Kenwood model we had left behind in Beaumont, Texas.   It was a surprise, because Dad had been reluctant to purchase any kind of TV set until about a year before we left Beaumont, and even then he brought home the cheapest possible model.   When we got to Sacramento, and he brought home the Zenith, my sister and I were stunned.

It turned out that my father had an ulterior motive for his uncharacteristic investment in popular culture.  He was a big supporter of Adlai Stevenson, and he wanted to watch the Democratic Convention to see if Stevenson was going to get a chance to lose again to Eisenhower.

I was captivated by the Convention.   (My sister, who was only eight, was not.)  In those days, you had a choice between NBC’s Huntley and Brinkley or CBS’s Walter Cronkite.   My father was a Huntley and Brinkley fan, and for four days we watched them every chance we got.   We listened to the speeches – Civil Rights was in the air, but support was muted because of the Democrat’s need to hang on to the supposedly Solid South.  We heard famous men being interviewed from the floor, people like Harry Truman and Averill Harriman ( a Double Dactyl, but unfortunately, Harriman is too obscure these days for me to write one making fun of him.).

When the roll of state was called for the Presidential nomination on the third day, there was real drama, because no one could firmly predict what would happen.   As the roll call went on, I kept score, as though I were at a baseball game, and when the tide started to turn clearly towards Stevenson, I got so excited that I jabbed the point of my pencil into my palm. ( I still have traces of graphite embedded under the skin.)

We need to find a way to make politics engaging again, instead of distancing.   We should probably start by celebrating people like Elizabeth Warren. who stand for something besides positioning themselves to do well in a partisan primary.