Joe Mathews: One big loser this election: California media

Neel Kashkari walks Tuesday to his Laguna Beach polling place with girlfriend Christine Ong. Why wasn’t there more media coverage of her?
Neel Kashkari walks Tuesday to his Laguna Beach polling place with girlfriend Christine Ong. Why wasn’t there more media coverage of her? The Associated Press

In the end, Neel Kashkari didn’t do the one thing that might have made him a household name, and thus more competitive in the race for California governor: get infected with Ebola.

Media coverage of elections matters in California, in part because we ask voters to make dozens of decisions in candidate contests and ballot measures. But this year, election coverage has been so halfhearted that one wonders why people bothered to vote.

For much of the fall, election news was eclipsed by scary-bad coverage of Ebola, which as of this writing had infected not a single Californian and had killed fewer U.S. residents than Kim Kardashian has married.

Yes, media colleagues, I understand that the races weren’t close, that the public wasn’t engaged and that only 40 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government. But, my friends, please: This year, you kept writing horse race stories even though there were no real horse races.

Call it the non-horse-race horse-race piece: “It’s not close; one side has more money; no one cares.” The Los Angeles Times even ran a 1,000-word piece headlined: “Campaign for Controller Now a Snoozer.”

What a waste. This year of few close contests offered a rare opportunity to ditch conventional coverage and experiment with new methods of storytelling and new voices.

Instead, California media offered less than before. On the highbrow end, it was nearly impossible to find skeptical analyses of ballot measures – their consequences and flaws. On the lowbrow, the media failed to mine possibilities for gossipy stories that get noticed by those who don’t follow California politics.

What’s the scoop on Attorney General Kamala Harris’ new husband? Why is Facebook co-founder Sean Parker now blowing his millions on California ballot measures? And forget Kashkari’s dismal poll numbers – we want to hear more about the stunning girlfriend he unveiled before the debate. Does she have a sister?

Of course, to provide coverage worth following would require a major change in the state media’s mindset. Political journalists should stop standing on the sidelines and jump into the fray. Instead of reporting endlessly on fundraising discrepancies, why not use coverage to level the playing field, focusing on campaigns that don’t have the money to get their message out?

And instead of writing stories about the lack of a horse race, why not take a page from sports reporters and art critics who relentlessly promote the entertainment value of the games and shows they cover?

I harbor few illusions that my fellow media types will take my advice; they are a cautious lot. So, civic-minded Californians, as we think about the next election, we should assume that our media organizations will not be up to covering state politics in ways that give us the information and entertainment we need.

The good news is that the state is full of people who can better engage citizens. When it comes to wonkier policy breakdowns, why not tap the expertise of our universities’ faculties? For the month or two before the election, the University of California and California State University systems could deploy political scientists and experts on issues like education, health care and the economy to cover and critique the campaigns. These experts could even host public meetings with citizens who have questions about candidates’ policies and ballot measures.

And to add some zest to the routine, why not encourage writers to bring the state to life at election time? Why not commission Fresno’s Philip Levine, a former poet laureate of the United States, to give us all some verse on the governor’s race?

And for the lowbrow? Some California foundation should throw $10 million at California’s most successful media organization – TMZ – to fund coverage of the next statewide elections in 2018. Imagine TMZ cameras surprising legislative candidates or billionaire donors coming out of fundraisers – or their paramours’ homes.

TMZ is sensational, but sensation is what our elections desperately need.

Joe Mathews is California and Innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.