October 14, 2003

On the Map, Out of Touch

In response to my disagreement the other day with Tony Ridder's assertion that newspapers still "have enormous influence on public discourse" and my argument that major California newspapers didn't understand the depth of voter frustration with Sacramento, Tom Mangan left this cogent observation in my comments:

"Did you see the chart of the counties in California that supported the recall vs. the ones that didn't? Virtually all the major media centers are in areas that supported Gray Davis and opposed the recall. Vicinity if nothing else isolated us from the will of the majority of Californians who voted last Tuesday. It all seemed like it was happening in another country because nobody in my neighborhood (East Bay) nor anybody from here to the Pacific and fifty miles north or south wanted Davis out. Everybody else did, though." (Emphasis added)

California recall mapTom is right. Look at this map of the recall votes. The Bay Area, Silicon Valley and Los Angeles - home to the S.F. Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times - voted against the recall, with the heaviest "no" votes in the traditionally liberal Bay Area counties. In L.A. county, voters rejected the recall by only 30,000 votes out of 1.85 million cast, more of a resounding "maybe" than a hearty "no."

Given that the Chronicle, Mercury and Times each editorialized against the recall, you might conclude that the papers did have "influence on public discourse." But it's not that easy to map the voice of the news media to the choice of the voter.

Sacramento, San Diego and Riverside counties heavily favored the recall despite anti-recall editorials by their dominant newspapers, the Bee, the Union-Tribune and the Press-Enterprise.

Interestingly, the Oakland Tribune initially endorsed Arnold Schwarzenegger but rescinded the endorsement after the L.A. Times groping story. Alameda County, though, the Tribune's home, still voted against the recall by a more than 2-1 margin.

What does this prove, if anything? It certainly suggests that newspaper endorsements don't matter, a contention that is hardly new and one that more and more papers are realizing by writing fewer and fewer endorsements.

Here's Al Neuharth arguing against endorsements:

"As recently as the 1952 election, 82% of daily newspapers endorsed. Dwight Eisenhower got 67%; Adlai Stevenson, 15%. By 1992, only 33% of newspapers endorsed. This year, that number may be below 25%."

And Howard Kurtz disagreeing with him:

"Newspaper endorsements don't matter much, but it's ludicrous for editorial writers to tell people what to think on every issue under the sun and then duck on the election out of a phony sense of decorum."

And Robert Lichter, president, Center for Media and Public Affairs, getting to the heart of the matter: "The real problem isn't editorials telling people how to vote; it's news stories telling them what to think."

I would add that it's also stories purporting to tell people how they think.

Which brings us back to Tom Mangan's observation about that red-and-green map: The state's major newspapers, those whose reporting, analysis and opining is looked to by other media, commentators, and columnists - traditional and newer - as reflective of the pulse of California, view the state through a narrow, distorted geographic lens.

The Sacramento Valley, the Central Valley, the vast Inland Empire east of Los Angeles, and the booming bicultural border area are drive-by country for the journalists who work in the urban newsrooms of L.A., San Francisco and San Jose.

Those are California's most recognizable cities and its traditional population centers, but, as Schwarzenegger proved (see this map of his election results), they are no longer the state's opinion leaders and any newspapers who still believe they are only hasten their own march toward irrelevancy.

Posted by Tim Porter at October 14, 2003 09:54 AM

Tim: My main point of making that observation is that there may be far simpler explanations for the woes befalling newspapers that may elude us because we're so busy looking at the Big Picture. Americans all live in times of increased isolation -- physical, political, social, professional -- and this isolation may be the heart of the matter. As marketing, media and technology become more specialized, people have smaller and smaller reasons to confront the counterexplanations for how things work in the world.

Posted by: tom on October 15, 2003 06:13 AM
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