Voters, Not Media, Determined Recall Outcome

Reporters are like quarterbacks. They get too much credit when their teams win and too much blame when they lose.

Take the case of the California recall election (search). Although governor-elect Arnold Schwarzegger’s supporters publicly credit the candidate’s message for his victory, a few of them privately concede that the huge dollops of publicity he received had at least as much to do with his victory. This even though, in the last few days before the election, most of that coverage was negative.

And many of those who voted against Scharzenegger blame the media for elevating him to undue notice, for paying more attention to his celebrity than to his policies---if, in fact, the latter even exist.

There are elements of truth in both views, but not as many as you might think. In the final analysis, reporters are not like quarterbacks. They do not influence the body politic as much as signal-callers influence a football game. The media are pervasive, yes, but that is not the same thing as being powerful, not necessarily. The media might decide which people will be bathed in spotlights, but there are other factors involved in the electorate’s deciding which lever to pull in the voting booth.

One of those factors, as superficial as it sounds but as important as it might ultimately be, is the simple desire for a change of pace, some variety in style. George Will (search), in his usually witty and perceptive manner, explains in his book "The New Season." Although he is writing of presidents, his words are no less true of governors.

“T[heodore] R[oosevelt],” Will says, “was arguably the most charismatic man ever to occupy the White House. He was succeeded by 300 pounds of anticharisma in the stolid form of William Howard Taft.

Will goes on to point out that Woodrow Wilson, who is among those “Presidents whose personalities permeated public life,” was followed to the White House by Warren Harding, “a man who, had he been a food, would have been boiled beef.”

And then there was Franklin Roosevelt, “who brought an aristocrat’s élan to a nation desperately in need of infectious confidence.” His replacement was Harry Truman, “a Missouri machine politician whose personality and manner were severely free of the ornaments of elegance.”

Will also cites Jack Kennedy’s accession after Dwight Eisenhower’s two terms, and George Bush’s appearance in the wake of Ronald Reagan.

And in California, a few days ago, Arnold Schwarzenegger (search), a heroic figure in fictive realms, won the right to take over the governor’s mansion from Gray Davis (search), whose personality is so well described by his first name.

What the media did in the case of the recall election, it seems, to me, was precisely what they are supposed to do: act as a medium, a conduit, a means of transferring information and images from the public arenas of political combat to the living rooms of interested Americans.

Perhaps the media transferred too much information and too many images. Perhaps not; perhaps all the airtime on TV and radio and column inches in newspapers and magazines adequately reflected the amount of popular interest.

But, either way, there is no reason to believe that the amount of the coverage influenced the outcome of the race. It was, rather, the specific content of the coverage that influenced it, and relaying content is precisely what the media are supposed to do.

And the electorate did what electorates have done in so many cases in the past: decided on a change, concluding that style might just be as important as substance, or possibly even a variation of it.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT. He is the author of several books, including The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol (Temple University Press, 2003).

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