Local Campaigns and the Decline of Local Media

Yesterday I wrote briefly about the transitions–some of them turbulent and partisan–going on around the country as new governors prepare to take office. But difficult transitions happen at the local level, too. Here where I live, in Monterey County, California, there was a noisy and expensive campaign for sheriff that concluded with a real election night shocker, in which much-derided deputy sheriff Steve Bernal–a stealth Republican with big family money and no inhibitions about negative campaigning–upset incumbent Scott Miller (an independent endorsed by virtually all the local Democratic pols). As one might expect, the defeated incumbent was pretty bitter about the outcome, and talked about it in a long post-election statement that dwelled to an interesting extent on the lack of local media coverage of the contest:

Our community’s historic fact-checkers-seasoned journalists with a thirst for the truth-have largely gone the way of the dinosaur. Daily coverage of the sheriff’s race was delegated largely to inexperienced reporters who often seemed to receive little guidance from editors who, in fairness, likely had more important things to do, like figuring out how to save their newspapers.

After months-long hesitation, the local daily newspapers finally came on board. The Monterey County Herald and Salinas Californian issued strong and unequivocal endorsements for my re-election in late September. (To their credit, Californian political columnist Jeff Mitchell, Mary Duan and her staff at the Monterey County Weekly and Royal Calkins of the Monterey Bay Partisan had it right from the beginning). The endorsements used phrases like “the choice for sheriff is so clear, even the Herald got this one right;” “thankfully, this choice is an easy one;” and “Bernal is unqualified to be sheriff.” Bernal’s campaign and his handlers were categorized in various press reports as “slimy,” and “liars.” Obviously, the results of this election leave us with questions as to how many voters actually still read daily newspapers and the overall impact of (late-arriving) editorial endorsements….

Broadcast news was largely missing in action, save an excellent profile piece on both candidates by Felix Cortez of KSBW, which was so revealing and instructive of the contrast between candidates that we posted it on our campaign website. KCBA Fox News doesn’t broadcast a local version of the news anymore, using instead an Oakland-based news show. Their sister station, KION News, who does, never contacted me about the election until they asked for an urgent sound bite—at 10 PM on election night, after all the polls had closed. If they ever covered the race, it was without my participation.

(After being contacted recently by a reporter from KION looking for my reaction to the latest election update, I asked her if the station had made a conscious decision to avoid covering the sheriff’s race. She told me KION station management had decided not to cover any local races, other than the fracking measure in San Benito County, because of the impact fracking might eventually have on Monterey County.)

This absence of media coverage, said Miller, made the sheriff’s race revolve around paid media, where he couldn’t match an opponent’s family and special interest money:

What I had diligently prepared for through education, training, experience and performance over the course of 38 years, Bernal achieved by attending Thanksgiving dinner with his brother’s mother-in-law. In other words, Bernal and his donors, with the assistance of the co-opted president of the Deputy Sheriff Association, were able to buy the Monterey County Office of the Sheriff as if it were a very expensive truckload of alfalfa hay.

You don’t have to agree with Miller’s characterization of the race to share his frustration over light local media coverage. Frankly, I’d guess there’s a lot more local coverage in Monterey County of such races than in most parts of the country, particularly in large metro areas with many jurisdictions (for example: it took a big scandal to command local TV coverage in of any of the local races in the 28 counties in the Atlanta metropolitan area). I’d be interested in readers’ perceptions on this matter: is local media coverage of local elections dead, dying, or still relatively robust where you live?

UPDATE: Monterey Herald reporter Phillip Molnar takes strong exception to Miller’s characterizations of his paper’s coverage of the sheriff’s race, and of my quoting it without checking with “the other side.” Wish now I hadn’t decided to use a local example of a broader point that is unquestionably true. In any event, here are links to Molnar’s tweets (here, here, here and here) which in turn link to some of his original coverage. Judge for yourself.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.