- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 7, 2003

It was splashy, relentless, complex as a soap opera and confusing at times. Nevertheless, coverage of California’s recall election was more dress rehearsal than grand finale for the news media yesterday.

Journalists and broadcasters went through their paces in preparation for presidential election coverage, which begins in earnest in about three months.

“This is a remarkable and unique election, from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s announcement of his candidacy on ‘The Tonight Show’ to the legal aspects of the recall itself,” CNN’s Bob Franken said yesterday.

“But it’s also given everybody a chance to stretch their muscles for the big race ahead, and test the technology which will bring that race to the nation,” he added.

CNN had 20 correspondents in three California cities far into the night, and even sent a reporter to Graz, Austria — Mr. Schwarzenegger’s hometown.

MSNBC and the Fox News Channel also offered wall-to-wall coverage, tagging talk-show hosts for duty into the wee hours. Fox’s Greta Van Susteren, for example, went on camera at 1 a.m.; MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough reported at 2 a.m.

CBS, NBC and ABC faced a “tricky” situation, according to one NBC executive. None planned to pre-empt its regular prime-time programming last night, opting to break in for periodic updates “as warranted” or via a lower screen news “crawl,” according to spokesmen for the three networks.

The recall election offered little of the immediate gratification so dear to the press corps’ heart.

Because of the three-hour time difference, results were not available on the East Coast until after 11 p.m. — vexing for newspapers on tight deadlines and broadcasters hoping to preserve their audience, or at least entice them to tune in for morning follow-up.

Quirks and shortcomings of the balloting also delayed the final outcome. Earlier this week, California officials predicted that one in four votes will be cast by absentee ballot or on new touch-screen machines. The final count may take days.

Meanwhile, six California newspapers and TV stations commissioned exit polls for the recall, considered by some as a “test run” for the presidential race. But exit polls ain’t what they used to be.

Burned by faulty Voter News Service polls and overeager anchormen in the 2000 and 2002 elections, broadcast and cable networks are leery of calling the race prematurely, lest they mar their credibility.

But that doesn’t stop guest analysts from speculating. Pollster Frank Luntz cast his prediction Monday night, telling MSNBC that the recall would pass “58-42,” with Mr. Schwarzenegger topping “[Lt. Gov. Cruz] Bustamante by six points” and California Gov. Gray Davis “within a couple of percentage points.”

Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” was not left out of the mix, offering “Re-Decision 2003,” featuring Mr. Schwarzenegger’s one-time body double from his acting days, and a former movie foe, actor Marc Singer, who played the “Beastmaster.”

Contact Jennifer Harper at jhar[email protected] or 202/636-3085.

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