Tuesday, August 12, 2003

The California recall and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s candidacy have been a boon to President Bush, pushing questions about Iraq and stories about the Democratic presidential campaign off the front pages and out of the nightly newscasts.

Two weeks ago, questions about Iraq, reconstruction and weapons of mass destruction accounted for more than an hour of news time on the evening network newscasts. Last week, that was cut in half, said Matthew T. Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

“Arnold has become the weapon of mass distraction, taking the heat off the Bush White House,” Mr. Felling said. “The thing that’s astounding is his news came out on Wednesday. He just hijacked the week.”

Mr. Schwarzenegger jump-started the news blitz when he announced his candidacy on NBC’s “The Tonight Show.” Then came the Saturday filing deadline for candidates seeking to replace Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat who is the subject of a recall vote Oct. 7.

“Karl Rove must be the luckiest man on the planet. The phrase ‘yellowcake uranium’ has completely disappeared from the public lexicon,” said Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Norman Lear Center, which studies the convergence of entertainment and society.

“Attention is a limited quality, and the public only has a certain amount of attention it can pay to things at one time. And that’s also true of the media, and right now the recall and the freak show surrounding it has pretty much used up the available attention,” Mr. Kaplan said.

Several observers pointed to the weekly newsmagazines as a barometer. Last week, Time and Newsweek had cover stories on Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who is the talk of the Democratic presidential-nomination contest. This week, both magazines featured Mr. Schwarzenegger.

Mr. Kaplan also pointed to former Vice President Al Gore’s speech last week criticizing President Bush: “Outside of C-SPAN and the back pages of the newspaper, what might have been a thunderclap was only background rumble to the craziness surrounding the recall and Arnold in particular.”

Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the Media Research Center, said the story easily tops other past California election stories.

“Other than national races, and especially the Florida [2000 election-recount] debacle, this may be the biggest state election in terms of cable news,” Mr. Graham said.

He also said the story appears as if it’s here to stay, barring a huge news event such as another terrorist attack or natural disaster, because there is a finite end-point in the recall election, but the election itself is so unpredictable.

Mr. Kaplan said the local-news coverage in California has far outstripped that of recent regular elections.

He pointed to a 1974 study that found that 2.5 percent of local-news broadcasts that year was dedicated to covering the California gubernatorial race.

Mr. Kaplan’s own study of the 1998 gubernatorial election, when Mr. Davis won his first term, found that in the 11 weeks leading up to Election Day that year, the local stations in the major markets devoted less than half a percent of their newscasts to coverage. That meant there was a little less than 37 hours of coverage across the major markets.

No numbers are available for this year’s coverage, but Mr. Kaplan said that even with eight weeks to go, coverage has surpassed all of 1998’s.

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