California Knockout

Reports focus too myopically on the battle between guv and voters

On Tuesday, California residents voted down—with huge margins—all but one of six bundled ballot measures intended to help alleviate the state’s budget crisis. Yesterday, local news analyses focused on voters’ anger, cynicism and frustration. They delivered a “resounding rejection,” a “crushing defeat,” and a “message of general contempt,” “tossing aside warnings of impending financial doom.” Dan Walters, an opinion columnist for the Sacramento Bee, perhaps best channels this smackdown sentiment with his column headline: “Angry voters whack budget, politicians.” Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, “fled to Washington” to celebrate the new auto emissions regulations alongside President Obama.

While the focus on public anger is an important and valid part of yesterday’s coverage, the tendency to take it and run—the people say, “take that, Mr. Terminator!”—risks spinning the situation into a blame vortex. But news analyses like that pursue an emotional storyline at the risk of subsuming a more productive question: What does this defeat actually mean for voters and for the state?

The idea of this faceoff between the governor and his constituents—and the voter-driven knockout that the press and everyone else knew was coming—is certainly the most sensationalized aspect of California’s budget crisis. Cases in point: this recent San Francisco Chronicle story, for instance, rather melodramatically called into question the vaunted skills of the “uber-salesman” governor, while the Sacramento-based Capitol Weekly is already anticipating “what type of political phoenix emerges from the ashes of the governor’s latest initiative defeat.”

Phoenix or no, it’s important to remember that the political boxing ring—the Governator vs. the People—isn’t the most important part of it. In fact, to some extent, it obscures the bigger picture of a state that has struggled for years with its complicated ballot-measure system and regulations that make it difficult for the legislature to raise taxes.

The complicated bundling of the measures, for instance, which were marketed as an all-or-nothing endeavor to (begin to) reduce the budget deficit, made it easier for reports to put voters on one side of the measures, and Schwarzenegger on the other—when really, as a Sacramento Bee article astutely puts it, “the election’s odd political alliances and garbled campaign messages made it difficult to determine which policy beliefs, if any, drove voter decisions,” leaving interpretation of the special election results akin to a “$25 million Rorschach test.” Additionally, as Michael Finnegan notes in the Los Angeles Times, the détente, so to speak, has existed for longer than this particular round of blows (it’s not all on Schwarzenegger), with both sides sharing some amount of the blame.

And really, of course, the most important aspect of coverage lies in the details to come, for which reports yesterday should have set a better stage: how the state will cut costs without dealing mortal blows to statewide public services, not to mention how federal dollars will play a role in cleaning up the mess. Don’t be scared, but there’s already talk of the pros and cons of a Golden State bailout, a topic that is ripe for sensationalizing. Here’s hoping the nuts and bolts win out.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.