To: California media

Re: Covering the 2018 Gubernatorial Election

The big question you face in covering the 2018 gubernatorial election is:

Are you going to let the past or the future win?

The past – the very human and personal details of the candidates’ lives– is the heavy favorite in the race for coverage. The future – the questions about what California needs to do and how candidates’ plans might play out in office  – is a huge underdog in the battle to get your attention.

You’re the people who could make it a fair fight.

I doubt you will. The past is powerful and our profession has become a slave to it.

One reason, but not the only reason, is technology.

The Internet gives everyone a searchable past. And it provides myriad ways to distribute that past. Search and distribution are both easy and cheap.

And journalists face so many pressures that easy and cheap are irresistible.

Yes, of course, one media mission is to examine the past – candidates’ records – because it can predict the future. And that’s important. But in the Internet era, these looks at the past are just about the only enterprise reporting there is.

In last year’s presidential election, there was nothing but past. Media coverage consisted of an endless waterfall of reports – real and fake – about the pasts of the candidates. It helped that the two major party nominees – Clinton and Trump – were old (a lot of past to search) and had checkered pasts.

But all the past crowded out everything else. Especially the future. The media never conveyed the stakes of the election. There was little about what the election result might mean for health care, the economy, the transatlantic alliance, or climate change. That’s one reason (though not the only reason) so much of the policy that President Trump has advanced has come as a shocking. Yes, the president’s policies are shocking, but they shouldn’t be such a surprise.

It would be a shame if the 2018 gubernatorial election in California followed the same pattern. California faces huge challenges in the future, and they aren’t boring subjects – big shifts in the nature of housing, transportation, jobs and technology. And unlike in previous elections, which drew few worthy candidates, the 2018 field has a number of strong contenders who are full of ideas.

Delaine Eastin is pitching an entirely different approach to education. Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa are advancing big and important reformers – on everything from single-payer health care to our tax system. John Chiang’s policies, so far, are smaller-bore, but detailed and thoughtful. The Republican John Cox is advancing structural changes, including a larger legislature. And the candidacy of Travis Allen would allow the media to examine what a California governed by Trumpian principles might look like.

The question is: will you take their ideas seriously? Will you examine them and scrutinize them? And beyond the candidates, will you examine what California needs going forward, and what the solutions might be.

I’m betting that you won’t do very much of this at all.

Why? Because the past is too seductive. And these candidates offer too much past, especially Newsom and Villaraigosa. They’re colorful characters with long records in interesting cities. And of course, each of their pasts has some sex, and offers the opportunity to publish the photos of attractive former wives and girlfriends on your sites and in your pages.

John Chiang might have to have an affair just to get as much coverage as the two former mayors.

This is not entirely your fault—you’re overworked and under-resourced — but it will be your choice. I know that many of you have the attitude: we gotta do what we gotta do to survive in our dying industry. And I know you’re often judged by hits and the size of your audience, and the past is what sells.

But that doesn’t make it right. One way to judge media is the depth of understanding it develops in the public it serves. And Californians aren’t well-informed about how the budget or state government works. Next year is an opportunity for you to be part of changing that.

Or you could just wallow in the past.