When it began to look like California Governor Gray Davis might lose his job, my reporter friends told me I had it made. I had just begun working as a freelance radio journalist, self-employed for the first time after 15 years of job security at successful commercial and public radio stations in San Francisco. I’d spent the past four years as one of the few radio reporters covering politics at the state Capitol in Sacramento. This “recall thing”—happening in my backyard—would surely mean a lot of business for me.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, I covered one major story—Native American gaming campaign con-tributions—and a few little ones. Because of my inexperience as a freelancer, my uncertainty of how this new role could work in the new climate of political journalism, and what I regarded as the extreme partisanship and just plain silliness surrounding the recall, I began to mistrust my news judgment. In retrospect, I let several stories go untold that I believe might have served the public interest.
The Native American Gaming Story
About the same time that California’s Secretary of State announced enough signatures had been gathered to force a recall election, an organization called the Independent Native News in Alaska became one of my clients. The service produces a daily five-minute radio program focusing on news of interest to Native Americans, and its stories run in states where there are high Native American populations, including California.
As it turned out, the managers at Independent Native News helped me stumble onto a big story to tell. California Indian tribes had become a significant lobbying group ever since they negotiated gambling compacts with the state in 1999. But a few months before the recall became official, Governor Davis announced he wanted those gaming tribes to contribute a percentage of their revenues to help reduce the state’s huge budget deficit. The tribes, which had traditionally supported Davis, now saw an opportunity to throw their campaign contributions to a candidate who wouldn’t ask for their money, or at least not so much of it.
Two weeks after the race began, news organizations were reporting that Democratic contender Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, who was trailing in the area of fundraising, had received a $320,000 donation from a Southern California gambling tribe. Independent Native News asked me to do a short report on this and, by the time I was done, I had broken a major story.
Looking for sources to comment on the tribal donation, I called the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, a lobbying group in Sacramento. The public information officer suggested I talk to Indian gaming consultant Michael Lombardi, who gave me more information than I could have hoped for. He told me that Bustamante was speaking to the gaming association in three days to make his case for tribal votes and that Davis and conservative Republican candidate Tom McClintock would also appear. Lombardi said candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger had also been invited, but had not yet responded. (He did not attend.) And Lombardi made a bold prediction—by the end of the week, Bustamante would have the biggest campaign war chest of all the candidates in the race.
I called back the association’s public information officer, who confirmed the information she’d conveniently neglected to mention the first time. She told me, however, the actual event would be closed to the press. I filed this story not only for Independent Native News, but also for KCBS Radio, the all-news commercial station in San Francisco, and for National Public Radio’s (NPR) newscast unit, which produces the news that airs at the top and bottom of each hour.
This was major news. Indian gaming tribes were playing their biggest role ever in an election in California. Candidates and the governor were coming to them to make their case for votes. The next day, the only other news outlet that published the information was the San Francisco Chronicle, in its political news, talk and gossip column. As a freelancer, with especially limited access to sources during those weeks, this felt like one of my better days.
As Lombardi predicted, five days later Bustamante received $2.5 million from a Southern California Indian tribe, almost equaling the amount of money Schwarzenegger had contributed to his campaign from his personal fortune.
Stories Not Told
The remaining two months of the campaign turned out to be much more difficult for me to find stories to sell. Making independent judgments about news coverage was new to me. Rather than pitching ideas to my regular clients and letting those editors decide if the stories were newsworthy or not, I became my own—very critical—editor. With Schwarzenegger in the race, many of the stories focused on him and, because of this, I found myself trying to impose some balance. The consequence: I ended up holding back on stories that perhaps I should have suggested.
A story I covered, but ultimately decided against offering to any news organization, was San Francisco Democratic Assembly member Mark Leno’s announcement on October 5th, just two days before the election, that he was going to introduce a bill called “Arnold’s Law.” Leno held a conference call to discuss this. A reporter from The Sacramento Bee and I were the only two who asked any questions. (We appeared to be the only reporters even on the call.) Leno said allegations reported in the Los Angeles Times that women who had worked with Schwarzenegger had been groped by the actor had convinced him the penalty for fondling a woman in the workplace should be increased from a misdemeanor to a felony. Leno said the allegations had made him realize the effect this kind of incident could have on female workers and their ability to maintain their livelihood.
When I asked Leno about the timing of his announcement, he admitted that instead of waiting until the start of the legislative session in January, he wanted to publicize the measure now. “I won’t be disingenuous and tell you this isn’t in the middle of a campaign, and I don’t have a political position on this, but I think these are very serious crimes, and I would be the guilty party if I kept my mouth closed until January,” he said. I questioned him about tagging the measure “Arnold’s Law” and the likelihood the bill would be signed by the governor, if it was Schwarzenegger. I was surprised when he said he had come up with the name in the heat of anger and would consider changing it. But he also said, “If his [Schwarzenegger’s] celebrity can help bring attention to what I think is up until now an overlooked but very serious crime, I think all the better.”
Because I felt the partisan overtones were so strong, I decided not to pitch this story idea. As I look back now, I wonder if the story was indeed worth reporting, precisely because of its partisan nature and Leno’s admissions. I’ve talked with Assemblyman Leno since the election. He says he’s still considering sponsoring the legislation, but he will hold off for several months because he does not want its importance to be diluted by those who might see it as a political move against the new governor.
It was also difficult to know how to report on Governor Davis’s official activities during the recall. Davis signed many bills during the campaign and announced support for bills that had not made it to his desk yet, something he’d steadfastly refused to do during the previous five years of his administration. This, of course, garnered lots of news coverage—in my mind, much more than he would normally get.
When Davis announced support for a bill to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants—one that was more lenient than a similar measure he’d vetoed the year before—he was heavily criticized in the press—and by his political oppo-nents—for pandering to the Hispanic vote. In an interview I did about the recall campaign with an NPR station in Boston, this issue was raised. I responded by mentioning another measure that in any other year the governor’s office would have dispatched with little fanfare and that I would not have reported. In this new political climate, Davis’s office had put out an enthusiastic press release championing his signature on what seemed another attempt to attract Latino voters. The bill allowed fried dough to be cooked on moveable food stands. The headline of the Davis press release read, “Governor Davis Signs Bill Permitting Churros to Be Fried on Mobile Food Facilities.” (A churro is a Mexican specialty, often sold at fairs, of fried dough covered in cinnamon.) Davis was quoted in the release as saying “Churros are popular in California. … And everyone who has tasted one knows that freshly made churros taste better than warmed over ones.”
The recall election had come down to this: A governor’s power to give the people hot churros.
When a Reporter’s Feelings Intrude
I also found myself watching some of the worst partisan politics, hypocrisy and grabs for power I’d ever seen while covering state politics in California. This stirred strong feelings in me, feelings that caused me to lose faith in my news judgment. It was during this time that I began to greatly miss the daily guidance of an editor and the conversations I used to have with my newsroom colleagues. My thoughts kept spinning round in my head, rather than being spewed out as part of the good-natured debate that happens among trusted colleagues.
I reacted viscerally to what I saw happening and became very disappointed in how some of the politicians I’d come to know were acting. I was dismayed by these feelings, and they led me to think there were no stories worth reporting. I wondered if I was seeing situations that I thought were unusual because I was naive and unduly surprised by the raw political calculus that was so openly on display. In addition, with one candidate in particular, Republican State Senator Tom McClintock, I began to feel compassion for his situation, and this caused me to back away from doing reports on him at all.
During the campaign, the California Republican Party leaned heavily on McClintock to get out of the race so as not to split the party’s vote with Schwarzenegger. He refused. He had been a member of the state legislature off and on since 1982, and since he had started to serve again in 1996 he’d steadfastly supported his fellow lawmakers in numerous conservative causes. Despite this record, the Republican caucus in both the state senate and the state assembly announced they were endorsing Schwarzenegger.
After the announcement, I interviewed Assembly Republican leader Dave Cox. “I’m surprised that you would choose an inexperienced actor over a member of your own legislature,” I said to him.
“There comes a point in time when you have to look at more than just legislative experience … you have to look at the ability to get things done, and so it was a very difficult decision, but in the final analysis I believe that Arnold was the one who can and will defeat Gray Davis. Mr. McClintock’s numbers have not been rising as he thought they would … and as I look at the numbers, the more important consideration today is, can we win and can we win with whom?”
Cox’s admission shocked me. It didn’t seem to matter to the Republican lawmakers if they had a governor who’d worked with the legislature, knew the key players, and understood state government. They’d put their weight behind an inexperienced but seemingly sure winner. I didn’t suggest a story about this abandonment of McClintock, but I should have. This seemed a calculation more about gaining power than serving the people of California. And the people of California might have wanted to know this.
By the end of the campaign, I had learned some things about myself. And I learned them from the candidate I was most reluctant to report on because I was identifying with him so strongly. Even before the recall began, I’d begun to question my decision to become a freelancer, to go it alone. I felt even more alone as the recall race continued, as I was beginning to question my news judgment and my political savvy. But watching McClintock, who like me spent most of the campaign on a solo mission, helped me to gain some perspective. On Election Night, after his concession speech, he was nearly knocked over by reporters asking him about his plans. He said he’d given up any thought of running for higher office again and would return to the state senate. As he said this, I was thinking about when he returned there and how he’d be working with colleagues who had abandoned him.
His reply to the question about his future plans brought tears to my eyes. “I’m reminded of that old Scottish ballad,” he said. “I am wounded but not slain, I will lay me down and bleed and then live to fight again.”
Now, as the campaign was ending, I knew that I also had an internal fight of my own to wage. I’d need to learn to trust my news judgment and be willing to endure the possible mockery by editors of story ideas I put forward. And I’d need to invite colleagues into my thinking process—editors and other reporters—to create the kind of newsroom environment I was now missing. And in continuing to work on my own as a reporter, I also needed to trust more in my instincts and acknowledge my feelings. Now I know that all of this goes into the mix of what I should share with editors so they can help me report in a fair and contextual way the stories I see waiting to be told.
Ellen Ciurczak is a freelance political journalist based in Sacramento, California. She has worked as an anchor and reporter at KCBS-AM, the all-news commercial station in San Francisco, and as the Sacramento bureau chief for KQED-FM, a public radio station in San Francisco.