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Regardless of the Date, Coverage Will Continue

September 17, 2003|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

Journalists are notorious sprinters. They tend to like their stories fast and furious, with clear beginnings and endings.

So the realization that the courts could delay California's recall election from October until March drew sighs across many newsrooms this week.

With no certain information as to when the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals or the U.S. Supreme Court might rule in the case, television producers became unsure about sending on-air talent West. Newspaper editors faced a greater chance that they would have to juggle coverage of the recall and coverage of the presidential election. And many reporters privately rooted for the courts to bump the recall election back to Oct. 7.

Regardless of the timing, journalists said, they will find a way to cover a story that most find fascinating. "I think the first reaction by most reporters is a huge, collective groan," said Daniel Weintraub, who writes a political column and Web log for the Sacramento Bee. "The idea of going at this pace, or anything close to it, for another 5 1/2 months is impossible to imagine."

Foreign media reporters make no bones about what is driving interest in the election back home -- Schwarzenegger, or "Shuwa-chan," the endearing nickname he carries in Japan.

Ken Yasui of the Japan Broadcasting Corp., or NHK, has a keen interest in the election because of California's place as a trading partner and the role that the election could play in next year's presidential race. He also would like to explore the role of the religious conservatives in the election.

Some of his producers in Tokyo understand, but others do not.

"Some people in Tokyo said to me, 'Mr. Yasui, please delete the name of Mr. Bustamante from your report. No one knows the name of Bustamante,' they said to me. But Schwarzenegger is very famous."

Back at headquarters, others inserted movie clips into his reports, Yasui said, once without telling him. The story aired with several snippets from "Terminator 3."

"Japanese viewers have a kind of obsession with Arnold Schwarzenegger," Yasui said. "But I try to get rid of the obsession."

With the timing of the recall uncertain, most U.S. media outlets have yet to change their plans. The California Broadcasters Assn. has left its Sept. 24 televised debate on the calendar, with all of the major candidates still committed to attending.

CNN continued to plug Schwarzenegger's appearance as the lone guest tonight on "Larry King Live."

MSNBC had already deployed host Chris Matthews to California this month for regular reporting and commentary on the recall. Those plans for "Hardball with Chris Matthews" remained in place Tuesday.

"Ratings are showing the people are interested in it, not so much in the minutiae and the daily grind of it as when bigger things happen," said Fox News Executive Producer Bill Shine, "such as Schwarzenegger getting in, and the debates, and yesterday, when the court took its action. It's got a great cast of characters, and that makes it a great story."

The New York Times not only has used all three of its California-based news reporters to cover the recall but also rotated in reinforcements from its national staff. Los Angeles Bureau Chief John Broder doubted that the extra help would be available if the election is postponed.

"We were looking toward some resolution," Broder said. "But, like the candidates, we will readjust and reconsider our plans. What will be will be, and we will cover it."

At the Los Angeles Times, Managing Editor Dean Baquet said the recall will remain a top priority, regardless of the date of the election.

"Obviously, it puts a strain on coverage because if it goes for months, we will have to put some resources on the presidential race," Baquet said. "But the recall will remain the most important political story for the L.A. Times. That's one thing we won't let suffer."

In Schwarzenegger's native Austria, meanwhile, the election remains a topic of everyday conversation, said Barbara Gasser of the Styria Media Group. She makes no apologies for her Schwarzenegger-centric coverage in print and on the radio.

"To get that close to a man who has been such a larger-than-life hero for Austrians is a dream for any journalist," Gasser said. "It's like a once-in-a-lifetime happening for me."

She said the election may have even distracted Austrians from their bad feelings about the U.S. war in Iraq.

"Now there is a much more positive reaction toward the Americans, and people are much more interested in how the election there works," Gasser said. "I think that will continue even if the recall continues until March.... Then I will have more time to go into more detail in my articles. I could also go and maybe even show people other politicians."

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