Few if any campaigns have been so geared to the ongoing decline of journalism as that of billionaire Meg Whitman, the Republican trying to succeed Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California.
In her race against Jerry Brown, Whitman, the national co-chair of the McCain/Palin campaign who let the cat out of the bag last year when she wondered why she needed to talk with reporters since their newspapers were going out of business anyway, uses very big money to bend people to her will, individually and collectively, and takes advantage of the emerging post-press era to say whatever she wants, with little regard to accuracy or consistency.
By the post-press era, I mean the era in which we are living, in which journalism is rapidly hollowing out and the media is devolving into competing clashes of opinion and propaganda atop a pervasive brew of hype, sensation, and infotainment.
California, with its much diminished state press corps, had seemed to be on the leading edge of the post-press era, just as Whitman calculated for her campaign. I used to read more than a dozen somewhat different versions of the same article; now I see only a few.
The national media, which anachronistically still means East Coast-based, at least to the East Coast-based version of it -- and which fails to grasp that the Internet has created a post-geographic world even as the old national media retreats from international coverage and analysis -- had seemed to be holding on to higher volume and quality. But that illusion surely came crashing down last week, when far right Internet huckster Andrew Breitbart conned the hysterical cable news culture and, stunningly, the Obama administration, into buying into his latest doctored video. (That would be the Obama crew, which in the 2008 campaign rightly disdained the perpetual motion machine cable culture.)
What the latest Breitbart episode demonstrates is that Whitman's future, a harsh realm indeed, may have arrived even sooner than I thought. ("Harsh Realm" being inspired, of course, by Whitman's married name of Mrs. Harsh and her constant depiction by the California Nurses Association as Queen Meg, as well as the short-lived series from X-Files creator Chris Carter.)
The post-press characteristics were very much on display:
* Uninformed and/or inexperienced reporting. Breitbart's previous doctoring of video in the ACORN episode was exposed in an investigation by California Attorney General Jerry Brown. Few knew that, or bothered to think of it if they did.
* ADD. Faster, faster, do it now. Who knows if it's real?
* Shallowness and sensationalism. They go hand in hand with our Attention Deficit Disorder media culture, in which snark substitutes for insight. If it's shallow, it's easy to grasp. If it's sensational, it's easy to sell. Who cares if it's idiotic?
* Prone to spin and consultant-driven. It was amazing to see how easily the cable news culture was spun up by Breitbart. Of course, it happens all the time with trusted political consultant "sources" driving coverage through manipulation. The only real surprise here is how easily such a non-credible, patently dishonest figure as Breitbart was able to manipulate the system.
* Prone to false equivalencies. In a culture which doesn't value what is true, or even what is accurate, the old shibboleth of journalistic balance has come to mean a bizarre "on the one hand/on the other hand" process of equating sense to nonsense.
Before Breitbart's latest escapade punctured the illusion that a large media infrastructure guarantees good work, Whitman's calculation in California, where the media infrastructure is relatively small for the state's vastness, and is constantly shrinking, seemed to be the leading edge in post-press thinking.
Since Whitman has the ability to buy up all forms of advertising, with more than enough cash left over to employ a fleet of flacks to work the state's diminished media cadres, she mostly ignores the press, treating it as an irritant to be left to her many minions.
Who themselves frequently communicate through canned e-mail, responding to queries in much the same manner as an ELIZA program, the classic chatbot which recognizes key words and responds with strings of pre-programmed phrases.
In the past, when the press was more experienced, informed, and proactive, it would be much harder for Whitman to conduct herself as she does. But the reality in California is that there are only a few people left who recall even the rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the famous California recall election, which was less than seven years ago.
The Los Angeles Times, once a near great newspaper when daily newspapers were both good and very important, still has its strong moments, even after its evisceration by the new ownership. But its experienced political reporters, who, whether one agreed with them or not, had developed serious bases of knowledge and expertise, have essentially disappeared, replaced by a host of new people who don't know so much and are much more easily spun.
Which is the case at other newspapers as well, where it looks like the experienced and presumably more expensive people have been mostly replaced by the inexperienced and less expensive. I've talked with some local California journalists over the past few months whose lack of knowledge is simply stunning.
To name a few examples that have gotten into the press, a leading daily newspaper reporter referred to Whitman mentor Mitt Romney's "socially moderate" 2008 presidential campaign. In reality, Romney ran as a social conservative. Another reported on back-to-back CNBC interviews of Whitman and Brown by Larry Kudlow without mentioning that Kudlow is a notorious far right propagandist who insisted that the American economy was booming even as it sunk into the deepest recession since the Great Depression.
Still others reported on Brown being named "the worst attorney general in America" by an outfit called the Competitive Enterprise Institute -- a "story" spun heavily by Whitman's campaign -- without noting that the "institute" is a far-right operation heavy into greenhouse denial and opposition to all government regulation.
Not that experience turns out to be any guarantee in the ultra-spin culture of the post-press era. It wasn't just the newbies -- it was most everyone who was spun for weeks by consultant Garry South that Bill Clinton's intervention would turn the tide against Jerry Brown in the Democratic gubernatorial primary for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. In reality, Clinton did a small LA fundraiser for Newsom as part of a national payback tour for Hillary supporters and proceeded to ignore Newsom for the next few days he spent in the mayor's city.
It was a veteran reporter who falsely reported, in an article extolling his purported brilliance, that Whitman chief strategist (and ex-Schwarzenegger chief strategist) Mike Murphy, an inveterate spin type, ran Schwarzenegger's re-election campaign. Which was especially odd, since the reporter had written about Schwarzenegger's new campaign honcho, Steve Schmidt, after I broke the story.
It was a pair of oldline newspaper guys now blogging who ran consultant-turned-real estate mogul Clint Reilly's fictitious account of his mismanagement of Kathleen Brown's 1994 gubernatorial campaign and its false parallels to this year's governor's race.
So the post-press portion of Whitman's would-be harsh realm sets up nicely for her.
Yet the irony is that she's not really doing all that well, at all.
As I've been saying all along, Whitman's advertising campaign in her bid to succeed Schwarzenegger as governor is, as the saying goes, off plan. Not only has her record-shattering spending -- $110 million-plus and counting -- not yielded the 12 to 15-point lead she wanted by now in order to further her hope of preventing a Jerry Brown comeback in the fall, it has failed to yield her a lead of any sort at all.
In fact, Brown still leads Whitman. In the new Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll, the current California attorney general -- a two-term governor of California, two-term mayor of gritty Oakland, and two-time runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination -- leads Whitman by three points.
I'm looking at the numbers from four recent polls in the California governor's race, private and public, including the PPIC, one of the state's remaining major public polls. Despite her massive spending -- she started running ads last fall -- billionaire Meg Whitman doesn't have even the slightest lead over Brown in any of them.
At worst, she is six points behind in a new poll by Public Policy Polling. At best, she is tied in a new private poll. On average of the four polls, Brown is ahead by three points.
Keep in mind that Brown hasn't run one ad yet. And has barely spent any money at all.
With a little help from his friends, like the California Working Families and Working Californians independent expenditure committees, which are nonetheless being heavily out-spent by Whitman, Brown's Zen rope-a-dope approach to the governor's race has him in a "surprisingly" strong position, considering that he still hasn't spent a dime himself.
Whitman is outspending those pro-Brown independent expenditure efforts by about a 2-to-1 ratio. And Whitman has already shattered all spending records, not only for a California campaign, but for any non-presidential campaign anywhere in America. She has outspent her primary and general election opposition -- that is to say, her COMBINED opposition from all sources, including tenacious primary rival Steve Poizner -- by nearly 3 to 1.
Whitman's fellow ex-CEO ticketmate, ex-Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, also trails her Democratic rival, Senator Barbara Boxer, by five points in the PPIC poll.
In worse news for the Republican duo -- both of whom want to do away with California's landmark climate change program, the law continues to be quite popular.
This is a serious problem for the proponents of Proposition 23, the initiative to do away with the climate change/renewable energy program.
It's also a serious problem for Whitman and Fiorina.
Fiorina has cast herself as something of a greenhouse denier, replete with a TV ad ripping Boxer for being too concerned about "the weather." (Incidentally, 2010 is shaping up as the hottest year on record.)
Whitman has, in her now customary fashion, flip-flopped around the issue.
First she said she wants a one-year suspension of the law, a stance recently ripped by Schwarzenegger as an untenable position that would block greentech investment decisions. California leads the nation by far in such venture capital activity.
Then in the spring, as the Republican primary heated up, Whitman said she wanted to do away with the climate change program altogether.
More recently, she says she wants a one-year suspension.
This is Whitman's now familiar pattern, of course, of obfuscation and denial of her own statements.
On Wednesday, she delivered a classic of the genre, as it were, as the Huffington Post's Chris Kelly, who deserves major kudos for listening, pointed out. On a right-wing radio show, Whitman, who is trying to appeal to Latino voters through her opposition to Arizona's draconian law on illegal immigrants (the PPIC poll shows Brown with a continuing big lead over her with Latino voters) and is being shelled for flip-flopping on the illegal immigrant issue by popular right-wing LA radio hosts John and Ken, said that she actually favors the Arizona law. In Arizona. But she is against the Arizona law. In California.
Because California has a "bigger geography." Whatever that means.
She'd better hope the news media keeps declining.