L.A.'S MAYORAL CAMPAIGN GOES DOWN TO THE WIRE
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- The failure of Los Angeles-area media to explore campaign charges and countercharges was never more apparent than it has been this week, as the campaign between incumbent Mayor Jim Hahn and challenger Antonio Villaraigosa goes down to the wire, with Villaraigosa favored by most pollsters to win on Tuesday.
The incumbent mayor aired a tv ad that, in essence, charges his opponent with being insensitive to the murder of children by not voting for a particular bi ll when he sat in the State Assembbly. Villaraigosa voted for a better-written bill just like it the following week, instead, but the ad doesn't say that. It is the most provocative ad of the entire campaign and cries out for analysis, but the best we get is the usual "he said, she said" coverage.
For those inclined to take a close look, the tv spot can be found at the mayor's Website (www.jimhahn.org) listed under the name of the murdered toddler, Tyler Jaeger. The Los Angeles Times, to its partial credit, did an evaluation of the ad which at least covers some of the historical background. (see http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me- 3adwatch14may14,1,409351.story?coll=la-util-news-local ).
The ad itself is relatively simple. Eleven years ago, we learn, Karey Jaeger's son Tyler was murdered "by a person I trusted to care for him ... ." We learn quickly that Karey Jaeger asked lawmakers to make penalties for child-killers harsher, that in response the state legislature enacted Assembly Bill 2258, and that it passed by a vote of 62-1. We also learn that then-Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa was the lone member voting no. Jaeger tells the camera, "It is very difficult to understand how anyone could not support a law aimed at keeping child killers behind bars." We see what appears to be the legislative summary of Assembly Bill No. 2258. The list of "Yes" voters is dense. Under "No," there is only the name Villaraigosa.
It is easy enough to understand the political motive driving this ad in the immediate context. A reelection campaign that is looking at fairly dismal polling numbers needs to take the opponent down a couple of pegs, and the "soft on crime" tag or the label "he's an extremist and we can't trust him" have worked in many previous elections.
Given that the Hahn campaign had reasons for going low in the week before the election, it is the job of the press to evaluate whether the ad is fair or unfair, accurate or inaccurate, righteous or sleazy. The press ought to be asking questions about the ad and finding the answers: Is the ad an accurate portrayal of the opponent? Is it useful or important information for the voters, or is it a carefully contrived smear job?
In other words, was Antonio Villaraigosa overly considerate of the rights of convicted criminals back in 1996, and if so, does he remain so today? Does his Assembly vote reflect a true "soft on crime" attitude, or is there some other explanation? For example, was this a procedural vote that does not reflect political philosophy but merely inter-party squabbling?
Or, to take it to the more philosophical level, was Villaraigosa correct to resist an attempt to make the law too harsh, while the rest of the legislators voted in the affirmative just because they were feeling the political heat? In other words, is there something in the Tyler Jaeger Act, as it came to be known, that we should oppose?
The tv ad certainly didn't give us the answers to these questions, and the news media are not doing much to help us find them.
The Los Angeles Times analysis is fine as far as it goes. We do learn that this was not a random abduction murder, but a beating delivered to an infant by the boyfriend of the mother. We learn that the 1996 legislation increased the minimum penalty from 15 years to 25 years. We learn nothing useful about whether or not the statute really makes sense from the legal standpoint.
The tv ad was not supposed to give us the answers to these questions, but there are lots of other media presences. At least a few of them should have recognized the importance of this particular ad. Some newspaper editor should have reasoned that an ad which has the potential to affect the outcome of an election needs to be explored in more depth.
The best we got seems to be that Times analysis. It doesn't take things very far. It does allow Villaraigosa to respond, but all we get is this summary of what seems like a pretty anemic defense:
Villaraigosa defended his actions this week, saying, "I voted for another bill the next week that was better written. It was a bill that was more comprehensive, would cover more people." The bill Villaraigosa voted for May 31, 1996, would have increased the sentence for anyone convicted of second-degree murder in California from 15 years to life to 25 years to life. That bill, AB 2658, never became law. It died in a Senate committee.
The Times piece has the virtue of recognizing the importance of the ad while providing very little of use in evaluating whether or not it offers a fair portrait of Hahn"s opponent Villaraigosa. It is almost a case of "We report, you decide," if that phrase can ever be used again in a non-ironic tone.
Taken as a whole, the print media coverage of this ad and, in the wider context, the campaign of which it is a part, is superficial. Curiously, the internet "bloggers" have been doing a better job in providing a useful editorial context. Marc Cooper and Ken Reich have been caustic in their coverage of the racial nastiness that characterizes the Hahn campaign endgame. Kevin Roderick"s Laobserved.com has become the essential daily read for the political junky and the serious analyst alike.
In getting past the pseudo-objectivity of traditional newspaper journalism and allowing themselves to editorialize where it is appropriate, these internet writers bring a depth and meaning to political story telling that is largely absent in the everyday coverage in the daily newspapers. This is not to say the dailies are superfluous; the bloggers rely on them for the hard facts, but it seems to require the new internet presence to bring the inner meaning to the surface.
If it is true that sometimes what is morally required of us is simply to repeat the obvious, then there are a few obvious points that need to be repeated. Television, with all its pretensions of importance as a news medium, has the morals of a billboard company when it comes to selling political advertising time.
Television has become the dominant medium politically, but it has no soul, no vision, no ethics. In running this ad, television is simply acting as an advertising medium.
The failure by its news side to provide critical context is understandable, but reveals the essential paradox of television news being married to television advertising.
And worst of all, there is the central paradox of this campaign, as in all the others: The fact that a candidate gets to make himself popular through the medium of television advertising (and make his opponent unpopular) is only because he has made himself beholden to the financial donors that he castigates as the special interests.
Coming back to that tv attack ad, a little searching on the Internet reveals a few snippets. Civil libertarians have been critical of the Tyler Jaeger Act because it provides for harsh sentences without the prosecution having to provide any evidence that there was intent to kill.
Perhaps Antonio Villaraigosa was showing his civil libertarian side in that long-ago vote. Perhaps he was right, and the majority were wrong. It is, after all, a philosophical question, but if so, it is also a fact that Villaraigosa could never admit and expect to get elected as the next mayor. The press seems to have missed the whole point.