What Elections?

TV News: Killing Bambi Gets the Spotlight

Fox-7's (KTBC) election night team (l-r): Former mayor Jeff Friedman, anchors Stephanie Rochon and Dick Ellis, and KVET commentator John Doggett

photograph by Alan Pogue

On Saturday night at 10pm, Austin's television news shows came alive with excitement. It was an election, the night of nights for reporters, who scrambled to get interviews with the candidates, then cut back to the latest poll numbers, then switched into analysis mode with more interviews, then cut back to the studio for a recap on other news, and then back into the cycle again, all straining to be heard above the raucous din of Palmer Auditorium's frenzied "spontaneous" celebrations.

In the midst of this, an urgent question must have flashed across the minds of more than a few viewers: "Election? What election?"

To see the blur of activity on the TV airwaves Saturday night, one would think that local elections were taken seriously by the news departments of these stations. The elections dominated each broadcast, even squeezing into the venerable time of weather and sports. K-EYE (Channel 42) and KXAN (Ch. 36) even allowed election coverage to spill over the normal 30-minute news allotment, with the former plugging away until 10:55pm and the latter hanging on for five minutes after that.

But all of this sound and fury had an almost surreal quality -- it came at the end of a week in which the stations seemed determined to cover anything except the elections. To those who depend on television for their local news (and god help them if they do), it must have seemed as if some parallel universe had spilled over into theirs. The anchors and reporters acted as if this were an event that they had been hyping for weeks, like the Super Bowl, and this was the explosive climax; the truth is that they provided very little to warn us beforehand, and even less that might actually educate us and allow us to make an informed decision, leaving us to scratch our heads and wonder if perhaps we just hadn't been paying attention. Or is it the nature of television news to focus on the horse race with its pretty pictures and a defined beginning, middle, and end? After all, sports commentating, in the "It's Mitchell by a nose!!" vein, is so much more titillating than all that boring coverage of issues and backgrounds.

Still, one would expect that it would have been easy to find info on the candidates in the week leading up to the elections. Just turn on the TV at 10pm, and surely it would be among the local network affiliates' lead news items.

Wrong. Most of the stations' coverage was dominated by the Republic of Texas news, otherwise known as Waco: The Sequel. Not that I'm complaining; if a bunch of wild-eyed revolutionaries are shooting up the state, I want to know about it. But between the live reports from Fort Davis, some election news could have been squeezed in.

Instead, viewers were treated to another week-long fluff-fest from K-EYE, which had just done a five-part exposé on magicians' secrets (see last week's "Media Clips"). This week's burning topic was "Austin Dream Homes," a sort of poor man's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, a week-long series whereby viewers got to peek inside luxurious West Austin abodes. Perhaps the point was to illustrate class disparity in Travis County -- giving people the vital information they will need to foment class revolution. Or perhaps it was just more irrelevant eye-candy courtesy of KEYE.

K-EYE's Tuesday night 10pm news segment (the opening 12 or so minutes in which the major stories are reported) featured no mention of the election. Tuning back in on Thursday at 6pm, there was finally some election news -- but not about the city council. No, the important election was in Lakeway, where about 2,000 voters would decide how to control the burgeoning deer population (lots of footage of cute little bounding Bambis). Finally that night, there appeared to be some election coverage -- that is, the British elections. Finally, on Friday evening, KEYE squeezed in 25 seconds to tell us that, indeed, there would be an election and helpfully gave us the county's voter information phone number.

Perhaps KVUE (Ch. 24) would be a better source. After all, this is the station that instituted a crime coverage policy to counter the old "If it bleeds, it leads" mentality. But no. The void left by sensational crime stories hasn't necessarily been filled with hard news. Wednesday night, Judy Maggio informed us that many soft drinks have caffeine (Mountain Dew has the most), kids' video games are often violent, and Austinites' favorite restaurant choices are burgers, Tex-Mex, and "American variety." In the words of Dennis Miller, these findings were first reported in Duh! magazine. When Maggio and company did discuss elections, they gave us the San Marcos medical marijuana initiative -- a sexier topic than Manuel Zuniga's position on campaign finance reform, I suppose -- and again, those all-important British elections. The 10pm Tuesday and 6pm and 10pm Wednesday broadcasts had no local election news, and Friday's reporting had little more than Bob Karstens telling us, "For all your election coverage, be sure and watch KVUE-24 news," which prompts the question, "Why?"

KTBC (Ch. 7) at least went so far as to have the candidates on the air -- a two-minute segment on Wednesday night spotlighted the Place 6 race, and on election eve, we got a preview of the mayor's race, which actually had some decent quotes from the candidates. The network's 10pm report, however, unfortunately featured one of the hallmarks of pseudo-journalistic idiocy, the call-in poll. KTBC asked viewers for their opinion on who would win; of course, such polls are as irrelevant as they are unscientific.

Hands-down, KXAN provided the best election coverage, both leading up to the balloting and on Saturday night itself. Mind you, that's not saying much. KXAN did see fit to run interviews with the frontrunners (completely overlooking that the "minor" candidates might have some good ideas), but these "interviews" only consisted of the combatants trading edited sound bite quotes. A typical exchange, verbatim, went thusly: "Transportation is a big issue right now," said Becky Motal. "The biggest issue out there is the sustainability issue. Is Austin going to be a sustainable community?" was Gus Garcia's follow-up. And then on to the next topic. Huh? One wonders what was left on the cutting-room floor.

KXAN did sponsor hour-long specials throughout the week, although they were actually shunted off to their sister station, the lower-profile KNVA (Ch. 54). The specials featured more substantive, unedited interviews, though the questions tended to be of the softball variety, such as reporter Larry Brill asking Eric Mitchell, "Do you that think that if you were not on the council... that there would be further neglect, worse neglect, of the eastern side of the city?" I suppose it might be impolite to ask "How have your Eastside initiatives actually helped neighborhood residents?"

Election Night

KXAN again made use of KNVA to give the longest reporting (except for the city-run cable channel 6) of the ballot-counting, beginning at 9pm, switching over to the main station and continuing through 11pm. (As noted above, KEYE went until 10:55pm before turning things over to Baywatch. KTBC and KVUE didn't want to bore us, so they put in 30 minutes and cut out quick.)

The coverage featured the San Marcos pot vote and the Lakeway deer vote disproportionate to its real impact on life around Austin, but that should have been expected -- drugs and cute animals have been staples of local news for years. The pot report, incidentally, was not followed by any mention of the candidates running for office in that city.

KNVA continued pitching softballs, with lame duck mayor-turned-election analyst Bruce Todd being asked, "Who are Kirk Watson voters? Who are Ronney Reynolds voters?" and Max Nofziger being allowed to blame his drubbing on "low voter turnout" without challenge.

About the best election coverage on TV actually came from radio station KLBJ, which was simulcast over Channel 6. There were some amusing gaffes in this regard; an interview with Kirk Watson had the mayoral candidate hidden behind a concrete pillar in Palmer, making it appear as if the KLBJ reporter was talking to the pillar itself. However, although KLBJ was decent, last year's Channel 6 coverage with former councilmember Brigid Shea was significantly more pointed and interesting. This time, much of the Channel 6 screen time was occupied by commentator-less crowd shots of Palmer, or screen shots of the city's Webpage (http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/).

And the Webpage, which should have been the best source of election results, was plagued with problems. The link from the city's page that said "Election Results" only showed early voting totals all night. Up-to-the-minute pages did exist, but there was no visible link to them -- after seeing it on TV, I realized that one had to type in http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/election/mayor.htm, but then other links were incorrect, missing, or filled with no data. It seemed as though planning for the page didn't start until shortly before the polls closed. Most of the problems were corrected as the evening went on, but overall it failed to live up to the potential of this fine resource.

Nonetheless, in future, the Internet and other news resources will apparently be the best route for timely information on our government. If television news continues to be as irrelevant as what viewers witnessed this week, it may as well cease to be a news source at all. For many people, it already has.

No doubt, the news stations will trot out the tired old excuse that a low voter turnout (17%) justifies burying or not covering the election. But it's a chicken-and-egg question: If voters aren't receiving the facts they need -- or if they're only dimly aware that an election is being held at all -- how can they be expected to go to the polls and make an informed decision?

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