In California, the media allowed the circus to become the story

Granted, it's early to pass judgment on the California recall election. The dust kicked up by the media hasn't yet settled and the assorted temporary pseudo-celebrities who existed for 11 weeks have yet to crawl back under their respective rocks. But it's not too soon to point out a few interesting trends from the most prominent experiment in dumbing down American culture since "Dude, Where's My Car?"

Forget all the late-campaign allegations - the alleged goose-stepping, the alleged groping, the alleged partisan journalism, the alleged plans for fixing alleged problems that are, in truth, beyond any one person doing any one thing, allegedly or otherwise. These are just trappings of an extremely heated campaign.

The real problems coming out of California are more disturbing, and they center not so much on the race or on the candidates as on the picture around it all.

Maybe it was the California sun, maybe it was the white-hot light of celebrity (real celebrity, not the people on "K Street"), but somewhere along the line, the media decided that covering a race to run the fifth largest economy in the world was akin to covering Ben and J.Lo. One-liners were allowed to stand in for policy positions, and dodging serious questions became acceptable. In short, the California race came to represent pack journalism at its worst - not just pack journalism, pack entertainment journalism. As at an awful movie première, political journalists - famously surly and disgruntled people - were pushed to the side of the red carpet to shout questions at the star as he passed. And for some reason they smilingly went along with it.

Arnold Schwarzenegger won the race offering "solutions" for California's problems that were at best sketchy and at worst weirdly contradictory. His idea of investing in "hydrogen highways" for alternative-fuel cars at a time when the state is deep in red ink may be the most ludicrous proposal since "Waterworld" - not to mention the fact that he, himself, drives a gas-guzzling Hummer.

And try as you might, you'd be hard-pressed to find another campaign where a serious candidate with no experience and no record ran for governor while dodging all debates except the one where he got the questions in advance.

None of this, understand, is a knock on Arnold. He just played the hand the media dealt him. If everyone running for office were offered the opportunity to do what he did, they'd gratefully accept. The point is they simply haven't been allowed to do it - until now.

Somehow in California, the circus became the story to such an extent that it seemed people forgot there actually were very high stakes. It was more fun to cover Leo Gallagher, Gary Coleman, the porn magnate, and the rest of the freak show.

Some of that is to be expected. In the beginning it was only natural that journalists sent to cover the mess would revel in the 135-car-pileup aspect. After all, politicians don't usually perform comedy acts where they smash produce with sledgehammers - well, maybe Jim Traficant. But at some point there's the matter of doing your job. "The Terminator Goes to Sacramento" is a funny first-day story, but what about how he'll handle state budget problems, which are extremely complicated, or how he'll deal with a hostile legislature. That's the real question for the media. Is the job of the press, particularly the political press, simply to reflect the "wacky" (a word used repeatedly in the past 11 weeks) state of American political discourse or is it to try to bring some sanity to it by pointing out the issues at stake?

As a presidential election draws near, this is a legitimate issue. Increasingly in the past few election cycles the press has lost its way, focusing on personality and pretending it is examining character, allowing polls to shape and determine coverage. In the next 12 months, there'll certainly be much wackiness on which to report and undoubtedly candidates who'd rather respond to questions with one-liners rather than answers.

If coverage of California was an anomaly, it's simply a regrettable mistake. If it's the next step in the trend of coverage, it's more troubling and will pose a more serious question. If this is what political journalists do, why have them at all? "Entertainment Tonight" and People can do the job.

In fact, they'll probably do it better. And when Madonna runs for Congress, just think of the access they'll have.

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