Running Away From the News Media
By Carol Pogash
Not Richard Nixon, not even Dan Quayle was pummeled by the press quite the way Rep. Michael Huffington was. Vanity Fair labeled California's Republican senatorial candidate a know-nothing Chauncey Gardiner, the reclusive gardener who becomes president in Jerzy Kosinski's novella, "Being There." Reporters in his district of Santa Barbara warned, "He's Bob Roberts coming to California," a reference to Tim Robbins' satirical film about a cynical, calculating senatorial cam-
paign. Esquire claimed he was in the tradition of "rich twits" running for office. And Doonesbury turned him into a headless suit.
While Huffington did answer some reporters' queries, his overall relationship with the press was abominable. He saw reporters as the enemy and avoided them. Reporters saw him as a great story with lots of angles.
The unimaginably wealthy Huffington, a Texas oilman, settled in California a few years prior to his first election bid, pouring millions of his own dollars into winning a Santa Barbara congressional seat. He knocked off a popular incumbent in his own party, alienating fellow party members. Republicans in his home district threw a fundraiser this year – for his opponent, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Huffington and his wife Arianna – author, new age philosopher and social climber – briefly tried to cozy up to the media, but their attempts were foiled when stories began appearing about Arianna's involvement in a Southern California religious group and about her overbearing hand in her husband's campaign – and his limp one.
California's major newspapers and the Wall Street Journal published investigative stories on the candidate and his wife. Huffington was characterized as a politician who stood for nothing more than his own ambition, a congressman sans shadow. The response of Huffington's staff was to shun most reporters. "Press availability" was sometimes limited on the candidate's schedule from "1:35 to 1:45," with the candidate taking just two or three questions.
He held one press conference, by invitation only. Uninvited reporters were admitted only after invited journalists refused to participate without them.
Other reporters had bigger problems. When Maureen Orth, author of the Vanity Fair profile, attempted to ask Huffington a few questions in Washington, he tried to have her evicted from the halls of Congress. Meanwhile, newspaper reporters who called Huffington's congressional office for information about his voting record were told repeatedly that staffers were not authorized to release the requested information.
Preparing a piece on Huffington's life in Texas, San Francisco Chronicle Political Editor Susan Yoa-chum was told he would not talk to her until after he had read her piece. "It was like I had to try out for an interview," Yoachum says.
Political analyst Rollin Post of KRON-TV in San Francisco saw Huffington's avoidance of the press as part of a larger strategy.
"I don't think he [wanted] to be put in a position, anymore than he had to, where it's made obvious that he doesn't know anything, that he's ill-equipped," Post says.
The way Jerry Cornfield, a reporter for the Santa Barbara News Press at the time, tells it, Huffington's initial pas-de-deux with the press was pleasant enough. Cornfield recalls being invited to a Huffington event at the couple's Montecito mansion. Shortly afterward, at the press conference, Cornfield began asking questions about Huffington's avowed aversion to PACs and his one-time membership in "Team 100," an elite Republican group whose members contributed $100,000 apiece to the GOP. After that, Cornfield says, "[Huffington] stopped answering my calls." Following a year of "no comments," Cornfield was taken off the Huffington beat. He left the News Press and now writes for the Santa Barbara Independent.
Huffington seemed not to understand how his own words could hurt him. During a 1993 interview with the Sacramento Bee's political editor, John Jacobs, Huffington said, "There is a lot of misinformation about me out there." He wasn't always wealthy, he said. "I was middle class. You don't forget that. When I was 10 my father had less than $20,000 in the bank. I remember my family only taking one vacation, by car, to Florida." Huffington then predicted that he would do well in Northern California because his Stanford classmates remember him fondly. And he said he would garner votes in Southern California because of his position on the Los Angeles Symphony Board.
He didn't give many interviews after that. Huffington's I-don't-need-you strategy began to make sense – from his perspective.
While the candidate avoided the print media, his $27 million campaign financed TV commercials characterizing Feinstein as a slot machine for special interests while portraying himself as an empathetic citizen and family man.
Since most voters pick up their political news from television, Huffington's commercials, which greatly outnumbered Feinstein's, along with television news accounts of his campaign, counted for much more than print coverage. Instead of digging or doing in-depth profiles, TV news covered the day-to-day scheduled events of the candidates, and Huffington's advisers saw to it that his made-for-TV events made better video-op than Feinstein's more wooden ones.
But in print, Huffington was badgered. Some critics claim that the anti-Huffington stories were the inevitable result of liberal reporters more closely aligned with the middle-of-the-road Feinstein. But that kind of criticism drives the Chronicle's Yoachum crazy. She points out that Republican Gov. Pete Wilson has never received such negative press.
Huffington's communications director, Jennifer Grossman, believes local TV has been fairer to her candidate than print media because "there is less editorializing done on TV.'' She was particularly disturbed by a Frank Rich column in the New York Times in which Huffington was equated with "The Manchurian Candidate." "You've got to ask yourself," she says, "'What's motivating such hysteria?' I think it goes beyond the personal and partisan."
Some of the most critical print pieces were written by Los Angeles Times reporter Dave Lesher. Ex-Huffington staffers told Lesher that Arianna was indeed running the Huffington campaign. After Huffington came out in favor of Proposition 187, a controversial referendum denying state benefits to illegal aliens, Lesher wrote that the candidate had employed an illegal alien as a nanny for several years. (It turned out that Feinstein had her own illegal alien problem.)
Lesher's stories, and others reporting Huffington's admission that he and his wife had taken the nanny across state lines – Huffington coauthored a bill that would make transporting illegal aliens across state lines an offense punishable by five years in prison – reverberated not just in print, but on television as well.
"Everybody who looked found something," explains Lesher. "Once you find something, you look more. If there was nothing there to find, attention wouldn't have lasted so long."
When it was over, many reporters wondered how Huffington could have come so far so fast. Yet, despite the massive Republican sweep and the fact that Huffington spent more money than anyone ever has on a Senate race, at press time it appeared that Feinstein had squeaked through with a victory.