Arnold Schwarzenegger’s celebrity status attracted massive media
attention to California’s recall
election, and not just in the Golden State. It also enabled the actor
to cruise to victory while largely ignoring political reporters.
By Rachel Smolkin
As Arnold Schwarzenegger charged through an adoring crowd September 3, a heckler lobbed an egg at him. The action-movie icon and Republican candidate for governor simply slipped off his defaced blazer without losing his composure or missing a beat.
It was a vaudeville moment replayed endlessly on television and, in retrospect, a decent metaphor for the way California's new governor handled not only flying objects but also journalistic scrutiny. He limited his interactions with political reporters, and when the mainstream media raised questions about his lack of specificity, or his political neophyte status, or his behavior toward women, Schwarzenegger simply plowed forward, cameras in tow. He ignored, attacked and even thanked the media, but he never followed their lead.
As a megawatt celebrity, he didn't have to.
On August 6, Schwarzenegger flashed his multimillion-dollar smile on NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and announced his candidacy for governor, giving birth to a media circus. As CNN correspondent Bob Franken observed about the recall race two months to the day later, "It's been all about Arnold since the beginning, and it's all about Arnold Schwarzenegger now."
Much of the coverage was serious and substantive. But the muscled Hollywood hero infused his candidacy with movie references and Tinseltown glamour, creating moments of comedy and even absurdity. In a September 24 debate--the only one Schwarzenegger participated in--moderator Stan Statham felt obliged to reassure viewers, "This is not Comedy Central. I swear."
The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg perhaps best captured the sometimes-cartoonish flavor of the race. Writing about the ruling by a three-judge panel--later reversed--to postpone the recall, Hertzberg observed, "No matter whom any of this craziness is good for or bad for, the decision discombobulated everybody. No one had the slightest idea what to do. So everybody just kept running straight ahead at top speed, like Looney Tunes characters who've just gone off a cliff. Their feet are churning furiously, but the vertigo is something fierce."
At times, the media played supporting roles in the spectacle, and the press horde featured an unusual mingling of journalists. Among the reporters trailing Schwarzenegger the day before the election, Washington Post national political reporter Dan Balz noticed, were "people like Pat O'Brien from 'Access Hollywood.' This is something you would never see in a normal political campaign."
Roger Simon, political editor and chief political correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, counted 100 cameras from 14 different countries at Schwarzenegger's victory party. "I've never seen 100 cameras for any event," including those featuring presidents, he says.
Indeed, the Tyndall Report, a weekly newsletter that monitors broadcast television news, calculated that the weekday nightly newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC devoted a total of 192 minutes to the recall election from August 1 through October 8, an "unprecedented" level of national coverage for a statewide election. Schwarzenegger alone attracted 81 minutes of that coverage, more than any other aspect of the race. By contrast, the 10 (now nine) Democratic presidential contenders received a mere 39 minutes total in the same period.
Local TV stations also saturated the airwaves with recall news. Lou Cannon, a former Washington Post reporter and longtime observer of California politics, wrote in an October 2 piece for the state government news Web site Stateline.org, "[T]he recall election has changed the dynamics of electronic news coverage in a state in which politics normally gets less coverage than a freeway car chase."
Bob Long, vice president and news director of KNBC in Los Angeles (NBC 4), says it was the people, not the news media, who were responsible for all that face time. "Arnold's celebrity created early on a contender because of his notoriety. The electorate responded, not us. They fairly early on made him a front-runner.... If he was just an action-movie star and no one was interested in his candidacy, if he was flagging in the polls and attracting no crowds, he wouldn't be getting this coverage."
Long bristles at the notion that local television stations rediscovered politics only because of Schwarzenegger's presence. He notes his NBC-owned station has had three political reporters for years and derides the claim that California TV news usually disdains politics as "nonsense, at least as far as KNBC is concerned. That's the smug, East Coast, Brahmin point of view." Although no TV station outside Sacramento staffs the Capitol full time, Long argues technology has reduced the need for permanent infrastructure. "If Schwarzenegger becomes governor and is a disaster and the state is crumbling, we'll move the whole station up there," Long said October 6. "We have that flexibility."
Schwarzenegger also fascinated bloggers, who chronicled his campaign in daily Web journals. The "influential role of Internet-based commentators in the current recall campaign also has turned the state into a fascinating laboratory of political journalism," wrote Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten on September 24.
David Jensen, a former Sacramento Bee editor, launched a Web site called The Condor to track the recall. On October 6, he dubbed the campaign the "Nation's No. 1 Political Soap Opera" and noted an unprecedented recall combined with a "larger-than-life weightlifter with glittering star power" had ignited global interest. " 'Conan the Vulgarian' and 'Win One for the Groper' are some of the headlines for the curious who log in on the Internet from Thailand, Iceland, Mexico and other points," Jensen wrote.
As an international celebrity, Schwarzenegger didn't need to court political scribes (see Free Press, October/November). He gabbed with Oprah Winfrey, Larry King and Howard Stern. In the campaign's final days, he granted one-on-one interviews to NBC's Tom Brokaw and ABC's Peter Jennings.
In mid-September, Schwarzenegger spokesman Sean Walsh told AJR that the campaign offered "numerous press availabilities" but could reach far more people via TV or radio than print. "To be honest with you, many other candidates cannot garner the type of radio and television coverage that our candidate can," Walsh said. "Doing radio and TV gets your message out in a clear and relatively unedited fashion."
Schwarzenegger's "celebrity gave him entrée to all kinds of venues that would be closed to ordinary candidates," says Jack Pitney, a political analyst at Claremont McKenna College in California. "Somebody running for sewer commissioner is not going to get on 'Oprah.' " Many candidates have aspired to circumvent the media and even attempted to do so, but most lack the charisma and fame that enabled Schwarzenegger to trumpet his message. "It was quite a spectacle," Pitney concludes, "but not a spectacle that other candidates can repeat."
As for Schwarzenegger's aversion to interviews with political reporters, Pitney says, "Californians don't pay that much attention to the political media anyway. Only the most attentive voters even noticed" he snubbed them.
Schwarzenegger's increasingly testy relationship with the state's largest newspaper--the Los Angeles Times--provides insight into his approach to the media. On August 15, the day after the Times published the first of two stories about Schwarzenegger's father and his Nazi past, Schwarzenegger called Times Editor John S. Carroll. The candidate said he'd been reading the paper closely "and he just wanted to tell me what a fine job we were doing and how fair it was," Carroll says. The editorial board had been asking Schwarzenegger to come before it; alternatively, Carroll asked if he would sit for an on-the-record interview with a reporter or two. Schwarzenegger said he would think about it, that he'd check his calendar and have spokesman Walsh get back to Carroll.
"Sean Walsh did call me, and there was no willingness to do anything on the record," Carroll says. "He said maybe Arnold and I could have an off-the-record lunch. I said that would be fun, but it doesn't help the [staff] get anything in the paper." After that, Carroll didn't hear back from Walsh. "I didn't get my lunch, and we didn't get any on-the-record interview," Carroll says.
Joe Mathews, one of the Times reporters who shadowed Schwarzenegger, did question him on September 4, nearly a month after the actor's debut in the recall fray. "They called me and said be ready, and then I was ushered into a room after an event without a warning or any negotiation," Mathews recalls. "It was not what I would call an interview. Yes, I asked questions, for about 25 minutes actually, and he answered some of them, I mean, he gave replies to each. But it wasn't ideal."
Michael Finnegan, the paper's state politics writer, had to settle for press availabilities with minimal opportunities for follow-up questions. "It seemed that the campaign made a conscious choice to minimize his exposure to the reporters who knew the most about state government and politics," Finnegan says. "The reporters who were in a position to ask Schwarzenegger questions about the details of the job of governor of California were the ones who his campaign tried very hard to avoid." Finnegan estimates he and his colleague Mark Barabak, who covers national politics, requested an interview five or six times, beginning the first week of Schwarzenegger's campaign. "I had more access to the governor than to
Schwarzenegger, which I thought was fairly extraordinary," Finnegan says.
By mid-September, Schwarzenegger was complaining publicly about the L.A. Times, whose editorial page opposed the recall. In a September 10 interview on Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor," host Bill O'Reilly asked: "Are you surprised that the L.A. Times and some other media, New York Times here to a lesser extent, have gone after you personally?" To which Schwarzenegger replied: "Well, not really, because I always knew that [Gov. Gray] Davis knows how to run a negative campaign. All of the stories are fed by the campaign headquarters, I guarantee you that." He implied the L.A. Times had put Davis and Lt. Gov Cruz Bustamante, who was running for governor, on the front page more times than him and said "even the editor admitted it." Schwarzenegger didn't specify whether he meant Carroll or another editor.
A Lexis-Nexis search of Times stories shows that Schwarzenegger's name appeared in 62 front-page stories and 19 page-one headlines from August 7, the day after he announced his candidacy, through September 10. Davis' name showed up in 63 page-one stories and 18 front-page headlines and Bustamante's appeared in 48 page-one stories and 17 page-one headlines during that period.
"Arnold's campaign was running against the newspaper long before there were any stories in the newspaper about women," Mathews says, referring to the October 2 article and follow-ups in which 16 women accused Schwarzenegger of inappropriate behavior. (See "The Women.") "They were running against the press, in fact, not just us. It helped him emphasize that he was his own guy and he was a populist."
Of course, Schwarzenegger is hardly the first politician--or the even first celebrity candidate--to spar with the media and ration access. Jesse Ventura, the wrestler who starred with Schwarzenegger in "Predator" and later became Minnesota's governor, famously declared "war" on media "jackals." (See "Ventura Highway," September 1999.) He also quickly showed the political reporters trailing him that a celebrity politician could be just as tedious to cover--if not more so--as a career office-holder.
"I think one TV reporter here called Jesse at first a 'gift from God' for political reporters," recalls Dane Smith, a longtime politics reporter for Minneapolis' Star Tribune. "We knew it would be more exciting, and everybody would be paying attention to what we did because the character we were covering was so outrageous. It got old very fast."
Smith says the "celebrity factor" became a journalistic distraction. Many political reporters were "conscious-stricken because we were covering him far more thoroughly than we had any other governor. We went everywhere he went," Smith says. "It was kind of a conundrum. We all would look at each other and go, 'Why are we running off to this thing?' like a book tour or a wrestling event. And we'd be doing tons of preparatory coverage of his return to the [World Wrestling Federation] or his XFL moonlighting." Smith sometimes felt that shadowing Ventura's every move and comment crowded out more substantive stories about subjects such as school test scores.
Pat Kessler, a political reporter for WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, likes to tell people that the media had a love-hate relationship with Ventura: "We loved him. He hated us." Kessler, an 18-year veteran of the CBS-owned and operated station, was turned down 48 consecutive times for an interview during Ventura's last year in office. (See Free Press, December 2001.) At one point, Kessler was told he could have an interview if he submitted his questions in advance and swore not to depart from them. He refused.
Ventura complained that the media always covered his celebrity, never his policy. "Which was patently untrue," Kessler adds. "The stories on policy far outnumbered the stories on personality." Ventura also groused about where stories about him were placed in newscasts, and even which newscasts they appeared in. He snubbed the local media, preferring to talk to the New York Times, the national networks or even the foreign press. "I would get up every morning with a knot in my stomach because I didn't know what outrageous thing our chief executive might have said to the South China Morning Post," Kessler recalls.
But Kessler concedes that he, for one, did indeed refer to Ventura as "a gift from God" who stoked Minnesotans' interest in politics and government--and made it easier for Kessler to argue for airtime.
Iowa political reporters got a whiff of the celebrity factor when Fred Grandy, who played Gopher on "The Love Boat" TV series, ran for a U.S. House seat in 1986. Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen recalls that Grandy initially suffered from his celebrity image as a "lightweight, Gopher, buffoon, and his opponents all ridiculed him and nobody thought he had a chance."
Grandy, a Harvard graduate, beat the critics' expectations. But sometimes celebrity candidates are trapped even by favorable public perceptions. "The flip side of that was John Glenn, who everyone remembers as this virile, young astronaut who captured our imaginations as kids," Yepsen says. "In 1984, when he was running for president, this older man would walk into a room--he didn't come floating in on a space capsule." Glenn, then an Ohio senator, watched his presidential aspirations unravel.
No matter how hard celebrity politicians might try to assume a new image in elected office, the old roles tend to cling to them--with a little help from the media. When Grandy unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1994, "he was sort of sensitive about any inferences to 'Gopher,' any references to 'Love Boat,' " Yepsen says. "He sort of felt like he put that behind him, that he had a successful career in Congress. If you needed to tweak his campaign, you'd say, 'the Love Boat is filling with water.' "
So Grandy was always Gopher in the media, just as political reporters and cartoonists dribbled basketball metaphors through their copy about Bill Bradley, the former Democratic presidential candidate, New Jersey senator and New York Knick. Yepsen calls it the "downside of their celebrity."
As Schwarzenegger pursued his new role as governor, his star quality served him well. Grappling with California's ample problems should put his action-hero persona to the test. ###