The California recall was a mixture of historical event, high drama, and showbiz. In the beginning, it was covered as a farce, with 135 candidates in the field. The first week of stories profiled Larry Flynt, the self-styled “smut peddler with a heart,” porn star Mary Carey, and former child actor Gary Coleman in pieces that reinforced every East Coast stereotype of California as a land of whackos. Then Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy on the “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” and from that moment on the media focus narrowed to him, embattled Governor Gray Davis, and a handful of other so-called “serious” candidates. But it was Schwarzenegger, with his superstar aura, who dominated the story.
His first news conference was an event attended by 160 journalists from around the world, representing outlets ranging from The New York Times to Variety, from the broadcast and cable news outlets to the celeb-news shows “Entertainment Tonight” and “Access Hollywood.” There was a huge contingent of foreign journalists from Europe, Asia and Latin America, a testament to Schwarzenegger’s international prominence as a movie actor.
In keeping with Schwarzenegger’s status as a former Mr. Universe, Ironman Magazine was also present. Teagan Clive, the Ironman correspondent, granted numerous interviews to her colleagues in the room, telling the Pasadena Star-News “Arnold is the modern day king” and adding, “He is strong, and he shoots from the hip.”
The news conference offered a preview of the campaign to follow: long on star power and short on substance. The candidate’s refusal to get into specifics prompted a question from an NBC News’ producer about exactly what cuts he would make in California’s budget to ease the state’s fiscal crisis. “The public doesn’t care about figures,” he responded, prompting some pundits to criticize his lack of specifics while others called it a smart ploy to avoid getting mired in a debate about financial issues. And so it would go throughout the campaign—a campaign that more resembled a Hollywood promotional movie junket than a traditional political contest.
The Candidate and Questioners
In the early days, Schwarzenegger was often not available to answer questions from the press. There were the quickie interviews with local TV anchors—10 minutes maximum, hard questions at a minimum. He also took time for interviews on conservative talk radio shows where the hosts had already endorsed his candidacy, while the traditional political press was kept at arm’s length.
At one point, an NBC News’ producer observed Schwarzenegger and his handlers conferring before a press conference. The aides were pointing out the reporters who were considered “friendly” and “unfriendly” and advising him to ignore questions from the “unfriendlies.”
One friendly reporter Schwarzenegger would always call on was Barbara Gasser, the correspondent for the Austrian newspaper Kleine Zeitung. She would ask him questions such as, “Will you establish an office of physical fitness in California?,” or “How did you celebrate the 20th anniversary of your U.S. citizenship?,” probing queries that made some of the hard-nosed political reporters roll their eyes. Eventually the Schwarzenegger campaign anointed her with a role similar to the one Helen Thomas used to play at presidential press conferences. Gasser got to say, “Thank you, Mr. Schwarzenegger” to end his question-and-answer sessions with the press.
“I will be the people’s governor,” Schwarzenegger often proclaimed, adding that he would go up and down the state listening to the voters. So the campaign organized numerous “Ask Arnold” events, billed as town hall meetings with average Californians, where citizens could question the candidate. In reality, the participants were handpicked by the campaign. The invitees mostly served up softball questions that Schwarzenegger easily fielded with canned answers culled from his standard stump speech.
At one of the “Ask Arnold” events in East Los Angeles, a group of political activists, including one of the icons of the farm labor movement, Dolores Huerta, gathered outside, protesting Schwarzenegger’s promise to repeal legislation granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. When several of the camera crews inside headed for the door to photograph the protest, Schwarzenegger’s press aides warned them that if they left, they would not be readmitted to the event.
Schwarzenegger’s training as a bodybuilder and actor—as someone accustomed to the limelight—served him well during the campaign. As he was walking through a crowd of college students at California State University, Long Beach, somebody threw eggs at him. The pool TV camera was right in front of Schwarzenegger at that moment, and the footage showed that rather than flinching, he just kept smiling and pressing the flesh as he plowed through the crowd, eventually pulling off his egg-stained jacket.
While police and security people were alarmed by the incident, Schwarzenegger later laughed it off by saying of the egg-thrower: “This guy owes me bacon now. This is all part of free speech. I think it’s great.”
Most of the images of candidate Schwarzenegger were flattering ones arranged by his staff. Arnold on the steps of the California State Capitol, broom in hand, promising to make a clean sweep of state government. The gigantic smiling Arnold picture plastered on the side of his campaign bus, befitting a rock star on tour. Arnold surrounded by soccer moms and schoolteachers holding up signs reading, “Remarkable Women Join Arnold.”
It was straight out of the playbook of longtime Ronald Reagan aide Michael Deaver, the man who raised the photo opportunity to an art form. Deaver’s theory: In an age in which most people get their news from television, showcase your candidate in the most visually glorious setting possible, the leader surrounded by adoring citizens. Then no matter what the reporters say about him, what sticks in viewers’ minds are those triumphant pictures.
From the beginning, the Schwarzenegger camp had to deal with allegations of his misbehavior toward women, something even he acknowledged when he announced his candidacy on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” Demonstrators from women’s groups would routinely show up at his campaign events as early polls showed women had doubts about him. Schwarzenegger countered those attacks with the help of his wife, “Dateline NBC” correspondent and anchor Maria Shriver, on leave from her job. They went on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” a show with an 80 percent female audience. Shriver talked about the warm and fuzzy details of their private life, such as his habit of bringing her coffee in the morning. Almost overnight, Schwarzenegger’s gender gap in public opinion polls melted away.
Then, late in the campaign, the Los Angeles Times published its exposé about Schwarzenegger’s alleged groping of several women. The charges exploded throughout the media, but they didn’t seem to sway Californians. Polls showed that they had made up their minds early in the campaign to vote for the recall and elect Schwarzenegger.
At the end of the campaign, Schwarzenegger thanked us for “all those wonderful pictures”—images that his people arranged and that we repeatedly broadcast to millions of viewers. From Schwarzenegger’s standpoint, all the free television exposure was a boon to his campaign. Often there were so many cameras present at his events that the TV crews were tripping over one another repeatedly.
And no matter how hard we tried to put the pictures of those events into context, the image of the smiling superstar candidate was more powerful than the words. For those of us working in television news, this triumph of the visual is always a source of frustration when we’re up against politicians and others skilled at manipulating the medium. When we’d try to write thoughtful words about the issues raised in the campaign, it often felt like those words were drowned out by the hoopla. His campaign anthem, “We’re Not Gonna Take It” reflected the angry mood of voters who wanted change in Sacramento and looked at Schwarzenegger as the action hero who was going to deliver that change.
In the end, it was clear that the voters didn’t want to see television stories or read newspaper articles about whether the candidate was short on answers to the state’s fiscal crisis or whether he misbehaved around women. As reporters, when we did try to focus on issues, we felt as though we were doing such pieces for one another, because the general public had all but tuned out when it came to that kind of news coverage. Even so, we felt obligated to pursue the truth and tried not to allow our frustrations to poison the fairness or integrity of our reporting.
Schwarzenegger’s star power is now influencing how television covers state politics in California. An unprecedented number of media outlets covered his inauguration at the state Capitol and now, in what some see as a positive impact of “the Schwarzenegger effect,” local stations that closed their Sacramento bureaus during the 1980’s are reopening them as Governor Schwarzenegger takes over. The show must go on.
Cecilia Alvear, a 1989 Nieman Fellow, is an NBC News producer. George Lewis is an NBC News correspondent. Both covered the California recall election full time.