Despite efforts, press can't seem to pin down Schwarzenegger
Ever since Arnold Schwarzenegger seized Jay Leno's "Tonight Show" stage to announce his effort to bid "hasta la vista, baby" to California Governor Gray Davis, it was clear that the action-hero-turned-politician would have an unorthodox relationship with the media.
Given his status as the celebrity candidate running in a short California recall campaign, concerns surfaced that the actor might navigate an end run around the press, staging glitzy photo opportunities instead of submitting to serious scrutiny of his positions and qualifications. In a column written in August, Philip Trounstine, director of a survey research institute at San Jose State University and a former political editor at the San Jose Mercury News, prodded journalists to ask the tough questions. Trounstine warned that "no one should be allowed to become governor of 35 million people and the fifth-largest economy in the world without being vetted in the political process."
Now, with the election less than a week away and a new Gallup Poll anointing Schwarzenegger as the front-runner, the feeling among some California media analysts is that the "Terminator 3" star did a skillful job of evading much of that vetting process.
"I don't think the media have been able to penetrate the Schwarzenegger campaign at all," Trounstine says. "The strategy of the Schwarzenegger campaign has been to bypass journalists and to create the image . . . of a candidate who is engaging the news media. But he is doing nothing of the sort."
As a former communications director for Davis, Trounstine may not be a neutral observer, but he is not alone in his view. Jim Bettinger, director of the John S. Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists at Stanford University, says Schwarzenegger "to this point, for the most part, has been able to avoid close scrutiny. . . . And it has been very difficult for the serious California media."
Michael Parks, the former Los Angeles Times editor who heads the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California, says Schwarzenegger "was largely successful in the medium that matters to most people, television -- [in] not getting into any sort of discussions except for one television debate. . . . We don't know much about him. We know he can make movies."
Still, Parks, like others, says political reporters have tried to pin down Schwarzenegger and gives the state's print press a B+ grade for coverage and effort. Last weekend, for example, when Schwarzenegger flew around the state in a private jet that offered no seats to reporters, the Los Angeles Times chartered its own plane to follow him. But the paper has had only one 20-minute sitdown interview with Schwarzenegger, says deputy metro editor David Lauter. "He has generally not been willing to sit down with reporters covering the campaign," Lauter says.
A Schwarzenegger campaign spokesman, Todd Harris, disagrees with those who accuse the candidate of ducking scrutiny, noting that "every utterance from Arnold is parsed, picked apart and analyzed. He has participated in over 75 interviews with the media" including press conferences.
Daniel Weintraub, a Sacramento Bee columnist, acknowledges that Schwarzenegger has held press conferences and given some interviews, but says he has not been forthcoming with details on his budget plan for the state. "I think we've got a very good sense of who he is and what his values are," Weintraub adds. "It's just a leap of faith" to assume he has a solid plan for the budget.
From the opening moments of his campaign, Schwarzenegger proved that he could garner intense -- and often flattering -- media attention simply because of who he is.
Schwarzenegger may be the only candidate to emerge unscathed from an old interview in a skin magazine in which he talked proudly of his participation in group sex. USA Today posed him, standing tall against a California skyline, in a two-page spread headlined "Schwarzenegger's American Dream." This week's news of his lead in the polls dominated the front pages of the New York tabloids, 3,000 miles from the California recall battle. And a good deal of the television footage of his campaign events have looked like commercials, with Schwarzenegger surrounded by adoring admirers.
In what could be considered the most serious test of his candidacy, the televised Sept. 24 debate, Schwarzenegger -- who defused Arianna Huffington's attack by joking that he had a part for her in "Terminator 4" -- finished second behind a fellow Republican, Tom McClintock, when Gallup asked Californians who had done the best job in the forum.
Harris points out that this week Schwarzenegger will demonstrate his accessibility by traveling with more than 200 members of the media -- including reporters from more than a dozen countries -- on a four-day bus caravan. When asked if the names the campaign has given the four buses carrying the reporters -- "Predator I, Predator II, Predator III and Predator IV" -- suggests a candidate who views journalists as adversaries, Harris responds: "One should assume that we have a sense of humor."
Mark Jurkowitz's media column appears regularly on Wednes
days. He can be reached at email@example.com
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