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CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS : CLOSE-UP / THE '94 CAMPAIGN : Dog-Eat-Dog Race Spawns Faxes That Bite

October 04, 1994|AMY WALLACE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It read more like a letter to Dear Abby than a piece of political propaganda. Under the heading "I NEVER THOUGHT YOUR STORIES WERE TRUE BEFORE, BUT AFTER WHAT HAPPENED TO ME THIS WEEK I CHANGED MY MIND," there was this:

So I met this really cool woman in the Capitol the other day. . . . Well, she kind of blew me off, but she did give me her home phone number. She's really smart, but I'm not sure if she's going to be employed much longer. What should I do? Sincerely, Sleepless in Sacramento.

Most Californians would have been baffled by this item in Schnur Shots, a weekly fax-letter penned by Gov. Pete Wilson's campaign spokesman, Dan Schnur. But the 160 reporters and political insiders on Schnur's mailing list knew exactly what he was spoofing: Kathleen Brown's recent well-publicized visit to Wilson's office, where she gave Schnur her phone number and demanded that the governor call her to talk about debates.

You've seen the television ads. You've heard the sound bites. But some of the most scathing and entertaining stuff of the 1994 campaign is not on the airwaves but on the fax machine. Lately, shiny-papered missives from the various camps are rolling off the printer at an alarming rate. These tip sheets are packed with sarcastic, self-serving and often hilarious commentary--a far cry from the all-too-sober official countdown to Election Day.

But chances are you'll never see them, because they aren't meant for you.

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Why in a state of 17 million voters would a political campaign waste its time trying to amuse just a few hundred journalists and opinion-makers? With just five weeks to go before the Nov. 8 election, why would Schnur spend even a few precious moments writing about why Brown reminds him of Imelda Marcos? Or thinking up headings like: AS LONG AS SHE'S DROWNING, THROW HER AN ANCHOR?

"I needed an outlet," said the hyper, sharp-witted Schnur. But that's only part of the reason for Schnur Shots.

Another part is that it's a cheap way to get a campaign's message out--if not to the masses, then at least to the people the masses are likely to listen to. Moreover, a fax-letter lacks the formality of a press release, allowing its author to gloat, scold, needle, nit-pick--and, Schnur hopes, "plant the seed of an idea for a story or even for a question in a reporter's mind."

This ain't highbrow stuff. To command attention, Schnur irreverently alludes to nudie magazines, sports legends and O.J. Simpson's murder trial. (When he questions the veracity of a Brown statement, he files it under: KATO KAELIN MEMORIAL QUOTE OF THE WEEK).

In the view of the Brown campaign, Schnur's efforts are in bad taste.

"Dan has gone over the line," said Steve Glazer, a Brown aide who himself recently faxed two pages of what he called "snide and obnoxious comments" about Wilson. "This is about maintaining a sense of credibility with the press corps. Does that mean you can't be funny? No. But in my mind, (when) it becomes a cute way of insulting your opponent, that is destructive."

Lighten up, says the Wilson camp. "There's a big gulf between the news that a campaign can make by having a press conference or putting out a news release and what I would call the need for some regular background chatter about what's happening," said Larry Thomas, senior counsel to Wilson's campaign and one of three people who screen Schnur's raw prose to make sure it's appropriate.

"Schnur Shots is the '90s equivalent of hanging out at the press club in the '50s, going out and drinking beers with the guys on the campaign trail," said Thomas. "It's background noise."

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The Brown campaign makes its share of noise as well, though its occasional spin sheets lack a title and usually even a hint of humor. ("While Wilson's fiscal mishaps are sinking in," reads one, "Brown's been talking about her plan, 'Building a New California,' to turn things around.")

Though the news media is the primary audience for such barbs, there are other targeted readers for this campaign-sponsored wit. Darry Sragow, who authored the bitingly funny Garamendi Gram while he was managing Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi's gubernatorial campaign earlier this year, says he tried to use the campaign fax-letter to help his underdog candidate raise money.

"The game here is to suggest that a challenger is viable," Sragow said, recalling the way the Garamendi Gram used to poke fun at the Brown campaign. "If the insiders didn't believe that the Brown campaign was flawed, then it would (have been) much more difficult for us to be able to raise the money we needed to be able to affect the perceptions of non-insiders-- real voters."

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