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Campaign Is the Ultimate Reality Show

With Schwarzenegger, the race is a 'wall-to-wall' media spectacle. But will excite trump insight?

August 08, 2003|Peter Nicholas and Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writers

During an 11-minute, 21-second appearance on the "Tonight Show" to announce his candidacy for governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger transformed a recall election that was already a national spectacle into a global media story that may break all the old rules about the way a race for elective office is waged, won and covered.

An electronic media that is largely inattentive to elections now finds in the California governor's race something it truly values: a reality TV show with a proven ratings winner cast as the star.

"It will be wall-to-wall," Marty Kaplan, associate dean of USC's Annenberg School for Communication, said of the campaign's TV coverage.

"It's entertaining. It's exciting. The circus has come to town. That's good for ratings."

Schwarzenegger's campaign staff is not underestimating the role the electronic media will play. Sean Walsh, one of the actor-turned-politician's senior strategists, said he believes the winner won't be decided by political ads, but by free media.

"It's a great way to see who has what it takes," he said.

But Schwarzenegger's wide appeal for TV has drawn questions about fairness and access to free media in a 59-day race with a crowded field.

Schwarzenegger's entry into the race to succeed Gov. Gray Davis sparked debate, as well, about whether the campaign will be covered as entertainment or politics.

Already he is drawing interest from entertainment news shows such as "Access Hollywood" and "Entertainment Tonight," which normally shun politics.

Such shows are free to cover Schwarzenegger and not other candidates because they are exempt from equal opportunity requirements. They were granted newscast status by the Federal Communications Commission in the 1990s, enabling them to cover candidates based on newsworthiness.

On Thursday, for example, NBC officials defended their decision to have Schwarzenegger appear on the "Tonight Show," which drew its highest ratings in three years.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger is a newsmaker, and people want to talk to him about his decision to run," said Bill Wheatley, vice president of NBC News.

On the way to the Oct. 7 vote, Schwarzenegger is likely to benefit from the relaxation of federal equal time regulations that, when drafted in the 1930s, ensured no one candidate could be covered to the exclusion of others.

Not only has Schwarzenegger been awash in invitations from the big networks, some friends in show business have used time during their own movie promotions to tout him as a candidate.

Appearing Thursday on "Good Morning America" to promote her new film "Freaky Friday," actress Jamie Lee Curtis said her "True Lies" co-star "will make a fantastic governor.... What else does California need except somebody who is going to do what they say they're going to do." In most political campaigns, TV coverage is minimal.

Kaplan cited a study of the 1998 governor's race in California, which showed that in the top seven media markets, less than 0.5% of the coverage was devoted to the election.

"In California, in particular, by and large the broadcast media have walked away from the enterprise of covering politics," said Paul Taylor, founder of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a public interest group.

Schwarzenegger no doubt will boost commitment to political coverage. But political analysts wonder whether the extra attention will come at the expense of other candidates. And will the inexhaustible coverage translate into substantive coverage? Consider this exchange from Wednesday's "Tonight Show" appearance:

Jay Leno: "Arnold, I thank you. This is kind of the American dream...."

Schwarzenegger: "I'm going to pump California up!"

Because of his fame, Schwarzenegger can bypass the newspaper reporters and local TV news correspondents likely to pose the toughest questions in favor of entertainment shows that won't demand specifics about fixing California's problems, some political analysts said.

"What will access to Arnold be?" said Harvey Englander, a Los Angeles political consultant. "Is it going to be the walk and wave? How many in-depth interviews will he do? How many sit-downs will he have with the media who cover government and politics in California?"

Philip Trounstine, who heads the Survey and Policy Institute at San Jose State, said it is critical for political writers to pose serious policy questions.

"Arnold may try to sidestep the political writers," he said. "As long as Jay Leno is your only interviewer and you don't have to face a [veteran political reporter], it can be a cakewalk.

"Schwarzenegger has a Q factor now that other politicians couldn't possibly have. That's all fine and dandy, except there is a huge, unprecedented responsibility to find out where he stands on policy issues."

Added Kaplan: "He's not going to pick up a ray gun the way he does in the movies and splatter it across the Assembly. And he's not going to literally muscle his opponents.

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