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Put Schwarzenegger Under Media Microscope

August 08, 2003|William A. Babcock | William A. Babcock, a former director of the University of Minnesota's Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law, chairs the department of journalism at Cal State Long Beach.

With the recall election weeks away, Californians would be well advised to look toward Ventura -- not to the city or the freeway, but to the man, James Janos, who reshaped himself into the imposing wrestler-cum-governor-cum-media-star Jesse Ventura.

When Ventura ran for governor in Minnesota as the Independent Party's standard bearer in 1998, he was given little chance against the state's attorney general, Hubert "Skip" Humphrey III, and St. Paul's mayor, Norm Coleman.

Even though he was an announced candidate, Minnesota's broadcast and print media viewed Ventura as an amusing sideshow until, just a few weeks before the election, he began getting higher poll numbers. From that point on, Minnesota's news media covered Ventura more or less equally with Humphrey and Coleman, even though he was still depicted in some stories as having little chance of winning.

The problem was that although Humphrey's and Coleman's stands on virtually every public policy issue had been well documented for years, Ventura's views and likely policies had received scant scrutiny.

As a result, on election day in 1998, Minnesota voters knew much more about Humphrey and Coleman than they did about Ventura. Familiarity apparently bred contempt -- the voters stunned the state and nation by giving Ventura his upset win.

Today, California journalists face Minnesota deja vu with Arnold Schwarzenegger. The media can from now on either give all viable political candidates essentially equal coverage or they can decide that since the views and policies of other candidates -- especially Gov. Gray Davis -- have received so much ink and air time during past years, the vast bulk of coverage now needs to be centered on Schwarzenegger and other political unknowns who have a real chance.

There is a precedent for the media deciding to cover a candidate extensively. A few years back, the New Orleans Times-Picayune concentrated on former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke in his race for Louisiana governor. By most accounts, the paper's extensive news coverage was honest, if not balanced.

Though I am in no way equating Schwarzenegger's movie persona with Duke's racist past, California voters know more about Schwarzenegger as a bodybuilder and Hollywood action figure than they do of his public policy ideas. To fill in the gaps, the state's media should doggedly question him on his views and not accept simplistic answers. The media should investigate his past and treat him as a candidate, not a curiosity.

If journalists do not now cover him like a blanket, California voters will be shortchanged, and Minnesota's one-act Ventura production could well gain a second act, with Schwarzenegger getting top billing by media default.

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