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Not right, `Tonight'

October 13, 2006

AMONG THE LATE-NIGHT PROMOS you aren't likely ever to hear, add this one: "Coming up on 'The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,' Jay chats up Heidi Klum, Robin Williams and Phil Angelides!"

Not many weeknight couch potatoes would be lured to their TV sets by the prospect of California's Democratic gubernatorial candidate trading quips with Leno about his humble Sacramento upbringing or his plan to raise the income ceilings on Cal Grants, which is why his invitation to appear on the program hasn't so far materialized. Yet it's also why Leno and NBC should have known better than to invite Angelides' more telegenic Republican rival for the governor's office, Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the show just four weeks before the election.

Angelides cried foul after Schwarzenegger's appearance Wednesday night, claiming that NBC is violating the equal-time provision of the Communications Act by not giving him the same consideration as his opponent. He doesn't have much of a legal argument. News interview shows are exempt from the provision, and Leno often interviews important public figures, so his program almost certainly qualifies.

Illegal or not, Schwarzenegger's appearance was clearly inappropriate. Leno at one point asked his friend the governor about the attack ads from Angelides that have sought to tie Schwarzenegger to President Bush, who is deeply unpopular in California. "To link me to George Bush is like linking me to an Oscar," Schwarzenegger replied.

It was the most entertaining line of the night, but it also blew away any pretense that this wasn't a campaign appearance. It's hard to imagine Leno asking just one presidential candidate on his show in the weeks before an election and ignoring the other, and the same should apply to the state race.

Booking guests on shows like Leno's is all about timing; celebrities appear when they want to promote their newest movie or album, not necessarily when Leno's schedulers want them. The problem is, Schwarzenegger still acts like a movie star rather than a public official, and NBC still treats him that way.

There's no reason he couldn't have been booked after the election rather than before. But just as he made the TV circuit when he wanted to promote his latest "Terminator" movie, now he's doing it to promote himself as governor. Yet different rules apply.

The airwaves are granted to broadcasters for free, with the understanding that they are a public trust. Using them to boost favored candidates for office violates that trust, even if it doesn't violate the law.

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