Dirty Recall Games: Schwarzenegger and the Media

Published on commondreams.org, September 30, 2003

The latest CNN/USA Today poll in the California Recall Election betrays a dangerous trend: a large majority of Californians now polled think that the recall is a good idea — 63% compared with 59% three weeks ago. So now the candidates running to replace Gray Davis really do matter– not all 135 of the registered candidates whose number seems to be the object of much amusement across the nation — but the top candidates, one of who will most likely be our new governor. This means either Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, or actor and body builder, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Schwarzenegger scored the highest in this latest poll which is the second most disturbing aspect of the poll. His popularity is now at 40%, compared to Bustamante’s 25%, a drastic turnaround compared to 25/30 three weeks ago. Not withstanding the sheer power of popular culture to catapult any celebrity onto the political stage, Mr. Schwarzenegger has played a very dirty game, and those who have bent rules to help him, are equally culpable.

The 1934 Communications Act has an Equal Time provision which asserts that any media program, barring purely news programs, cannot provide an unfair share of broadcast time to any single candidate in an election without making available equal time to all other candidates within 7 days of the original broadcast date. To date, Schwarzenegger’s friends in the media have bent over backwards and widely featured him in apparent violations of the Equal time rule. Clearly these media spotlights are much more beneficial to a candidate who has little to say and refuses to debate other candidates unless given the questions beforehand. But if you look closely, it is not simply Howard Stern, Jay Leno, Oprah Winfrey and Larry King who have bent the rules of fair game, but the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) itself. In a September 9th ruling, the FCC decided that the Howard Stern show was a “bonafide news interview program and therefore exempt…[D]ecisions on format, content, and participants are based on newsworthiness.” It is difficult to see how a show that features banana sucking contests and dates with porn stars as prizes qualifies as news. The FCC justified this by saying that “guests that happen to be political candidates are not selected to advance their candidacies.” It is comforting that the FCC, charged with overseeing our airwaves, places such deep trust in the agendas of Stern, Winfrey and other tabloid talk show hosts.

The Equal Time provision that required Schwarzenegger’s movies to be barred from network TV in the run up to the election has done little to prevent his star power from grabbing Californians’ votes through the idiot box. Cable stations, which are exempt from the Equal Time rule, have routinely run the Terminator movies in anticipation of the elections – only two channels, the Sci-fi and FX channels have chosen voluntarily not to air Schwarzenegger’s films. “People will go on seeing his movie on cable channels anyway,” said Martin Kaplan, professor of communications at the University of Southern California. “In any case he gets so much attention from the media that he is still the person most in voters’ faces” (AFP, 08/14). Schwarzenegger didn’t have to bankrupt his campaign in order to buy publicity – the media are providing it for free.

Even with the free ride from major media and the FCC, the Schwarzenegger “Total Recall” campaign is about 2 million dollars in debt. “Total Recall” is outspending all other candidates’ campaigns on paid advertisements on the airwaves, and incurring the largest debt of any of the candidates. With his rhetoric of cutting spending while keeping taxes down in an already bankrupt state, Schwarzenegger has promised that his business acumen is just what California needs. In a post election California, one hopes that quality schools, hospitals, jobs and elder care are at least as important to Mr. Schwarzenegger as winning an election.

This essay is not about Arnold’s accent, or his physical appearance, or even his extra-marital affairs. Recent comments from the left or Democratic Party on such issues are spiteful personal attacks that have little to do with Schwarzenegger’s fitness for office. His past life is relevant only in as much as it reflects his attitudes toward women and people of color. Schwarzenegger’s notorious bragging of sexual and otherwise degrading assaults on women have clearly struck a deep chord in women who have largely rejected this candidate. His persistent use of the “n” word, now publicized by two black fellow body builders, far overshadow the Lieutenant Governor’s similar mishap. His assertion that he is a poster child for immigrants, while opposing drivers’ licenses for undocumented workers and supporting the racist Proposition 187, speaks volumes about the race and class privilege he will undoubtedly preserve if he wins.

Having a pro-choice, pro-gun control position, Schwarzenegger is an anathema to the traditional conservative Republican, and yet most Republicans back him, not necessarily because he has specific ideas on how to run the fifth largest economy in the world, but because “he can win”. Mr. Schwarzenegger imagines that talking down to the public through clichés based on his movies will be enough to sell his qualifications. This is what he has to say when he is not engaging in Terminator-speak:

“The mass [sic] wants to hear one thing and wants to see one thing: Do I trust this guy? Does he have answers? How does he handle himself with the media? How does he handle himself out there? And this is someone that I can rally behind him and say, yes I want to go with this guy, he’s bringing me hope. And that’s what I want to bring to the table here, not the details. … ” (AP, 09/04).

Schwarzenegger has certainly figured out how to “handle himself with the media”. State-wide and national media have done little to challenge this type of condescending and self-serving rhetoric, choosing instead to hold Schwarzenegger’s hand all the way into Sacramento.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and producer of KPFK Radio’s ‘Uprising’, a daily drive-time morning public affairs program in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. KPFK is part of the Pacifica Radio Network. Sonali is also the co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a non-profit that works in solidarity with Afghan women.