The sum-up headline for the California recall could be “Schwarzenegger Wins, Media Lose.” Despite the overt favoritism of national media outlets for the Democratic candidates, complete with all kinds of loose, unsubstantiated last-minute Arnold “scoops” from 1975, the people of California threw out Gray Davis along with all the lobbying by Dan, Tom, and Peter. Now that’s it’s all over, here’s a brief overview of the last two months of national coverage.
Arnold was the most scrutinized candidate. Despite the fact that the recall petition suggested great dissatisfaction with the governance of Gray Davis, a celebrity-obsessed national media–which also felt that Schwarzenegger was the immediate front-runner–focused almost all of their critical scrutiny, with named and unnamed sources, on the movie star.
This became especially amazing with the outbreak of groping allegations on Thursday of last week. By the weekend, Arnold was granting interviews to network-news anchors, who are not in the habit these days of interviewing governors or gubernatorial candidates. The anchors were remarkably unfair in their questioning, especially in light of the dramatically different standard for sexual scrutiny they set for President Clinton in the last century. Peter Jennings asked: “It cannot be easy to spend the last few days of this campaign having to deal constantly with being called a serial groper or a serial abuser of women and…your admiration for Hitler. Is that tough?”
What Arnold didn’t know before answering is that a Nexis search didn’t find the words “serial groper” or “serial abuser of women” in the archive of ABC News transcripts at any time during the Clinton years. That would include the occasions on which Jennings interviewed Bill Clinton. Perhaps at that time the thought occurred to him that bringing up the allegations isn’t what the accused “serial groper” wants to discuss.
NBC’s Tom Brokaw lectured: “A lot of these women have made very specific accusations about grabbing them sexually and making lewd suggestions. You described it as playful and rowdy and the kind of mischief that you engaged in when you were a younger man. But based on their descriptions, in many states, what you did would be criminal, it would be a sexual assault of some kind.”
This exchange marks a glaring and dramatic political bias, since in 1999, far from any Election Day, Brokaw refused to run a story on NBC’s Nightly News about Juanita Broaddrick. President Clinton was never required to provide any specific answers about those allegations. The only bone Brokaw would throw was a brief, very euphemistic plug of the emotional interview Broaddrick gave Lisa Myers for Dateline. This is what Brokaw said, in its entirety, at the very end of the February 24, 1999 Nightly News: “Tonight on Dateline NBC Lisa Myers with an exclusive interview with the woman known as Jane Doe No. 5, Juanita Broaddrick. Her controversial accusations about President Clinton. Dateline tonight at 8, 7 Central.” The words “rape” or “sexual assault” or even “criminal” behavior were nowhere to be heard.
TOM THE CON
Tom McClintock was the most labeled candidate. Even though the national networks and newsmagazines gave Arianna Huffington (at about one-fifth of McClintock’s polling number when she dropped out) more interviews and news coverage, nearly every report I saw on McClintock made it seem like he had three first names: “Conservative Republican Tom McClintock.” For spice, they might change it to “Conservative State Senator Tom McClintock” or “Stalwart Conservative Tom McClintock.” In the end, this is great labeling for building a conservative constituency for McClintock. But it’s ridiculous in news coverage that had no labels for Arnold–and especially in comparison to unlabeled Gray Davis and Cruz Bustamante, whose liberalism is on most matters the polar opposite of McClintock’s positions.
FEELING FOR GRAY
Gray Davis was the most sympathetic candidate. The national media audience almost never heard about state issues, about the dramatic increases in government taxing and spending that drove the recall. The Cato Institute governor-watchers gave Gray Davis an “F” grade last year. He had “become one of the biggest spending governors in California history.” Spending went up 13 percent in 1999-2000, and then rose another 14 percent in 2001-2002. Davis bungled the state’s energy crisis by locking in electricity prices at two to three times the market price. The bond rating has been downgraded twice in his tenure. The networks cemented their image for focusing on cash, flash, and unproven tabloid trash instead of those boring issues that voters focus on.
Even as Davis pounded away at Schwarzenegger as a closet Nazi and a potentially criminal sexual offender, he still was offered mild questions. On Monday, NBC’s Campbell Brown threw wiffle balls such as: “Can you state, unequivocally, that no one in your campaign, no one in the Democratic party, that you’re aware of, is behind these stories?” And: “Schwarzenegger also told Tom Brokaw, in this interview, that he would not respond to specific allegations until after the election. What do you think about that?”
Perhaps more jaw-dropping was ABC’s Brian Rooney on Friday morning pushing Davis to get harsher with Schwarzenegger: “He denied some of it, admitted some of it and apologized. He may have admitted some things that are a criminal offense–it’s sexual assault.” When Davis suggested they wait for more proof, Rooney insisted: “Back in August, Schwarzenegger’s campaign chief told the Sacramento Bee that this is not a position election, this is a character election. If they established it as a character race, why not meet them on those terms?” This, from the networks who spent 1996 decrying any whisper of a “character issue.”
Cruz Bustamante was the most invisible frontrunner. Even in the weeks that he was touted as leading the race, the networks spent very little time reviewing the positions or statements of Bustamante, including his gaffe of using the “N” word at a 2001 trade-union event, or his ties to the bizarre Chicano-separatist group the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan (MEChA). Neither ABC nor NBC mentioned Bustamante’s MEChA ties, even though both interviewed him at length. When CBS’s Bob Schieffer and Los Angeles Times reporter Doyle McManus grilled Bustamante on the August 31 Face the Nation, they also skipped MEChA, inviting him instead to pile on second-place GOP candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger for his raunchy comments in a 1977 issue of the pornographic magazine Oui. Even as he lagged behind Bustamante, he was still the only candidate the media elite felt like scrutinizing.
Now that Gov. Schwarzenegger has been elected, let us all bow our heads and pray that we won’t have another four years of Ventura-philia. Will Arnold buckle down with California’s problems, or will he be turning up on Hardball town meetings every week and selling action figures? Our shameless media will no doubt continue their tendency to avoid every other governor in the country and fixate on the star in Sacramento. He may be all rehabilitated to star as the liberal media’s favorite Republican at the 2004 GOP convention.
–Tim Graham is director of media analysis at the Media Research Center.