Star Power: Arnold Schwarzenegger's Celebrity Status Attracted Massive Media Attention to California's Recall Election, and Not Just in the Golden State. It Also Enabled the Actor to Cruise to Victory While Largely Ignoring Political Reporters

By Smolkin, Rachel | American Journalism Review, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Star Power: Arnold Schwarzenegger's Celebrity Status Attracted Massive Media Attention to California's Recall Election, and Not Just in the Golden State. It Also Enabled the Actor to Cruise to Victory While Largely Ignoring Political Reporters


Smolkin, Rachel, American Journalism Review


As Arnold Schwarzenegger charged through an adoring crowd September 3 a heckler lobbed an egg at him. The action-movie icon and Republican candidate for governor, simply slipped off his defaced blazer without losing his composure o missing a beat.

It was a vaudeville moment replayed endlessly on television and, in retrospect, a decent metaphor for the way California's new governor handled not only flying objects but also journalistic scrutiny. He limited his interactions with political reporters, an when the mainstream media raised question about his lack of specificity, or his political neophyte status, or his behavior toward women, Schwarzenegger simply plowed forward, cameras in tow. He ignored, attacked and eve thanked the media, but he never followed their lead.

As a megawatt celebrity, he didn't have to.

On August 6, Schwarzenegger flashed his multimillion-dollar smile on NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" and announced his candidacy for governor, giving birth to a media circus. As CNN correspondent Bob Franken observe about the recall race two months to the day later, "It's been all about Arnold since the beginning, and it's all about Arnold Schwarzenegger now."

Much of the coverage was serious and substantive. But the muscled Hollywood hero infused his candidacy with movie references and Tinseltown glamour, creating moments of comedy and even absurdity. In a September 24 debate--the only one Schwarzenegger participated in--moderator Stan Statham felt obliged to reassure viewers, "This is not Comedy Central. I swear."

The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg perhaps best captured the sometimes-cartoonish flavor of the race. Writing about the ruling by a three-judge panel--later reversed--to postpone the recall, Hertzberg observed, "No matter whom any of this craziness is good for or bad for, the decision discombobulated everybody. No one had the slightest idea what to do. So everybody just kept running straight ahead at top speed, like Looney Tunes characters who've just gone off a cliff. Their feet are churning furiously, but the vertigo is something fierce."

At times, the media played supporting roles in the spectacle, and the press horde featured am unusual mingling of journalists. Among the reporters trailing Schwarzenegger the day before the election, Washington Post national political reporter Dan Balz noticed, were "people like Pat O'Brien from 'Access Hollywood.' This is something you would never see in a normal political campaign."

Roger Simon, political editor and chief political correspondent for U.S. News & World Report, counted 100 cameras from 14 different countries at Schwarzenegger's victory party. "I've never seen 100 cameras for any event," including those featuring presidents, he says.

Indeed, the Tyndall Report, a weekly newsletter that monitors broadcast television news, calculated that the weekday nightly newscasts on ABC. CBS and NBC devoted a total of 192 minutes to the recall election from August 1 through October 8, an "unprecedented" level of national coverage for a statewide election. Schwarzenegger alone attracted 81 minutes of that coverage, more than any other aspect of the race. By contrast, the 10 (now nine) Democratic presidential contenders received a mere 39 nunutes total in the same period.

Local TV stations also saturated the airwaves with recall news. Lou Cannon, a former Washington Post reporter and longtime observer of California politics, wrote in an October 2 piece for the state government news Web site Stateline.org, "[T]he recall election has changed the dynamics of electronic news coverage in a state in which politics normally gets less coverage than a freeway car chase."

Bob Long, vice president and news director Of KNBC in Los Angeles (NBC 4), says it was the people, not the news media, who were responsible for all that face time. "Arnold's celebrity created early on a contender because of his notoriety The electorate responded, not us. …

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