The reason(s) why most major newspapers in the United States consider the current [Sept. 15, 2003] California political season as a circus is because (a) it is, (b) because the media only want to sell advertising, (c) most major newspapers are in the eastern United States, which has always looked down on the brash young west, or (d) all of the above. The recall of a sitting governor and then-if the recall succeeds-election of a successor is a rare, possibly unique, situation.
These campaigns are shaping up to be a celebrity (and sometimes non-celebrity) spectacle, hotter than the Santa Ana winds that plague Southern California in the autumn. The two campaigns are interwoven-it would be necessary for the recall process to succeed in order to trigger the actual election for the immediately vacated seat. But the 135 certified candidates cannot wait until after the recall vote to start their campaigns, and Democratic Gov. Gray Davis is poised to finish out his term if the recall question does not pass.
Many of the nearly a score of candidates are unknown outside of their own communities, and will remain in limbo insofar as most of the voting public is concerned. Some are politicians, including Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante. Others include B-list "celebrities" such as comedian Gallagher, sitcom actor Gary Coleman, and porn magnate Larry Flint. The only larger-than-life A-list candidate is actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
If Schwarzenegger were to become governor of California, it wouldn't be the first time that an actor had ascended to the post-Ronald Reagan progressed from 1951's Bedtime for Bonzo to the state corner office and eventually to the oval office of President of the United States.
But even Schwarzenegger has been accused of lacking substance by eastern newspapers such as The New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as seasoned network broadcast journalists. These objections to the actor who now wants to be a governor, however, are strangely absent in the same media when they report on George W. Bush, whose arrival a la "Top Gun" on a returning aircraft carrier to declare the end of the major fighting in Iraq last May could be thought of as image politics demonstrated by a politician who wants to be an actor.
So, it is the personal-or, better, the personality-dimension of the race that is attracting the national spotlight on a contest that may shape up to be 2004's penultimate confluence of celebrity, spectacle and politics.
The implication for media ethics is clear: Should the media cover this situation as celebrity, as spectacle, or as politics? There are obvious arguments for or against each approach.
In theory, if the recall takes place, only a tiny fraction of the electorate might determine the winner of the subsequent election. There are so many candidates on the ballot that most of the usual determinants of an election-party preference, gender, race, religion, etc.-are unlikely to have as much effect as would the personality dimension of each candidate. His or her ethos, name recognition, even notoriety would be particularly heightened in the drive to attract (or repel) voters in an election of this sort.
However, the rest of the field lacks the stature (literally as well as figuratively) of Arnold Schwarzenegger. In an era where celebrity often rules, Schwarzenegger may represent the ultimate fusion of politics and pop culture. It isn't so much what he stands for, as it is that he stands. As the only major celebrity-regardless of his lack of political experience-his entry radically shifted the landscape of the process and established him as the Republican front runner.
Schwarzenegger is a quick study, and his peripheral connection to the Kennedy family (his wife is television news personality Maria Schriver) gave him the experience to know how to showcase his assets. He threw his hat into the ring in the familiar setting of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. He immediately announced, in a broadly appealing clichﾂ, that he wanted to be known as "the people's candidate"-as if, today, any candidate could deny the advantage of this status.
There are many other "people's" people in politics and public life. They include British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and the late Princess Diana. The "celebrity" and the "political" aspects of these characters each carry their own line of media inquiry, sometimes independent but often mutually reinforcing. Events and spectacles add to this synergy. The responsibility of the media to analyze each of these concepts-"celebrity," "politics" and "spectacle"-with respect to a given personality is often ignored. For example, should coverage of former Minnesota governor JesseVentura be assigned to the political reporter, the sports reporter, or the "people" reporter-or doesn't it matter?
After all, in the media's perspective, where there is celebrity there often is scandal-or the opportunity to manufacture scandal. The insatiable scandal-consuming appetite of the public demands that it be "in the know" on all celebrity "dirt." The media conduct a relentless cycle of inquiry and exposure. If all politicians are to be thought of solely as sources of public-attracting scandal, then our politics are certainly diminished-as will be, eventually and unquestionably, the characters of the candidates who are viewed in this way.
The pressure of such coverage, whether it involves an interview given by Schwarzenegger decades in the past, or whether he is forced to take hasty positions on important California matters such as the economy, gay rights, and energy shortages, is bound to feed on itself and raise continual questions about his consistency in position, statement and action. For example, he received a "plus" through his recruiting successful financier Warren Buffet as an economic advisor, but then received a "minus" from those who were incensed at Buffet's suggestion that Californians pay too little in real estate taxes-leading Schwarzenegger to distance himself from this concept.
The circus environment of the upcoming California elections, with often-quirky candidates from all walks of life and a cornucopia of media-fueled celebrities and spectacularly staged events, likely represents the new era of American politics. Neither the legislatures, the courts nor the public at large seem able to rein it in. That is a responsibility devolving on the media, as they grapple with celebrity, spectacle-and politics in the 21st century.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2003 (15:1), pp.14,35-36.