Arnold Schwarzenegger: What’s Fairness Got to Do With It?

Aug 18, 2003  •  Post A Comment

After Carson, Calif., factory worker Patricia Frierson won $91 million in the California SuperLotto Plus game, she was asked who she would be supporting in the gubernatorial recall election. She thought for a second and then said Arnold Schwarzenegger, “because I like his movies.”
That may not be the usual reason people vote, but in California’s merry-go-round of an election, Ms. Frierson’s sentiment could be a deciding factor in who wins. As was the case with Jesse Ventura in Minnesota a few years ago, people who don’t normally vote are likely to be drawn out by the circus nature of the election and by the presence of a celebrity, which gives Mr. Schwarzenegger a huge edge.
The power of celebrity is well-known in our society, but there once were checks and balances on that kind of raw media muscle. However, it was another actor who became a California governor and then went on to the White House who did away with the one rule that could have made the recall at least a little more of a level playing field.
It was called the fairness doctrine and it required broadcasters to aggressively work to provide an equal and balanced point of view on all issues. Created in 1949 in the belief that broadcasting is a public trust, it said that TV stations had an obligation to provide a reasonable opportunity for discussion of contrasting points of view on controversial issues of public importance.
Don’t confuse it with the equal-time provision of the law, which has been much discussed in the past week. The equal-time provision, which applies to broadcast but not cable channels, means that if a station shows a Schwarzenegger movie, for instance, another candidate could file a request within seven days of the airing demanding an equal amount of airtime. It will effectively keep everything from “Hercules in New York” to “The Terminator” off the air during the election.
There is an exception in the equal-time provision for appearances on news programs, interview shows and spot coverage of news events. That is why Mr. Schwarzenegger is free to use “The Tonight Show” as a platform to instantly reach millions of potential voters-like Ms. Frierson-who are susceptible to his celebrity.
That gives Mr. Schwarzenegger an unbelievable advantage, since pretty much any talker, celebrity magazine or interview show would like nothing better than to provide a platform for the action star.
What is stunning is how much Mr. Schwarzenegger relies on his celebrity to carry the day in a relatively short election cycle. At least until now, he has carefully and cleverly avoided detailing his views on social issues or on how he will solve California’s monstrous budget crisis.
The fact is, based on his past statements, Mr. Schwarzenegger might well scare off many voters if he told them his real views on hot-button issues such as abortion, gay rights and government spending. A number of conservative groups backing other candidates are trying to get the word out, but they are a drop in the ocean next to the power of this one candidate in a crowded field to use the celebrity culture in his favor.
The fact is this election will likely be decided not on issues, money or the experience of the candidate, but rather on who has the most name recognition and can bring out the most voters. That is why Mr. Schwarzenegger really is “The Terminator” in this case. As long as he doesn’t mess up and actually talk about issues, he will likely be swept into office.
Does that mean he is qualified? Absolutely not. In fact, he appears to have many of the traits Jesse Ventura had when he was elected. Mr. Schwarzenegger is famous for making his decisions based on instinct and then trying to blast his point across. In Minnesota the same policy got Mr. Ventura elected, but it was why he basically failed as a governor. To actually rule, a politician needs to build a broad coalition, to get members of the legislature to join him (or her) in supporting a position.
If the fairness doctrine still existed, Mr. Schwarzenegger’s visit to Jay Leno’s couch would be seen as editorializing. That would require the stations that carry the show to make it their business to see that the other points of view were covered. That would effectively limit Mr. Schwarzenegger to news show appearances or forums where others would also have a chance.
In spring 1987 Congress tried to make the fairness doctrine the law of the land. However, the bill was vetoed by then-President Ronald Reagan as part of his philosophy of deregulation of the government. There were not enough votes in Congress to override that veto, so not only did the doctrine not become law, that was the end of the fairness doctrine altogether.
So now Californians, and an amused nation, can watch as a movie star uses the raw power of his celebrity, and all the tricks of his trade, to get millions, even billions of dollars in free media exposure, without revealing much more than his trademark smirk. A Republican who could never win a Republican primary, an actor who has never held elective office, may well win the election.
And afterward he will be able to say he won it fair and square. But we will all know the truth.