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INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS

California Recall Election Race Like No Other

Aired October 10, 2003 - 19:30:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Nic Robertson, in London. Welcome to CNN's INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS, where we bring together leading journalists to exam media coverage around the world.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAY LENO, TV TALK SHOW HOST: Today, Arnold revealed his healthcare plan. Every woman gets a free breast exam basically is what it is.

DAVID LETTERMAN, TV TALK SHOW HOST: You know what happened while you folks were applauding? You know what just happened? Five more women accused Arnold of groping. Two more gropes and he's an honorary priest.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROBERTSON: The comedians enjoyed it. The voting public too. And of course, so did the media. The California recall election was a race like no other, captivating not just local reporters, but the international press as well.

The celebrity-actor-turned-politician, Arnold Schwarzenegger, claimed victory against Governor Gray Davis.

To talk about the media coverage of this, I'm joined now in Los Angeles by "Los Angeles Time" columnist Tim Rutten and CNN's Richard Quest.

Tim, a few weeks ago, this outcome might have seemed somewhat improbable. Your newspaper dug pretty deep and came up with allegations of groping that might have damaged another politician. What happened here?

TIM RUTTEN, "LOST ANGELES TIMES": Well, I think that first of all, Gray Davis was immensely unpopular and you can't underestimate that factor as an operator in this election.

But also, I think that Arnold Schwarzenegger benefits from what you might call lowered expectations that people have of someone who comes out of the film industry. This sort of behavior is more or less expected of people in the industry, or at least people in his part of the industry. I think it might have gone down rather hard by Gregory Peck, for example.

But in any event, I think they discounted this in the way that the market discounts bad news, you know.

ROBERTSON: Richard, you've been there, in Los Angeles, watching how the media has covered it there. Could this have happened in London? Could Arnold Schwarzenegger have been voted mayor of London?

RICHARD QUEST, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think what you have to remember about this is that no matter how hard we tried -- those of us from the international media -- to talk to ordinary people and to say, "Look, do you realize you are about to elect somebody who's got no political experience, who's never run a trillion dollar economy, and frankly has never employed hundreds of thousands of people."

They simply said, "We don't care. We know this. We're not fools. We are aware of what we're about to do, but we're still going to do it regardless."

And that, to a degree, is because there is a sense of feeling of crisis, that things have gone badly wrong, that Gray Davis was inept or incompetent, and therefore they were prepared to take this, what frankly in any other society or any other election, would be regarded as a monumental risk.

But they knew what they were doing there. They knew they had not the faintest or foggiest idea what Schwarzenegger would do once he got into power, other than perhaps repeal the car tax.

ROBERTSON: Tim, do you not feel that newspapers and other media outlets perhaps didn't do enough to explain to their audiences the potential risks for putting into elected office somebody who didn't have the background and experience that would normally go with that job?

RUTTEN: To the contrary. I think that newspapers and for that matter local television, which long ago abandoned covering politics in California, did an extraordinary amount. I mean it was virtually wall to wall Schwarzenegger all the time.

My own newspaper, "The Los Angeles Times," which is the largest newspaper in the state, devoted, you know, hundreds and hundreds of column inches to this election and dozens and dozens of reports. I think that my colleague here hit the essential point on the head, which is that the voters were indifferent to this because, A, they bear great animosity towards Gray Davis, one of the most astonishingly unpopular politicians in my lifetime.

Gray Davis was a master through his career of convincing the electorate that he was the worst possible man for the job except for the fellow he was running against. In this case, it didn't work.

QUEST: And on this point, you can only play chess, if you like, if you've got somebody else to play with. And no matter how hard the media here tried to pin down -- and they did, I mean, you know, Tim's right. The local media here went to great lengths at learning the art of political reporting from virtually nothing.

But you can only do that if the other person will play along, and Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't play along. So how many times can you throw at the proverbial fan the allegation, "What are you going to do, there are no policies, you haven't set it out," and all you got in return was this "We will sort it out. We will have an audit. We will see what the books look like and then we will make our judgment."

So they were to some extent pushing at an open door. There was nothing more they could say that would actually. I mean, it's the old thing -- if you've said it five times, this man has no policies, what else are you going to tell the electorate?

ROBERTSON: Well, how would it have gone, do you think, in London, Richard? You know how just aggressive the media can be here if it senses, if it's on the blood of some politician or some public figure. Would it have played out, given the same passions with the people about failed politics so far, would it have played out the same way?

QUEST: Well, we have had a similar sort of position in Britain, if you go back to the Major administration and the problems over Europe. To some extent, they did try that same tact. They did try to say, "We will wait. We will wait."

Tony Blair has tried that same tact more successfully on the question of a referendum going back to the last election on Europe.

But the press and the media, and I think to some extent because the parliamentary system is so much more adversarial, so much more aggressive, they weren't able to get away with just simply saying wait and see, wait and see, wait and see.

What Schwarzenegger did, unbelievably successfully, because of a sense of crisis, because of a sense that things are deeply wrong in the state -- and I think perhaps it was overstated. The economy is in a poor shape, but it is not a basket case. I think -- would you agree? Things are not the dramatic state of crisis that I think some people have been led to believe.

RUTTEN: I think that's right, and it is, after all, the sixth largest economy in the world. If California were a member of the United Nations, this would be the sixth largest economy in the world.

It has problems in the same way that other economies do, but I'd say considerably less, say, than Germany or Japan. So in that sense, that's true.

The other thing here, and when you make the reference to parliamentary democracies, this was the first time we had an election cycle in the United States that was about the length of a parliamentary election cycle. And we're very ill-equipped to deal with it. 60 days is a nano-second in American politics. We would normally -- we, the press -- would normally have had, oh, 18 months to scrutinize a candidate like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who came to the race essentially as terra incognito to the press.

I mean, none of the work that would normally have been done on a politician had been done on him. So everybody started from square one, and had to do all the heavy lifting and the reporting, which is why some of the more critical stories came so late in the 60 day cycle. 60 days just isn't very long to do basic investigative work on someone who spent most of their life obscuring parts of their past and avoiding access to the press.

ROBERTSON: Let me ask you about that, if I may, Tim, just interrupt you there. Let's say in a year or two years time, and Arnold Schwarzenegger isn't doing very well, there's another recall, are the public going to turn to the media and say, "You didn't do a good job informing us just how bad this guy might have been"?

RUTTEN: I think not. No. I think that they are far more likely to blame him.

They blame the media on a consistent basis. They don't do it anymore than they usually do. The media in the United States is not well-liked. We're regarded somewhere between used car salesmen and trial lawyers in the public's.

ROBERTSON: Richard, taking this experience you've just had in California, when you come back to Britain, are you going to cover elections with a new light here?

QUEST: Well, the crucial thing you have to understand is the important part, not the media, per se, but that popular culture plays in this country. More so than anywhere else in the world.

And what you have had here is, if you like, the perfect combination of popular culture with politics. Nowhere else -- California, obviously, is more familiar with celebrities. They're names are better known. They are in the news much more. The politics of celebrity is much more familiar to the people of California.

But that said, nowhere else in the world is television as important, is the doings and goings of celebrities, as closely followed as it is here in the United States. And perhaps, Nic, what is truly interesting is that the two have fused. And really, inside California, nobody seems to think it's that strange, but because you had Reagan, and you had Clint Eastwood, you had Sonny Bono. You've had these different.

RUTTEN: George Murphy.

QUEST: George Murphy. You've had these different actors and entertainers going into politics, and nobody seems to think, like you or I might think, "Hey then, what's going on?"

They see it as being the natural evolution of the media culture.

ROBERTSON: Richard and Tim, I'm afraid to say it, but we're out of time. Thank you very much for joining us here.

Up next on the program, a reality show that may not have been real.

Don't go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ROBERTSON: You're watching INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS.

One man, a gun, and a very morally questionable game of Russian Roulette. More than 3 million viewers tuned in to watch a British illusionist perform a new stunt.

Darren Brown (ph) was seen putting a handgun to his head containing what the public were told were live bullets.

Now many, including the police, are claiming live ammunition was not used and that the whole event was staged.

But beyond the program's authenticity, should it have been broadcast at all?

Joining me now, here in the studio, is Zoe Williams, columnist with Britain's "Guardian" newspaper and John Preston, television reviewer and critic for "The Daily Telegraph."

So, bad taste?

JOHN PRESTON, "THE DAILY TELEGRAPH": I do think it was in incredibly bad taste, actually, yes. I thought it was a remarkably poor piece of scheduling, and I think actually what exacerbated the whole thing, as far as I was concerned, was that it was immediately preceded by Tom Mongo's (ph) program, about David Kelly, death of a scientist.

So actually what you had was, here's one program about a man who was so unhappy that he killed himself, immediately followed by a man teasingly going through the motions of killing himself in order to advance his career. And that did seem to me a remarkably tacky thing to do.

ROBERTSON: That's just the bad fortune of scheduling, surely. I mean, the program itself, should it have been broadcast at any time?

PRESTON: I don't think it should have been broadcast, no, because I actually found it extremely tacky, and I don't -- I mean, personally, I don't buy the argument that, you know, it's actually going to lead people to then kill themselves by watching at home. But I just found it incredibly bad taste.

ROBERTSON: Zoe, was this bad taste?

ZOE WILLIAMS, "THE GUARDIAN": No, not at all. I mean, for years, magicians have done dangerous things. You know, people dive off really tall diving boards into tiny buckets of water. That was a kind of early 20th century thing.

You know, you kind of expect it with illusionists and magicians, and indeed anybody with an extraordinary skill, that they're going to do an extraordinary thing.

No, I don't think it's bad taste at all.

ROBERTSON: But early in the 20th century, there wasn't mass market television. I mean, this is surely driven by a desire for the station to get money.

WILLIAMS: Well, everybody wants to entertain, yes, sure. But magicians have always entertained by putting themselves in danger. I mean, you know, David Blaine freezing himself and starving himself. I find him much, much more tasteless.

ROBERTSON: The illusionist whose suspended in a box above the town of London.

WILLIAMS: Yes, of course. And I just, you know, when people are starving, it's kind of unpleasant. It's kind of tacky. But when people -- when somebody who isn't going to shoot himself doesn't shoot himself, I find it quite amusing.

ROBERTSON: But the audience didn't know that, though, did they? The audience watched, why? Because they thought he was going to actually shoot himself.

WILLIAMS: I don't know. I mean, was anybody really scared? Were you scared?

PRESTON: I wasn't particularly scared. I do think there's another issue here, which is that if the whole thing really was a sham, it actually renders it even tackier, because a deceit was being practiced on the audience, and you could of course say that the audience are credulous ghouls and so what. But actually it is deceiving an audience, and that is, I think, a very dangerous thing, for any broadcasting company to do, because it's actually very -- you know, that's how propaganda starts.

WILLIAMS: Although at the same time, an awful lot of satire is there to deceive either the audience or the guests taking part, and, you know, the deception is kind of made obvious, eventually, and it adds to its power.

PRESTON: But this hadn't been made obviously, and I think that's.

WILLIAMS: No, that's true. I guess it was bound to come out though.

ROBERTSON: These days, as well, I mean, you can watch some pretty gruesome things on the Internet, some of it even live. Should the media be a better moral police for their outlet?

PRESTON: I think the should, actually, yes. I mean, you know, it's a very, very fine line, because what one wants is a reasonable degree of responsibility on the behalf of broadcasters, and you don't really want anything that smacks of censorship.

But, actually, I think that things are going awry at the moment. In a funny sort of way, they're going more awry on Channel 4 than anywhere else, and it's ironic, because Channel 4 is actually supposed to be there to elevate tastes in British broadcasting rather than, you know, step them down.

ROBERTSON: Zoe, are you quite happy with what Channel 4 is doing at the moment?

WILLIAMS: What I respect about Channel 4 in this instance is that, you know, while they're using -- I think they're getting back to a kind of much better tradition of using the public for entertainment in that, you know, at least there's somebody in the program with real talent.

I think the main problem with telly and tackiness is just getting a load of people with no talent at all and expecting them to entertain the nation.

ROBERTSON: Where does this idea of reality television end? I mean, we had "Big Brother," we had the spin-offs, the jungle version. It's now played out in living rooms across different countries around the rest of the world. Where does this sort of reality TV stop?

WILLIAMS: But this isn't reality TV is it?

PRESTON: Plainly not. It's the opposite of reality TV. It's sham TV.

WILLIAMS: But the reality is that people tuned in because the expectation was that he could kill himself.

WILLIAMS: Yes.

PRESTON: Absolutely. And I mean, just to take up an earlier point of Zoe's, I mean, of course, Zoe is right. Magicians have been doing daredevil tricks for years and years and years, jumping off cliffs into buckets and everything. But the fact is, very few people commit suicide by jumping off cliffs into buckets, whereas a lot of people do shoot themselves, and I think there is quite a critical difference here.

ROBERTSON: Where should the schedulers who schedule these programs, where should they draw the line?

WILLIAMS: I really don't know what line -- if this is a line of taste, then, you know, taste is obviously going to be a highly subjective thing. They must draw the line wherever they feel like drawing the line.

(CROSSTALK)

WILLIAMS: Sure, but that's going to be a line they draw, but you can't say, "Well, this is good taste and this is poor taste." I mean, taste is -- there is no objective taste.

ROBERTSON: Doesn't somebody have that responsibility with this media we're working with?

WILLIAMS: Somebody does, but obviously they've taken the position that their definition of good taste is better than ours.

ROBERTSON: John, do you want to see legislation on this?

PRESTON: No, I don't want to see it. Legislation is absolutely the last thing I want to see. I would just like to see a greater degree of responsibility amongst people who are actually running broadcasting.

WILLIAMS: So what is your worry, though? That people are actually going to imitate this?

PRESTON: No. My worry is not -- I actually do not believe, you know, that people are quite so credulous and stupid as, you know, broadcasters and journalists like to believe. So no, actually, I don't think that's a particular danger.

I actually think, in a rather kind of possibly overly-serious way, that this -- implicit within this there is a kind of contempt for human life, and it's holding human life very cheap, and I think -- I find that personally repugnant and dangerous.

ROBERTSON: Zoe, shouldn't.

WILLIAMS: I have to content that there's absolutely no way the guy thought he was going to die.

PRESTON: That hardly matters. The fact is, it was a stunt that was set up with the expectation he might die.

ROBERTSON: Well, the public thought he might, and that's why they tuned in. I mean, where does it end? Where should broadcasters say, "We can't draw them in on that issue."

WILLIAMS: I have to say, I think it was a mistake for him, in terms of his career, to do it.

PRESTON: Why?

WILLIAMS: What's he going to do now?

PRESTON: Well, I agree with you.

ROBERTSON: He can live off that for sometime to come.

WILLIAMS: Well, quite, but, you know, he's a young guy. I mean, he's probably got 20 years left during which he wants a job. I don't think he should have tried to kill himself when he was 35, but, yes, I mean, obviously, it is quite extreme. I would really contend that it's not -- that it doesn't actually cheapen human life at all, because really, it's a game of skill, isn't it?

PRESTON: Not if it's fake. It isn't a game of skill.

(CROSSTALK)

ROBERTSON: You don't think there's any risk of some kid trying this out? I mean.

WILLIAMS: No. I mean, look, "Deer Hunter" glamorized Russian Roulette. That kind of made it.

ROBERTSON: But people do mimic what they see on television.

WILLIAMS: But this was so -- I just don't think this made it look very glamorous. I think it made it look a bit kind of.

PRESTON: Tawdry and anti-climatic.

WILLIAMS: It looked like a kind of parlor game, you know. If you want something that's really going to make people shoot themselves, look to films, really.

PRESTON: And, in fact, it's a secondary issue, but I actually completely agree with Zoe in the fact that I think Darren Brown (ph) is an extremely talented magician, and I think this was a colossal misjudgment on his part, because actually, there is a stage -- of course, any magic trick involves conning the audience, but if the whole thing is a con from the word go, then I think, mistake.

ROBERTSON: John, Zoe, thank you very much for joining us, and glad you reached agreement in the end.

The United Arab Emeritus information minister is calling for the Arab media to tell the truth after misleading the region on Iraq. Comments at the opening of the Arab Media Summit in Dubai; he says, "Before the war in Iraq, the Arab media failed to portray the repression and terrorism of Saddam Hussein's regime."

He also urged the Arab media not to inflame emotions but to enlighten the audience.

Before we go, a tribute to journalists who lost their lives covering the conflict in Iraq. A few days ago, members of the media gathered in London to honor their lost colleagues. 21 journalists died and two are still missing.

That's all for this edition of INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENTS. I'm Nic Robertson, in London. Thanks for joining us.

END

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