Dismissive coverage of Schwarzenegger assault charges
In 1992, many suspected that Clarence Thomas would not have become a Supreme Court justice if U.S. media had taken women more seriously. A decade later, it’s hard not to feel the same way about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Given different media coverage, Californians might still have elected him governor on October 7, but Schwarzenegger would surely have had a rockier ride to the statehouse–and women’s rights might have suffered less of a drubbing.
A former Mr. Universe turned actor whose blustery youth was caught on videotape, an Austrian immigrant whose father volunteered to serve with Adolph Hitler’s stormtroopers, Arnold Schwarzenegger was no shoo-in for governor. Not long after the candidate declared his intention to run, Salon‘s Tim Grieve (8/30/03) wrote that the race posed notable challenges: “The problem for Schwarzenegger isn’t just a 1977 interview with Oui magazine . . . although with references to oral sex and group sex and admissions of drug use, the interview is clearly a problem.”
What Grieve called Schwarzenegger’s “raunchy talk–and allegations of raunchy behavior” suggest a pattern “that began in the 1970s and apparently continues to the present,” he wrote. “If California voters somehow get a closer look at this X-rated, seemingly misogynist side of Arnold Schwarzenegger–that is, if their local newspapers and TV stations stop talking of Schwarzenegger’s attitudes in G-rated soundbites and begin to delve into the brutal crudeness of it all–they may soon decide that there is a lot to not like about the man who would be governor.”
Californians never got that close a look. As it turned out, boys-will-be-boys chumminess pervaded the news coverage from start to finish; embarrassing video footage (smoking marijuana in Pumping Iron, traveling to Brazil in 1983 for Playboy) barely got a showing. The G-rated euphemisms about “groping” and “fondling” and “raunchy” behavior continued, and when the Los Angeles Times finally published a long investigative report in which 11 women accused Schwarzenegger of physically assaulting them, it was the paper–not the alleged attacker–that came in for harsh condemnation. John S. Carroll, the Times‘ editor, told the press that over 1,000 people canceled their subscriptions in protest.
“There’s no question the Times used its vast resources to try and keep Gray Davis in office,” bellowed Fox News‘ Bill O’Reilly (10/7/03). The charges were politically motivated, incredible and old, said Schwarzenegger’s defenders. (In fact, the earliest allegation dated from 1979, the most recent from 2000.) The Schwarzenegger crew’s biggest complaint was that the article appeared less than a week before the election. The L.A. Times should apologize, chided Susan Estrich, ostensibly a Democratic feminist pundit, for what her headline writer called “A Deplorable October Surprise” (10/3/03).
A fairer criticism of the L.A. Times would have been that their reporters revealed not too much, but too little–and too late in the campaign. Most of their investigation revisited territory long ago covered by John Connolly, a freelance journalist who wrote a 2001 profile of Schwarzenegger for Premiere (3/01) alleging dishonesty, drug use and sexual harassment. The Times‘ allegations were not surprising; pundits had been discussing charges of the same kind for months already–and dismissing them out of hand.
‘A little bit of fun’
Soon after Schwarzenegger announced his candidacy, Washington Post media reporter Howard Kurtz hosted a discussion on CNN‘s Reliable Sources (8/17/03). At issue were what Kurtz called the actor’s “past” comments to Esquire and Entertainment Weekly. (Schwarzenegger was interviewed in the July 2003 Esquire, and EW‘s July 11, 2003 edition.) Blonde women are sometimes smarter than they look, Schwarzenegger told Esquire. During the filming of Terminator 3, he relished shoving a female co-star’s head into a toilet, he told EW: “How many times do you get to get away with this–to take a woman, grab her upside down, and bury her face into a toilet bowl? I wanted to have something floating in there.”
Kurtz kicked off the conversation on CNN by mentioning the toilet remark. “That doesn’t sound like a serious campaign issue,” he told his all-male panel. “Are these kinds of past statements in entertainment interviews, where you’re having a little bit of fun, are they going to get him in trouble?” Kurtz asked. “I think people in California understand the context of those things,” replied the Washington Post‘s Paul Fahri.
Tolerance for Schwarzenegger ran so high that even the candidate’s own changing line on the allegations failed to raise many eyebrows. After the L.A. Times article came out, his campaign denied the allegations (10/2/03). Then Schwarzenegger made an apology, begging forgiveness and admitting that “where there is smoke there is fire.”
“Yes, I have behaved badly sometimes. Yes, it is true that I was on rowdy movie sets . . . and I have done things I thought playful that now I recognize that have offended people,” said the candidate (L.A. Times, 10/3/03).
That several of the alleged incidents took place on movie sets adds to rather than detracts from their seriousness. Since 1980, sexual harassment has been banned in California as a form of sex discrimination. The legal definition includes unwanted physical touching or verbal comments that create “a hostile workplace.” In Schwarzenegger’s case, several of the actor’s accusers claim to have been humiliated and degraded by him at work. “I didn’t fall apart,” said one of two women who described being mauled by the actor on the set of Terminator 2, “but it’s embarrassing and degrading when you’re doing your job” (L.A. Times, 10/2/03).
The U.S. media showed remarkably little interest in Schwarzenegger’s accusers. London TV anchor Anna Richardson, who accused the actor of pinching her nipple during a 2000 interview, was mentioned only twice on broadcast network news (CBS Evening News, 10/2/03; CBS Morning News, 10/3/03). She was also brought up by left surrogate Alan Colmes on Fox News Channel (Hannity & Colmes, 10/6/03): “There were charges about the way Arnold acted in the year 2000, when he made a tour in England, talked [to] some television hosts; Anna Richardson, one of the hostesses who was mentioned, made some charges.” Colmes never got more specific than that.
Peter Manso, author of the Oui interview with Schwarzenegger (8/77), showed up on Pacifica Radio‘s Democracy Now! (8/29/03), where he said he still possessed the tapes of his conversation with Arnold. If so, those tapes were never aired.
Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman (10/6/03) followed up on the fact that Schwarzenegger had served for 15 years on the board of the organization U.S. English, an English-only group with ties to the white supremacist movement (Intelligence Report, Summer/02). The story got virtually no play outside of independent media. The same happened when Pacifica radio station KPFK in Los Angeles (8/16/03) interviewed Robby Robinson, who trained with Schwarzenegger in the 1970s and described his behavior as racist and anti-Semitic.
Cast against this array of all but invisible accusers stood one person: Maria Shriver. Throughout the campaign, and especially at the end, the candidate’s wife was his No. 1 defender. “You can listen to all the negativity and you can listen to people who have never met Arnold or who met him for five seconds 30 years ago, or you can listen to me,” Shriver told an audience after the L.A. Times story appeared (Orange County Register, 10/4/03). Shriver’s relationship to a Democratic family (John, Robert and Ted Kennedy are her uncles) was frequently cited; the Kennedy family’s tolerance for men who misbehave with women was apparently not pertinent. While videotape of Shriver’s speech was replayed endlessly in the days before the vote, Robinson, Richardson and the rest were MIA.
Power isn’t personal
Schwarzenegger was able to dodge a slew of allegations in part because, 12 years after the Anita Hill hearings, most Americans still fail to understand sexual harassment–and the media didn’t help. “The public still doesn’t take this problem seriously,” Judith Kurtz, a San Francisco lawyer, told the San Francisco Chronicle after the election (10/9/03). “They don’t believe it’s a devastating problem to the victims, [they think] that women make too big a deal out of it.”
The sidelining in the U.S. media of virtually anyone, male or female, who had an expertise in gender politics guaranteed that the dominant media debate put character instead of power at the center of the debate, and it was easy for the “she said/he said” frame to turn the public off.
Male power isn’t personal, it’s political. It depends mostly on economic strength, backed up with intimidation and brute force. “What could I do? He was the highest-priced actor in the world, I was a peon,” one of Schwarzenegger’s accusers told the L.A. Times (10/2/03). Hollywood has long been an unfriendly place to women who speak up, says Karen Pomer, a rape survivor and founder of Rainbow Sisters, a survivor’s group (who was once profiled by Maria Shriver for Dateline–12/4/96). Given the climate in the movie industry, says Pomer, it was remarkable that over a dozen women, some of them named, came forward to accuse Arnold Schwarzenegger of criminal behavior. What was far less surprising was that so many of them had remained silent for so long.
Pomer, who is an organizer with Code Pink, told Working Assets Radio (10/6/03) that she had asked Hollywood’s prestigious Women In Film group if they would issue a nonpartisan statement saying that it would be wrong for any studio to retaliate against women who made allegations of sexual harassment. WIF never responded.
On the eve of the recall, yet another woman, Rhonda Miller, came forward to accuse Schwarzenegger of assault, and was attacked by his campaign using the media as its weapon of choice. Schwarzenegger at first acknowledged making “crude comments” about Miller, but contended that the rest of the woman’s claims “did not occur.” Then campaign spokesperson Sean Walsh sent out a memo to select media, directing reporters to access court records which showed a record of prostitution and narcotics charges in Miller’s name. The smear was passed along by right-wing media like MSNBC‘s Scarborough Country (10/6/03) and the New York Post (10/7/03).
As it turned out, there are many Rhonda Millers, and the one who accused Schwarzenegger has no such criminal record. As Schwarzenegger prepared for his inauguration, Miller’s lawyer was said to be preparing to file a libel suit (New York Sun, 11/14/03).
In an angry San Francisco Chronicle commentary on the day before Governor Schwarzenegger’s swearing-in (11/16/03), Jane Ganahl asked: “What’s the lesson here? . . . That if you’re famous and charismatic, different rules apply?” Yes, and that 12 years after Anita Hill, nothing much has changed. The description Schwarzenegger’s accusers gave of Hollywood–a high-stakes arena, where power and influence are tied to gender, race and testosterone–fits much of the media just as well.
A Little Help From Media Friends
While conservative pundits frequently charged that the L.A. Times‘ exposé was motivated by partisanship, the LA Weekly‘s Hollywood reporter, Nikki Finke 9/12/03), was one of the few to draw attention to the fact that right-wing radio was explicitly campaigning to recall incumbent Democrat Gray Davis. The websites of Disney‘s KABC-AM in L.A. and its KSFO-AM in San Francisco both had “countdown clocks” ticking out the projected end to “California’s Gray Days.” Salem Communications‘ Sacramento AM promoted itself as “the Home of the Recall,” reported Finke.
Claiming that they feared an avalanche of ads from all 135 candidates in the race, Viacom‘s Infinity Broadcasting, with 36 California stations, refused to accept paid candidate ads for the recall election. Clear Channel, the nation’s biggest radio company, with 71 California outlets, generally required candidates to buy ads on at least 20 stations through its “political-action network.” In San Francisco alone, the 16 Infinity and Clear Channel stations represent a nearly 35 percent share of listeners.
Taking advantage of the equal-time rule’s exemption for newscasts and news interviews, hosts like shock-jock Howard Stern gave their favored candidates, such as Schwarzenegger, “massive amounts of free airtime through softball phone interviews,” reported the San Francisco Chronicle (9/18/03). “When you win-and you’ll win, don’t worry, we’ll see to it-would you let me make a speech at the inauguration?” the paper quoted Stern asking Schwarzenegger on Stern’s nationally syndicated program.
Schwarzenegger had not just radio, but a TV network on his side. The actor launched his campaign on NBC‘s Tonight Show with Jay Leno (8/6/03). On the Sunday before the election, Arnold received puff treatment on NBC‘s Dateline (10/4/03), Maria Shriver’s employer, from which she took temporary leave during the campaign. Come election night, NBC star Rob Lowe-who worked as an adviser to Schwarzenegger-provided enthusiastic commentary for reporters, including CNN‘s Judy Woodruff, while the governor-elect’s pal Leno announced the beaming couple’s victory.
Oprah Winfrey was another media friend who helped Schwarzenegger weather the storm when the sexual-abuse allegations hit, inviting him onto her woman-focused program on the blockbuster first show of the fall (9/15/03). Winfrey fawned over her “good friends” Maria and Arnold, and asked no hardball question about either the racism or misogyny complaints. –L.F.
Laura Flanders is the host of Your Call, heard weekdays on San Francisco’s KALW, and author of Bushwomen: Tales of a Cynical Species (Verso Books).