Entertainment, journalism, crime, celebrity, politics, sports—all became one in the electronic mixer of television last week. The networks and TV stations sent an army of newspeople to the tiny town of Eagle, Colo., for the Wednesday court appearance of a sports star accused of rape, only to see him upstaged by a movie star declaring his candidacy for governor of California on The Tonight Show.
The Kobe Bryant and Arnold Schwarzenegger Show played the rest of the week on cable channels, the celebrity news shows and newscasts everywhere. By week's end, the supporting cast included a watermelon-smashing comedian, a funny-looking child actor grown old, a porn star and porn purveyor. When Jerry Springer announced he wasn't
going to run for Senator from Ohio, it was just another so-so item for television's most influential political show: Entertainment Tonight.
Celebrity and news have tangled before, of course. CNN commentator Jeff Greenfield noted the well-publicized trials for alleged sexual crimes of actors Fatty Arbuckle or Erroll Flynn. When Richard Nixon was vice president, he used television for his famous "Checkers" speech. Ross Perot became a viable political candidate through appearances with CNN's Larry King. In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton put on shades and played sax with the band on Arsenio Hall's old talk show.
"The impulse is no different," Greenfield said. "The difference today is its sheer volume."
"There's been a trend toward 'celebrification' of the culture," said former CNN Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno, now a professor at George Mason University. "The news merely reflects the culture in that respect, but increasingly competitive cable channels drive this trend on an ever-accelerating track. Celebrity often provides a simple story; easy to sink your teeth into. In both [the Bryant and Schwarzenegger] cases the material is irresistible."
All of which underscores "the dilemma of opening courtrooms to cameras" in a post-O.J. world, said Sesno. It produces "a circus atmosphere around sometimes totally perfunctory proceedings."
Jerry Burke, Fox News Channel's executive producer for daytime programming, said that when he saw the scaffolding in the news camps around the Colorado courtroom he instantly thought of the Simpson trial. "That was where tabloid journalism morphed into mainstream; I saw it happen."
The Kobe Bryant case has been a hot media topic since early last month when a 19-year-old woman accused the basketball star of sexually assaulting her at the Colorado resort where she worked. It has yet to take on O.J. dimensions, but it's still early.
Schwarzenegger has been talking about running for governor for a while, but many thought he had given up on the notion. So it came as a surprise to most Hollywood and political reporters when he told Jay Leno during The Tonight Show's Wednesday taping that he would make a run for the state house.
"It's another bizarre chapter in California politics and the stuff that goes on in California," said Jeff Wald, news director at KTLA(TV) Los Angeles.
Schwarzenegger, with his name recognition and political ambition, has been given a rare opportunity. Critics of sitting Govenor Gray Davis late last month collected over a million signatures, forcing a recall election this fall. Voters will be asked first if they want to recall Davis. If they vote yes, they may then vote for a replacement. It takes only a handful of signatures and a few thousand dollars to get on the replacement ballot.
"In the real world, the reason [Schwarzenegger is] the frontrunner is because he's a celebrity," said Andrew Tyndall, who monitors TV news for his Tyndall Report.
The lines blur
With both stories simultaneously in the news, the line between show biz and the news biz has nearly disappeared—as did the lines between fact and fiction, and the serious and trivial.
Jay Leno quipped that the reporters left in Los Angeles to cover Schwarzenegger's announcment "must have missed the plane to Colorado."
At CBS, David Letterman's Top 10 list of Schwarzenegger pledges was topped by the actor's supposed promise that he'll "Speak to voters in clear, honest, broken English."
Even Schwarznegger's marriage to NBC News's Maria Shriver adds to the media-politics connection: She's from the nation's most famous political family (that's the Kennedys, not the Bushes). Shriver took a leave from NBC last week when Schwarzenegger annnounced his candidacy.
On the same night Bryant was arraigned in Colorado, he appeared on tape on Fox's Teen Choice Awards, acknowledging his legal problems while many in the audience gave him a rousing ovation.
That got played over and over again on the news, but it turned out Fox edited Bryant's acceptance remarks. The Associated Press reported that Bryant told the audience, "an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere," a paraphrase of a famous Martin Luther King Jr. quotation. A Fox spokesman told the wire service that the network's standards department determined that his legal problems were not germane to accepting an award for his sports prowess.
Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA's Dallas Mavericks caught heat for suggesting Bryant's rape accusastion would help NBA attendance because the curious would want to see Bryant when his Los Angeles Lakers came to their town. Fox News media critic Eric Burns said it was the kind of observation that had a "kernel of truth surrounded by bad taste," but like so many other celebrity news stories last week, he could see why the news networks would "replay and replay and replay" the comment.
Media field day
California's recall election also will supply plenty of media fodder. Although the most famous candidate is the actor who played Conan the Barbarian and Danny DeVito's twin, also running is watermelon-smashing comedian Gallagher, career pundit Ariana Huffington, former Diff'rent Strokes
star Gary Coleman and Hustler
publisher Larry Flynt.
Porn star Mary Carey is flirting with a candidacy built on a platform of tax-deductible lap dances to promote stress reduction and the general welfare while, semi-celebrity actress and candidate Angelyne has, so far, used platforms only for hanging her self-promoting billboards.
And when the candidacy of the newly dubbed "Governator" forced U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa
out of the race, KTLA Los Angeles was able to offer its own Arnold-pun, "Issa la vista, baby." Issa had led the recall petition drive, spending $1.5 million of his own money in the effort.
But the story of an already world famous and apparently viable candidate for the governorship of a key state; one which has already elected an actor governor and helped launch him to the presidency; fits any definition of news. The Schwarzenegger candidacy will directly affect millions in California and across the nation.
To be taken seriously, Schwarzenegger will have to get serious. Said Greenfield: "He cannot spend the next 60 days offering movie lines in non-threatening forums like The Tonight Show," which scored its best Wednesday ratings in four years on the day the actor made his announcement.
But as of Friday, Schwarzenegger had turned down appearances on the Sunday morning political shows despite impassioned pleas from producers at Face the Nation, Meet the Press
and This Week with George Stephanopoulos. (A staffer at Fox News Sunday with Tony Snow
said an appearance there was possible because Snow is the actor's friend, but nothing was definite.)
On the same day as the Bryant hearing and the Schwarzenegger announcement, coincidentally, journalists were denied—and the public was spared—a Springer candidacy. Said CNN's Leon Harris, "Politics can be a pretty dirty business. But you know despite that, Jerry Springer is still not interested."
Springer showed up on numerous media outlets last week, defending his show as a "silly" entertainment and less exploitative than news which, he says, invades people's lives against their will. That could make a viewer think he should reconsider his decision.
Greenfield said that the continuing discussion of media feeding frenzies becomes self-fulfilling. "Whenever you hear someone on the air talking about a media circus," he said, "you're looking at one of the clowns."