Governor leaves reporters squirming
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger really had journalists squirming in their seats last Tuesday during a speech at the Sacramento Press Club, primarily because he effusively thanked “the press” for helping him push his agenda.
George Skelton, in his “Capitol Journal” column in the Los Angeles Times, said Schwarzenegger overall was a smash hit before an audience of Capitol reporters, retired journalists, public relations consultants and state information officers. But Skelton wrote that when an elected official thanks the press for making his career and asks for continued favors, it’s a bit hard to take.
“We typically see ourselves as independent conveyors of public information, as watchdogs of government and politics,” said Skelton. “A politician may well be helped – or hurt – by what we write, but that’s not why we write it. We write to inform – also perhaps to pontificate or provoke, if we’re a columnist or a commentator, but not just to promote a pol.”
But Schwarzenegger told the press club members, “When I built my movie career, it was the press … that helped me really to become the highest paid entertainer in the world.”
He went on: “This again was also true through the campaign. If it was for Proposition 49 (after-school programs) or if it was for the gubernatorial race, it was again you that helped me so much. So I want to thank all of you for this great job …. And here’s a big applause to all of you.”
The PR folks clapped while the reporters who hadn’t already lost their appetite dabbed at their food, Skelton observed.
The governor finished: “Let’s all work together. And, please, continue selling my projects and selling my philosophy and various different things we’re trying to get out there.”
The L.A. Times columnist wrote that Schwarzenegger “seemed to be naive about the news media’s role in democracy. Maybe it’s because he didn’t grow up in America. More likely, it’s because he has spent most of his adult life being covered by the Hollywood trade media, a different breed. And in his brief political career, he has been fawned over by talk radio and entertainment TV. It sounds like he’s trying to mix us all together. But we don’t blend.”
The governor isn’t the only one who doesn’t recognize differences in news media and their standards. For instance, many people see little difference between a working journalist and a talk show host or commentator whose background may be public relations or campaign consulting.
The same is true even in a small community such as ours. People frequently call The Union’s newsroom and ask us to “promote” some event or cause. I try to explain that while the news department may provide news coverage, we avoid “promoting” anything – that’s what our marketing and advertising departments do.
However, people find that hard to understand. “Why wouldn’t you want to promote our cause and tell people how great it is?,” they might ask. “It’s for the (fill in the benefactor).”
But what if there is another group that opposes their cause and, in fact, has a cause of their own (not unheard of in Nevada County)? What if we have to write a story about the controversy? For many in the community, our ability to provide fair and balanced coverage would be seriously compromised.
The same thing is true for people who say, “We advertise in The Union, so you should write a story about us” (or not run a story, depending upon the circumstances). The response that the news department is working for the readers, not the advertisers, usually falls on uncomprehending ears.
Then there are folks who keep trying to give us gifts, perhaps as a way to grease the skids for a favorable story, or perhaps to show appreciation if we write something they like.
We often have to turn away freebies, which is awkward because most of the time the givers’ hearts are in the right place. Food, free passes, free meals – you name it, we’re offered it. Believe me, a “thank you” is good enough for us.
If it’s too uncomfortable (or difficult) to send a gift back, we try to figure ways to defuse the ethical conundrum – giving it to a charity, for instance. Or if it’s perishable food, offering it to other departments at The Union, who are not burdened by such rules.
So Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t much different than others in believing that journalists exist to further his career or a favorite project. With another year at the Capitol, if his plans for the state don’t go well, he’ll probably realize that he’s not in Hollywood any more.
Richard Somerville is the editor of The Union. His column appears every Saturday.
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