Are allegations of groping, grabbing, and group sex enough to swing an electorate? Republicans in California and beyond are clearly worried by that possibility, and they’re working feverishly to dismiss, deflect, or at least diminish the firestorm of scandal that has surrounded Arnold Schwarzenegger in the final days of the recall campaign.
The GOP operatives had ample time to prepare. Arnold’s past treatment of women was a known issue since well before the Terminator turned California’s three-ring political circus into an extravaganza. But the allegations detailed by the Los Angeles Times last week were far more complete, and far more damning, than any previously published. And, unlike earlier reports dating back to Arnold’s pill-fueled body-building days, the allegations in the Times article were not softened by the distance of time.
At least 14 more women have come forward since the Times made Arnold’s misogyny front-page material, claiming he behaved inappropriately toward them, including one, a waitress, who, as Salon reports, recalls Arnold summoning her to his table and saying: “I want you to go into the bathroom, stick your finger in your vagina, and bring it out to me.”
Such allegations are undeniably relevant, and irresistably explosive. So why did it take so long for the Times and others in the mainstream media to take up the story? The Schwarzenegger camp and its conservative hangers-on would like voters to believe the allegations are nothing more than dirty eleventh-hour campaign tactics cooked up by Gov. Gray Davis. (And the Davis campaign is certainly taking advantage of the news — at a weekend rally, Davis made a point of reminding California that if Arnold acted as his accusers claim, his behavior was more than simply shocking, it was illegal.) But media-watchers aren’t buying the GOP’s conspiracy-theory rant.)
The fact is, stories like the one published by the Times are built on difficult, tedious, time-intensive work. And the media practices which usually apply in reporting on Arnold the celebrity simply don’t apply when reporting on Arnold the candidate. What’s more, Arnold has managed to keep a tight muzzle on the usual bane of celebrities, the lowest-common-denominator media of the tabloids.
Last year, America’s leading tabloid publisher, American Media, purchased Muscle and Fitness, Shape and Men’s Fitness magazines for $350 million from Arnold’s business partner, Joe Weider. The company also owns the National Enquirer and Star tabloids — and both have remained squeaky clean when it comes to Arnold. Instead of sicing its scandal-hounds on the misogyny angle, the company produced a 120-page glossy one-off titled “Arnold, the American Dream.”
So, how does the willing silence of the checkout-aisle rags influence what the Times and other mainstream papers choose to publish? Ann Louise Bardach, writing in the Times, explains the unlikely connection:
“One of the less ennobling secrets of the mainstream media in recent years is its reliance on the tabloid press to launder seedy but irresistible stories about celebrities and politicians. Once the story is baptized in the tabloids, it’s not long before it’s fodder for TV talking heads and late-night comics. Then, more often than not, it’s regarded as fair game for the elite media.”
But isn’t there a difference between “seedy but irresistible stories” and illegal behavior? And, while newsrooms might have been hampered somewhat by the tabloid silence, shouldn’t political pundits have been more aggressive on the matter? Katha Pollitt, writing in The New York Times, certainly thinks so.
“Why is it so hard for commentators to come right out and say: here is a man who seems to have a long history of contempt for women, who uses his celebrity to get away with sexual humiliation — why does he belong in public life? Would that sound too square, too P.C., too, um, feminist? From the newsstand crammed with leering lad magazines like Maxim to all-male, all-the-time talk radio to the self-congratulatory misogyny of ‘The Man Show,’ aggressive male chauvinism is back in style, and Mr. Schwarzenegger is its standard-bearer.”
Pollitt might ask that question of Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist who, as Joan Walsh writes on Salon led the criticism of President Clinton’s sexual misconduct but has remained strangely silent on Arnold’s.
“Now I admit that even Dowd’s admirers know to ignore her columns about Hollywood — would that her editors knew to kill them — because despite her trademark cynicism, she’s so starstruck when she comes to California she loses her critical faculties. Palm trees make her stupid. Dowd’s Hollywood columns are always vanity affairs, strange goo-gahs you can mostly skim and ignore, but on the California recall, her vapid star-worship makes her dangerous.”