Media Tips for the Next Recall


Now
that California’s electorate has rewarded a dramatic recall
effort, it’s a good bet that political operatives in many states
will try to learn from this fall’s Golden State extravaganza. 

Media
strategists were key to the recall drive that ended in triumph for
Arnold Schwarze- negger’s corporate backers. As a public service,
here are some tips for partisans who want a shot at recall history: 

  • Capitalize
    on smoldering resentments; use citizen outrage as bait to attract
    the support of talk-show hosts, pundits, ambitious politicians,
    and well-heeled contributors 

Spark
plugs for the California recall were happy to vilify Gray Davis
as a crafty charlatan and/or incompetent cold fish. The governor
made such caricatures easy. He raked in lots of sizeable checks
from vested interests and engaged in budgetary sleight of hand.
But instead of confronting his deference to energy firms that functioned
as rip-off artists—or denouncing his refusal to back tax hikes
for large corporations and wealthy individuals—the recall’s
conservative boosters preferred to blame Davis for too much spending
and not enough solicitude to big business. 

  • Try
    to throw a manipulative harness on sincere concerns among voters;
    keep the media messages simple and simplistic 

In
California, an anti-tax drumbeat—with lots of media reverb
—went a long way toward drowning out voices that called for
a major shift to progressive taxation. Little news coverage and
scant paid advertising explained that such a shift could mean higher
taxes for the rich and large companies, but lower taxes for every-
one else. 

  • If
    a luminary on the campaign team goes “off message” with
    a genuinely sensible observation, put a sock in it, pronto 

Early
in the short campaign, a much-ballyhooed economic adviser for Schwarzenegger,
Warren Buffett, pointed out that Proposition 13, California’s
venerable property-tax limitation law, “doesn’t make sense.”
The financier noted that he was paying $2,264 for a year’s
worth of property taxes on a Southern California home valued at
$4 million. But a press secretary for the actor- turned-politician
rushed to proclaim, “Mr. Buffett doesn’t speak for Mr.
Schwarzenegger” and hastened to add that the candidate “has
supported Prop. 13 for 25 years.” 

  • Generate
    a steady stream of media messages that obscure complexities of
    underlying power relations while providing plenty of buzz phrases
    and images that serve as triggers for pre-existing assumptions 

Platitudes
and Schwarze- negger’s muscle-bound celebrity candidacy were
well-suited to what passed for news on television, where even “in
depth” stories were usually the word-length equivalent of a
few paragraphs. While newspapers provided some serious reporting,
for the most part the TV news was predictably agog with glitz and
sizzle. 

  • Personalize
    so as to dodge basic issues 

In
California, for well over a century, oligopolies of land holdings
have throttled the state. Yet when recall promoters claimed to be
speaking truth about power, they zeroed in on the corporate front
person in the governor’s office, rather than confront (or even
acknowledge) the dominance of real estate interests: from urban
concrete labyrinths and suburban developments to the vast tracts
of rural acreage owned by multi- millionaires and agribusiness. 

  • Cloak
    a candidate eager to serve elites in the garb of a populist champion 

Schwarzenegger’s
plain-speaking cliches supplied media window dressing for an economic
mind-set amounting to a dream come true for upper-class combatants
in the class wars. 

  • Whenever
    possible, conflate entertainment fantasies with social realities,
    even while claiming to always know the difference
     

After
decades as a media creature of entertainment, Arnold Schwarzenegger
easily made the transition to being a media creature of politics.
His victory will encourage other mind-numbing celebrities to further
blur the distinctions between arrogant stories and rational government
policies.


Norman Solomon
is co-author of
Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn’t
Tell You.