Rogues’ Gallery

Photo: Tom Bachtell

So Arnold has triumphed over his bad press.

In the media telling, what happened was that women were simply not convinced that Arnold’s bad behavior was of greater significance than Gray Davis’s mishandling of the economy.

But really, Arnold just outplayed the media (not something the media ever wants to admit). The media, in the final week of the campaign, went all out to get him, and Arnold parried with a better strategy.

A few weeks from now, “Governor Groper” will sound like some vastly out-of-date reference.

The other Republicans in major media trouble—notably Rush Limbaugh and Karl Rove—will surely be studying the Schwarzenegger reversal. Here he was accused not just of significant anti-soccer-mom tendencies but of Nazi nostalgia, and yet he made it. Compared with that, Rush’s racial dustups and OxyContin addiction, and White House imagemeister Karl Rove’s national-security betrayals, seem like minor flaps.

Indeed, as I was thinking about Arnold’s success, and how Republicans have all the luck, and about whether Rush and Karl will get away with it, too, I started to realize that the subtext here may not be politics proper but media politics.

What all of these semi-scandals and this copious bad press may fundamentally be about is how the media responds to people in the media.

Which got me thinking about my own media condition—that I have something in common with the groper, the doper, and the leaker.

The weekend before the recall election, when Arnold’s media life was in disarray, when Karl Rove was waiting for the next wave of spy-story fallout, when Rush was girding for lots of reporters working the illicit prescription-drug story, I was waiting for my own press comeuppance. The New York Times (a company that I have dealt harshly with in this column) was getting ready to deal with me—the hatchet was ready. I was facing a profile in the Monday media pages.

Yom Kippur. For my sins.

“Everybody wants me to blow him up, get the elbows out—give him a hard time,” a colleague of mine reported the Times reporter saying.

So, like Arnold, Rush, and Karl, with their vast media skills and resources, I too was trying, that weekend, to manage and improve my media fate.

The question, it struck me, is whether we media people—the actor, the radio host, the media manipulator, the media columnist—have an advantage when it comes to dealing with the media, or whether our media provenance has caused us our media problems.

If the former is true, this lends obvious weight to the political trend suggested by Arnold and, arguably, by Michael Bloomberg (he may not be good before the camera, but it certainly seemed to have helped his campaign that he knew the moguls who owned the cameras). If the entire point about politics is media—a fair thesis—then, duh, get media people to run for office.

Of course, we media people don’t really believe we’re getting a break.

Indeed, the media, which has for so long capitalized on Arnold (many of the companies whose news divisions criticized Arnold have profited handsomely off him in the past; many, owning the various movies on whose sets Arnold did what he did, may have countenanced his groping), sharply turned on him.

Arnold, Rush, and Karl undoubtedly feel they are being punished for their success.

Now, trying to become the governor of California without ever having worked in politics, or even in an office, is something of an obvious overreach.

Rush’s move from his audience of 20 million dittoheads into the media mainstream—with his ESPN sportscasting job—is also a leap.

And for Karl Rove, well, the war in Iraq is proving to be quite a dramatic stretch. As for me, New York Magazine is for sale and I have been trying to put together a group of investors to buy it—which is bound to elicit some suspicion of hubris.

We feel the spite, the envy, the resentment, and the sharp knives of our media colleagues.

We all feel like Martha.

It is true that Arnold has admitted to casual and heedless groping, if not fondness for Hitler; and Rush obviously made the remarks he’s accused of making, and now has been accused by various unsavory types of buying small mountains of the prescription drug OxyContin; and Karl may or may not have feloniously revealed or countenanced the revelation of a covert CIA agent; and I have deep-sixed at least one previous enterpreneurial enterprise (certain to come up in the Times story), and dissed just about everyone in the media business.

But none of us, on this side of the media gun, think that the stated grudges against us are really the reasons for our present media predicaments. Arnold, Rush, and Karl surely think there are larger political currents, bigger enemies, structural prejudices—“puke politics,” as Arnold has called it—aligned against them. And now, looking down the barrel of the gun, I am suddenly inclined to agree: We’re up against it. The media is against us!

And yet, of no small importance, our media roots, our media savvy, our media connections quite likely mean that we have some greater ability to take on the media and prevail against it—greater than, say, Dick Grasso’s or Dennis Kozlowski’s abilities.

We are at least without illusion: The media, we know, reflects us not as we are but as a function of how well or how poorly we’ve played it.

We understand the nature and the extent of the negotiation.

This is spin. But that is in some sense the least of it. The media process is more akin to the legislative process. Marshaling allies, identifying and isolating foes, pressuring friends, calling in favors, offering up trades, bringing influence to bear, implying the counter-threat, establishing the power equation.

Arnold, for instance, surely knew the L.A. Times groping story was coming. This must have been the primary issue for his campaign from the beginning. His campaign consultants had certainly war-gamed and story-conferenced the issue to death. It’s been up there on the white board: XXX STORY. All the variations and the variable outcomes.

The challenge was to circumscribe and limit the story itself—and delay it. And then, when it came, to be ready on a dime to respond to it. This is a long way from Bill Clinton’s relative naïveté.

“There may be no better media managers than Hollywood people. Media, Hollywood people understand, is a transaction.”

Indeed, Arnold has been cleaning up reality for years. He bought the documentary Pumping Iron, which showed him disadvantageously, and took the prints out of circulation (a popular thing to do, if you can afford it, in Hollywood); he made appropriate contributions to help him with the Hitler mess; and most recently, he’s been able to take advantage of the fact that the company (American Media) that owns the tabloids, which have so annoyingly hounded him over the years (they’ve had the groping story cold), bought the company (Weider publications) that owns the country’s leading muscle magazines—for which Arnold is a major commercial draw (American Media can’t damage Arnold without damaging itself).

There may be no better media managers than Hollywood people. Media, Hollywood people understand, is a transaction.

Such media war-gaming has certainly been going on at Rush’s and Karl’s houses, too.

For Rush, the strategy is to ask for forgiveness (just like Arnold did) and fall back on his base—the 20 million. They protect Rush. What’s more, Rush has for a long time been able to surgically focus his most ardent listeners where he wants them focused. They’re a force for him. He can unleash his media on anti-Rush media—or, say, on an ambitious Florida prosecutor. The Rush beast is a beast that no one wants to provoke.

Karl Rove, meanwhile, was wounded most of all by an image: Joe Wilson (husband of the unveiled CIA agent) saying Rove should be “frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs.” That was, for Rove, unfortunately vivid. It broke through the clutter. The Rove mission now is to restore the clutter. To reestablish the complexity, the nebulousness, the conflicting accounts of who said what to whom. To lay the blame nowhere and everywhere. For Rove, this is relative child’s play.

As for me, for five years I’ve been banging away here at the various people who own and control the media business. It seemed reasonable to fear that I might be taken apart just as gleefully, a possibility engendering in me a certain low-level nausea.

“You can dish it out, but you can’t take it,” my wife said censoriously.

“This is not about justice,” I argued.

Now, the reporter at the Times who was writing the story about me had, within the past few years, worked for New York Magazine. So this was either an advantage of being in the media (one is written about by one’s “friends”—indeed, my friends are his friends) or a disadvantage (one is written about by one’s enemies). The connections are baroque and intricate. We’re all working the myriad relationships. (Don’t forget about Maria.)

We media people are like the Saudi royal family.

This does not necessarily mean that we get a free pass (although it often means just that). But it does mean that it’s all fraught and inbred and opaque (at least to you, the reader).

Arnold, the neophyte politician, is the consummate media player—with media skills (not to mention branding) possibly more valuable than any virtues a politician could ever bring to a political campaign. Rush’s raw media power may be enough to get him out of any jam. And it would be foolish to assume that Karl Rove has suddenly lost his media teeth—that he can’t chew himself out of his security breach.

As for me, I did okay—I mostly avoided the hatchet. The Times story, after much maneuvering on my part and working the phones and deft staging of reality, and with a timely intercession of mutual friends petitioning the reporter on my behalf, turned out to be a genial balance of potshots and compliments (I only wish the jibe about my supposedly Grasso-like salary was true). Even the reporter seemed impressed, however begrudgingly, with my media-management abilities.

So if I don’t buy New York Magazine, then it’s a Senate seat for me.

Rogues’ Gallery