Pressing questions

International correspondents converge on Sacramento to ask, “What is this?”

Austrian reporter Barbara Gasser interviews an American counterpart on the day after Arnold’s announcement.

Austrian reporter Barbara Gasser interviews an American counterpart on the day after Arnold’s announcement.

Photo By Jeff Kearns

When Barbara Gasser arrived in Sacramento, she looked remarkably alert for someone who’d been up working all night. As a Los Angeles-based correspondent for a newspaper and radio station in a certain gubernatorial candidate’s hometown of Graz, Austria, a surprise announcement the day before had kept her scrambling to file stories. After attending the taping of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Gasser ran home, called the office and then woke up her boss. It was 2 a.m. in Austria, just past the time when it would be too late to stop the presses.

“Arnold Schwarzenegger is the big story,” she said later. “We are all like you are, interested in his next step, wondering if his celebrity status helps him become governor.”

Everyone was talking about the announcement in Graz, where the online discussion forum at Gasser’s newspaper, Kleine Zeitung, was buzzing about Schwarzenegger.

“The tenor was that he should stay in the movies,” Gasser said. “They don’t take him seriously.” She said part of that is because, in Austria, bodybuilding is a pastime usually associated with gangsters and criminals. “We still see him as a dumb kid.”

Another Austrian reporter, Edith Gruenwald of the Austrian Press Agency, called Vienna to sound the alarm when news broke about the celebrity candidate, whose name she pronounced in something closer to its original form: Sha-VATS-uh-nay-gah.

“If Arnold becomes governor, this will be like a fairy-tale story: becoming rich, becoming popular and now maybe mighty.”

The two were in Sacramento on Thursday as part of a foreign-press gaggle bused in that day by the State Department’s Foreign Press Center for a round of meetings with various players in the recall. The center’s mission is to help foreign journalists get a better understanding of America—though, in talking to them and watching them ask questions, it becomes clear that the story they’re all covering raises more questions about this country than it answers.

The first stop was the secretary of state’s office, where press handlers gave the 18 journalists a two-hour briefing on every detail of the election. Reporters ate it up, quizzing the spokespeople on all of the oddities and possible outcomes, from why the governor sued the secretary of state to what happens to all of the governor’s appointees if someone else takes office. The group spent the rest of the day meeting gubernatorial press secretary Steve Maviglio, Deputy Chief of Staff Vincent Harris, California Business Roundtable President Bill Hauck and members of the pro-recall group Rescue California.

They also had lunch with Senator Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, who talked about how Senate Democrats have been trying to hash out a strategy. She also explained that she opposed the recall, even though she and the rest of the Latino Caucus didn’t support Davis’ re-election bid last year. Schwarzenegger is a strong contender, she said, but polling shows him neck-and-neck with Lt. Governor Cruz Bustamante. The foreign press had been following the recall already, but the Arnold bomb catapulted the story from buried blurb to front page around the world—helped along in Europe by the summer shutdown’s news vacuum.

Netherlands Press Association reporter Ans Boumans said the recall only became news at home because of Schwarzenegger’s fame. “Political news is not very interesting for a lot of people, especially in one of the states in the United States. Who cares in Amsterdam if Gray Davis is sent packing or not? No one, I think.”

Boumans’ editors told her that Schwarzenegger appeared on most of the front pages of the afternoon papers there. “It’s summer,” she said.

The Japanese are fascinated, too.

“Arnold is very popular in Japan, and everyone knows him,” said Toyoda Yoichi, a reporter for the daily Tokyo Shimbun. “And California is the most popular state in Japan.” Further fueling the interest, Yoichi said, is that all levels of government in Japan have the recall procedure—and voters use it.

Yang Yang, a reporter for Shanghai’s biggest daily, said he was filing a 5,000-word report for a special section in his paper, the Xin Min Evening News.

“It’s an interesting thing for our readers because lots know Ronald Reagan was governor of California,” Yang said. “Millions of people are interested in this.” But while Schwarzenegger helps drive that interest, he said, his coverage will have a serious tone that also addresses the state’s budget disaster.

The Foreign Press Center had been planning to do this trip later this year or early next year for reporters covering the presidential race. Program officer Angela Schnurer said the center decided to reschedule to accommodate reporters interested in covering the recall. The three-day jaunt also included visits with political experts and insiders in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Along with the obvious celebrity story, Schnurer said, there is a lot of serious interest because many of the reporters’ countries have strong economic ties to California. The reporters, most of whom are already stationed on the East Coast, represent print and radio outlets in nine countries.

In spite of the confusion and spin from both sides, reporters in the group seemed to have a solid understanding of the facts. What they’re having a harder time understanding is why California has such a surreal fiasco on its hands and how a movie star is suddenly poised to lead the debt-ridden, dysfunctional government of one of the world’s largest economies.

“I don’t see what the fuss is all about,” said Susanne Brunner, a San Francisco-based reporter for Swiss National Public Radio. She’s been struggling to explain to her listeners not only why Californians re-elected a governor they didn’t like but also why they’re ready to throw him out right after legally awarding him another term. “Nobody has been able to tell me what he’s done to justify a recall. He’s no worse or better than any other governor,” she said. “There was no scandal about Davis. It’s not like there was a Monicagate.”

Brunner filed two straight news stories the night before her trip to Sacramento, plus one of the “Americans are crazy” stories that her editors at the network’s pop channel enjoy so much. “They said ‘Do us a funny little report’” with Terminator sound effects.

The Swiss, she said, have a love-hate relationship with this country. Anti-Americanism there is the worst she’s ever seen it, thanks to the recent war pushed by a president they see as a cowboy. But, at the same time, they are also fascinated with anything that happens here.

In all the news coverage by Brunner—which includes stories on the California budget deficit and electricity crisis—and the rest of the international press, some things just don’t translate, like the way money plays a starring role on the political stage here and how the Electoral College tiebreaker ended up in a legal sudden-death overtime in Florida.

“Here’s this country that’s promoting democracy and freedom in the world, and it can’t even hold an election. Then there’s all this money involved, and it seems to come across as: If you have money, you can get your vote out. The perception is that some multimillionaire can say, ‘I’m going to pay you $1 for every signature you collect.’ We just don’t have that kind of money in politics.”

Mika Horelli, a freelance reporter and photographer for several papers in Finland, shrugged when asked what his readers think of California politics. “From a European point of view, the American political system is strange because everything seems to be for sale. This word ‘special interest’ sounds like a whitewashing of ‘corruption.’”

During the day, reporters kept coming back to questions about how the governor’s opponents could pay people to collect the signatures that forced the recall election. They even wondered if voters were paid to sign petitions.

Some found Darrell Issa’s role especially perplexing.

“What seems weird is that one man has hijacked the political system by putting in $1.5 million,” said Daniela Roveda, a reporter from the Milan financial paper Il Sole 24 Ore.

Even more confusing to reporters from overseas is that American voters don’t even go to the polls. The Foreign Press Center’s Schnurer said she often gets questions about why the country that promotes itself as an example of the democratic process has such low turnout at the polls. “They can’t understand,” she said.

After lunch with Ortiz, the group attended a special press conference that had been called just for them by Rescue California. Committee director Phil Paule gave a talk he called “Recall 101,” starting with a history lesson about how the progressive movement gave birth to the initiative, recall and referendum procedures in 1911. In addition to the foreign press, about a dozen other print, radio and TV reporters showed up.

At the end of the press conference, Paule pointed the foreign reporters to a group of aides standing in back of the hotel conference room. They included language specialists hired to accommodate the international press. “With Arnold Schwarzenegger in the race, there’s going to be a lot of international coverage in the next eight weeks,” Paule explained. “It’s an international story, and we want to accommodate the international press.”

Then, something strange happened. With no further big announcements coming on a day full of other news, the print and TV reporters took off, leaving about a half-dozen of their radio counterparts. And instead of flocking to the translators in back, the foreign reporters started interviewing—and being interviewed by—the radio reporters who stuck around.

A reporter from San Francisco’s KCBS 740 AM quizzed a newspaper writer from Munich. Gasser, the reporter from Schwarzenegger’s hometown, was interviewed by a reporter from San Francisco’s KGO 810 AM. Then, she turned on her own microphone to interview him for her station in Graz, and a minute later, she gave a simultaneous interview to KCBS and Sacramento’s KFBK 1530 AM.

The capital-bureau reporter from San Francisco public radio station KQED 88.5 FM questioned a reporter from German Public Radio and later an Italian reporter who told him that, compared with Italy’s rambunctious political scene, California’s doesn’t look so crazy.

“I don’t think Italians would say it’s a circus,” said Elena Molinari of the national daily Avvenire. “We do have direct democracy, but I think the idea of recalling an elected official a few months after the election still is quite hard to accept for an Italian.”

Molinari said she was working on stories that focused on the state’s economic slump. But the headline that ran with her dispatch from “la capitale del Golden State” in the following day’s paper summed up the scene here neatly for readers back home: “Schwarzenegger Si Candida In California.”