BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week Arnold the action hero became Governor Elect of the State of California, and despite pre-election polls that predicted an easy win for Arnold, it seems like many members of the media could not quite believe what they were reporting. On national news outlets across the nation, the media's incredulity was audible. [TAPE COLLAGE PLAYS]
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: Vote yes on the recall, yes, for Arnold, and yes for the people of California. [CHEERING]
TED KOPPEL: Governor Schwarzenegger?
MAN: And your name please?
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: Arnold Schwarzenegger.
MAN: [What if] he comes?
TED KOPPEL: Six months ago it seemed impossible--
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: Well we don't know. It is up to the Gods now. It's up to God of what the decision is.
TED KOPPEL: Now, with the polls closed after a heavy voter turnout, the impossible has become inevitable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Impossible to whom? Certainly not to Schwarzenegger, and apparently not to Harper's Magazine Editor Lewis Lapham. In his Harper's Magazine column this month, Lapham looks askance at the Eastern elites who were shocked, shocked by Arnold's presumption, citing three contributors to the New York Times who noted that California wallowed in mindless ego, and where were the ropes of leadership with which to drag the animal back to the high and solid ground of "the shining city on the hill." Lewis, welcome to On the Media.
LEWIS LAPHAM: I'm glad to be here, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So in the run up to the recall election, story after story hung on hanging chads, creating the illusion of a close race. Do you think that's because the media wanted it to be a close race; that they couldn't quite accept that Californians were backing the "Kindergarten Cop?"
LEWIS LAPHAM: I think that's certainly part of it. The media always want a close race, but I think they also got caught short because they still imagine themselves to be living in a world dependent on the meaning of words. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you mean?
LEWIS LAPHAM:This is the McLuhan argument. With print, you have sequence, narrative, hierarchy, classification -- all of the categories dear to Ted Koppel and the Eastern media elites. They want to think of television as, as simply a more advanced form of print journalism, but the television appeals to the emotions and to the image. There is no necessary sequence. I mean we live in a world where, with our clicker, we could see the president of the United States at any one time being played by George Bush, Anthony Hopkins, Harrison Ford, and so on. And in that world, it's the image that matters, not the language.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Aren't you selling the public a little short here? They can't tell the difference between an actor playing a president and an actual president?
LEWIS LAPHAM: I don't know. You had, if you look at the California vote, 60 percent of the people who voted for Schwarzenegger had no idea what he stood for. They didn't care. They voted for a, an image.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:In the coverage of the recall, there was a lot of "only in California" commentary. Only in California would an action movie star be a serious contender for governor and face off with a has-been sitcom actor and a porn star. But is California really the alternate universe that some of the media portray it to be?
LEWIS LAPHAM: I don't think so. You could make the argument that California is the most American of states and atmospheres. When McLuhan is talking about the world of the electronic media and the sensibility, he refers to "the pool of Narcissus," and you have in Schwarzenegger a, you know, god-like narcissist, and that, of course, is a lot of the culture of California, and it's a lot of the culture of the electronic media. And I think that the journalists who like to think of themselves as statesmen and philosophers, are reluctant to think that we are maybe coming away from the years of the Enlightenment into a more primitive set of arrangements.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I don't know. To me, you sound like a member of the hand-wringing Eastern media elite.
LEWIS LAPHAM: [LAUGHS] I don't -- I hope I don't. I'm just describing what is happening. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What are your predictions on how the media will cover Governor Schwarzenegger?
LEWIS LAPHAM:Well, I think that they will try to paint him as a barbarian. You know, Attila has just sacked Rome. [LAUGHS] I'm sorry, not Attila. Alaric. On the other hand, they may adore him. They may say we have seen the truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The news media are always being charged with becoming more and more like entertainment, of pandering to the people. And yet, when it comes to Arnold Schwarzenegger, they seem to get on their high horse. Are the news media mad at Arnold for laying the device bare?
LEWIS LAPHAM: Yes, I think so, because it detracts from their own self-importance. My God, if a body-building actor can become governor of California, then what happens to all the wisdom of our Sunday morning sermons? "Politics is a great mystery, which only the initiates can truly understand." They, the high viziers of the media being the ones who understand the mystery, and then if it suddenly turns out to be less of a mystery and more of a circus, what, what is diminished is the sense of their own self-importance.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lewis, thank you very much.
LEWIS LAPHAM: Thank you very much, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lewis Lapham is the editor of Harper's Magazine and writes the Notebook column every month. [MUSIC]