THE (ALMOST) LAST WORD ON THE CALIFORNIA RECALL ELECTION
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
SAN PEDRO, Calif. -- The waning hours of the recent California recall campaign included dueling dirty tricks presented to the media by both sides. The media did not come off unsullied.
The story began with a last-day groping allegation against candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger. The response by the Schwarzenegger campaign was a vicious attack on the reputation of the movie stuntwoman making the accusation. This counterattack, factually erroneous and defamatory, was aided and abetted by talk radio KFI (640 AM, Los Angeles).
The story can be summarized fairly simply. On Monday October 6, 2003, the day before the recall election, attorney Gloria Allred introduced a woman by the name of Rhonda Miller at a press conference. Miller explained that she had worked as a stunt double with Arnold Schwarzenegger and then alleged that he had groped her sexually.
Such an accusation can be considered a dirty trick in the sense that any last minute accusation is a dirty trick. There is never sufficient time or media access to rebut it in a timely manner.
A few hours later, the Schwarzenegger campaign sent out an email inviting the press to access and review certain Superior Court records that, they suggested, bore on the credibility of Miller's account. The implication was that the accuser Rhonda Miller was a convicted criminal.
KFI talk radio host John Kobylt went for it hook, line and sinker. He read from the court records which included a list of felony convictions.
The punch line to this story is that it was the wrong Rhonda Miller, not the actress and stuntwoman, whose criminal history was being exposed.
We have the good fortune to have a clear report of this affair in this week's LA Weekly and more luckily, it is currently available on line at www.laweekly.com/ink/03/51/deadline-finke.php
Written by Nikki Finke and titled Arnold's True Lie, it describes an affair that by rights should be considered a scandal.
Finke's article describes how, on October 6th, Miller publicly alleged that Schwarzenegger "groped her on two occasions while she was a stunt double in the films The Terminator and True Lies." The article goes on to describe how Schwarzenegger campaign aide Sean Walsh sent an email to the news media within a few hours after the Miller accusations became public, an email designed to make Miller appear to be flagrantly criminal.
Walsh's email appears to have been written in a crafty way. It never quite says that the Rhonda Miller of the court records is the stuntwoman Rhonda Miller, but nevertheless makes the implication clear in context. The message begins by stating, "it has come to our attention from the media that you can access court documents" and gives directions for how to access the criminal courts Web site, where to type in the first name Rhonda and last name Miller, and the requirement of paying the sum of $4.75.
The Sean Walsh email then gloatingly attacks attorney Allred for presenting such a non-credible witness: "We have to believe that as a lawyer, Gloria would have thoroughly checked the facts and background of the individual she presented at a news conference today." Reading this comment in retrospect is truly to understand the meaning of the word irony. At the time, it was an invitation to the media to go after Miller and Allred.
The Schwarzenegger campaign could toss out the bait, but somebody else was needed to carry out the next step. Finke describes how KFI talk show host John Kobylt read from the criminal history his station had so dutifully downloaded. It was quite a story, a record going back as far as 1987 with criminal convictions in at least eight of the past seventeen years for prostitution, drug possession, forgery, and reckless driving. There were also numerous additional arrests that did not end in convictions.
The Finke article goes on to describe how, that same day, Kim Serafin of MSNBC ambushed Gloria Allred using the Rhonda Miller allegations. Since I was not witness to that encounter, but only to the John and Ken radio attack, I will leave this to the reader to evaluate.
Finke's article sets the record clear for Rhonda Miller: "By following the Schwarzenegger campaign email's instructions, a rap sheet belonging to a Rhonda Miller does come up in the search. But using a birth date proves that it doesn't belong to Rhonda Miller the stunt double. In other words, Kobylt and Serafin were duped by Walsh's email."
I believe that Finke is being overly polite about John Kobylt here, as I shall discuss further below. The final bit of evidence is provided further down Finke's article. Finke quotes KFI program director Robin Bertolucci who gave this statement to LA Weekly: "On Monday, October 6, the John and Ken Show, using information available at the time, discussed allegations that Rhonda Miller had a criminal record. On the evening of Wednesday, October 8, having fully researched the situation, KFI-AM's talk-show host John Kobylt made an on-air correction, clarifying that Rhonda Miller in fact did not have a criminal record, and apologized for the misinformation that aired."
In other words, by its own admission, KFI first made accusations publicly, then later did the research to determine the truth of the accusations. It would be hard to imagine a more direct admission of journalistic malpractice. After all, isn't journalism supposed to be about getting the facts and rechecking the facts before going public? Isn't this time honored process particularly important when the alleged facts have the capability of directly harming someone's reputation and her ability to earn a living?
As a listener to the John and Ken show that afternoon of October 6, I heard much of the show that is discussed in the Finke article. John Kobylt discussed the Miller allegations in light of Gloria Allred's connection to the anti-recall side, making it clear that he was contemptuous of such last minute attacks. So far nothing out of the ordinary. Then we came to the revelation of the Rhonda Miller rap sheet.
Kobylt read the criminal record chronologically, progressing through the forgery conviction, prostitution arrests and convictions, drug possession convictions, and a recent conviction on attempted drug possession along with the reckless driving conviction presented almost as comic relief. Finke's article is in complete agreement with my experience of that part of the show.
Kobylt was by degrees angry, exultant, and defiant in tone as he mused on the air about how desperate the opposition must be to present a witness so lacking in credibility.
I remember wondering at the time whether this might be a case of mistaken identity. There was no evidence offered why the Rhonda Miller of the rap sheet must necessarily be the actress and stuntwoman Rhonda Miller.
And to ask the question is to see through to the answer immediately. Did it not occur to Kobylt or to any of the producers of the show that this must be the case? Ask yourself: Would an actress accomplished enough to work in major motion picture production, athletic enough to function as a double, in short, good looking enough to be in pictures - would such a person resemble the Rhonda Miller we infer from the criminal history? That other person, the person of the rap sheet, comes across as pathetic. Could a person with such remarkable personal problems be the same person who was considered acceptable to work with the Hunk - Elect?
It takes a remarkable effort to blind yourself to so obvious a question, but blind themselves they did, Sean Walsh and John Kobylt and the KFI producers who allowed this to go on the air.
My take on this show was that John Kobylt was by then so completely partisan, so intent not only on defeating Gray Davis but on destroying his reputation entirely, that he had become essentially incapable of normal objectivity. There were no longer opponents, there were only enemies.
There is an additional clue that Kobylt was over the top even by talk radio standards that day: KFI's main competition in the afternoon talk radio slot in Los Angeles is KABC and its syndicated star Larry Elder. Elder apparently did not fall for the Schwarzenegger campaign's ruse and managed to maintain his own honor in the process.
It is also fair to consider the behavior of the Schwarzenegger campaign. What did Arnold know, and what did he approve? The same questions that occurred to me should have occurred to them.
The main point that this whole episode makes clear is that talk radio is something that for all its political power is not quite journalism, not just entertainment, not merely raw politics, but some new amalgam of all of these. It has so far failed to accept the ethical rules that we have come to know as proper journalistic practice. Considering its ability to contribute so effectively in taking down a sitting governor, it is long overdue for ethical reassessment.