For some time now, Tonight Show host Jay Leno and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have enjoyed an unusually cozy relationship. Back in August, 2003, Schwarzenegger used Leno’s couch as the launching pad for his ultimately successful gubernatorial run. Leno served mostly as jolly skeptic during their sit-down. But eyebrows were raised during their next appearance together.
On October 8, 2003, at the governor-elect’s victory party, there was Leno introducing Schwarzenegger again, but this time as more of a cheerleader than skeptic. The backlash was almost immediate. There is an unspoken pact between late-night comedians and their audience. We expect them to be nonpartisan in their jokes and we certainly don’t want them endorsing candidates. While his spokesman at the time claimed Leno’s appearance that night was “an endorsement of [Arnold and his] friendship”, it made people uncomfortable.
Now the issue of Leno’s possible political bias has reared its head again. Schwarzenegger is scheduled to appear on tonight’s broadcast in what is not destined to be a hard-hitting interview. Meanwhile, his opponent, Democrat Phil Angelides, has made a request to also appear and reportedly received no response as of today. US Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA) has lodged a complaint with the FCC against Leno and the Tonight Show, claiming the show has violated equal time provisions in the Federal Communications Act.
“I’m not a conservative. I’ve never voted that way in my life,” Leno claims. He has said there are no Republicans on his writing staff and has received positive marks from organized labor for his refusal to perform at a convention in Vegas conducted by a law firm that opposes unions. However, he is naïve if he thinks appearing supportive of Schwarzenegger will not affect the 2006 gubernatorial election.
A January 2004 study released by the Pew Research Center has found that 21 percent of voters between the ages of 18-29 turn to entertainment like the Tonight Show for their news. Leno’s show is a TV institution and the appearance that he is endorsing the governor–or even being good friends with him–really could taint the electoral process. If Leno is seriously committed to being an impartial comedian, than he ought to give Angelides his shot at the limelight.