Earlier this week, a group of California newspapers received invitations from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office to participate in a “10-minute roundtable” interview with the governor in his Sacramento office.

The invitees included the Associated Press, San Diego Union Tribune, Los Angeles Daily News, Orange County Register, Sacramento Bee, San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle Capitol Weekly, Stockton Record, Riverside Press Enterprise and Fresno Bee.

Conspicuous by omission was the state’s largest and most influential newspaper, the Los Angeles Times. How could such a thing happen? Easy — the governor has made clear his unhappiness with the paper’s pre-election reports on his sex life and its post-election reports on his ties to American Media, the publisher of the National Enquirer, the Star and a slew of muscle and fitness magazines. So he’s punishing the paper the only way he knows how, by cutting off access.

Last month, we wrote about Arnold’s displeasure with the Times’ coverage of his consulting deal with American Media. According to the Times, under the deal, the man known to stargazing bodybuilders as “the Austrian Oak” was to be paid “at least $8 million over five years” to consult and to write the occasional column for the muscle mags. Arnold ended up backing out of the contract in July, after the Times and the Sacramento Bee ran stories exposing the deal and noting that Arnold had vetoed legislation that would have regulated the sale of nutritional supplements of the sort that American Media peddles in the pages of its publications.

So, for The Terminator, it’s payback time.

Politicians have long rewarded reporters and publications that cover them in a positive light and punished those that don’t, as we saw this past winter when Maryland’s Republican governor Robert Ehrlich Jr., banned state employees from speaking with two Baltimore Sun reporters because he didn’t like their coverage of him. (The Sun, like the Times, is owned by Tribune Co.)

In the Maryland case, the Sun sued the governor, arguing that the ban violated the First Amendment rights of its journalists by denying them the opportunities afforded other news outlets; the suit was dismissed by a U.S. District Judge.

It’s unlikely that the Times will sue over something as small as not being invited to a 10-minute press scrum, but the California governor’s office is nonetheless setting a dangerous precedent here by banning news outlets from events which are sure to produce some news, no matter how small.

At the time the Sun filed its lawsuit, it didn’t receive much attention, but, as we now see, the First Amendment rights that the Sun fought to maintain are, indeed, easily subverted.

Especially by a guttural governor with 19-inch biceps whose most memorable public utterance is “Oll be beck!”

Paul McLeary

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.