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THE RECALL CAMPAIGN

Critics See Story as a Hatchet Job

October 04, 2003|Matea Gold and Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writers

Anger among Republicans about a Times story that detailed accusations of sexual improprieties by Arnold Schwarzenegger percolated Friday into full-throated hostility toward the newspaper.

Backers of the gubernatorial candidate rejected the substance of the article and called it a political hit engineered by Gov. Gray Davis' campaign.

Supporters at Schwarzenegger campaign events, callers to talk radio shows and television guests on the Fox News cable station accused The Times of attempting to derail Schwarzenegger's candidacy.

"Here's a newspaper that pretty much doesn't like Arnold Schwarzenegger, so they put this on Page 1 five days before the election," said Bernard Goldberg, author of "Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News," in an appearance on Fox News. "The reason people have less and less faith in big-time media is because they do stuff like this."

Times Editor John S. Carroll rejected the argument that the newspaper has an agenda against Schwarzenegger, noting that the paper had written comprehensive articles that detailed the arguments for recalling Davis, the large contributions received by Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante from Indian tribes and the minimal income tax payments made by former candidate Arianna Huffington.

"We have treated all the candidates with the scrutiny that they deserve, including Schwarzenegger," Carroll said.

"I expected criticism," he added, "but I'd rather have criticism for publishing it than the personal guilt of withholding it from the voters. We're in the business of publishing news, not sweeping it under the rug."

Based on a seven-week investigation, The Times article on Thursday quoted six women who said Schwarzenegger had groped and humiliated them during incidents from the mid-1970s to 2000.

The newspaper did not learn about any of the six women from Schwarzenegger's opponents in the recall campaign, and none of them approached the newspaper on her own.

"We would happily take a tip from any citizen, including the governor, but in this case, we didn't get one from him," Carroll said.

Conservative commentators spent Friday criticizing the newspaper, however.

Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly told listeners on his syndicated radio show that the newspaper had intended the article as an attack on Schwarzenegger.

"The Los Angeles Times is out to get him, to destroy him," O'Reilly said.

When asked by a caller what he thought about Schwarzenegger's apology Thursday for having "behaved badly," O'Reilly was forgiving.

"I am willing to overlook frat boy behavior from 30 years ago, because if not, then you're basically eliminating everybody, unless they're a saint," he said. "Most guys have done dopey things with women."

Schwarzenegger campaign aides, while not disputing the story's specifics, suggested that Democratic campaign operatives had been behind the allegations.

"The Democrats are delivering on what they promised -- a last-minute smear campaign," spokesman Rob Stutzman said Friday. "Very well-coordinated. You have the L.A. Times article. They claim there was no help from Democratic operatives. Who knows?"

Several people who attended a speech by Schwarzenegger's wife, Maria Shriver, at a luncheon of the Conservative Women's Leadership Assn. in Newport Beach on Friday said they believed the story had been politically motivated.

"There's an assumption that the L.A. Times is in collusion with Gray Davis," with Democratic Party consultant Bob Mulholland, said Jon Fleischman, former executive director of the state GOP.

"The L.A. Times has become more of a political hit maker than a journalistic source," Fleischman said.

That theme was picked up by AM talk radio hosts, who repeatedly insisted that the governor's campaign had engineered the story.

Meanwhile, critics circulated rumors that the newspaper had held the story in an attempt to sabotage Schwarzenegger's campaign at the last minute.

"You don't have to wait until five days before the election" to run a story "unless you think it's not going to withstand scrutiny," Fox News anchor Tony Snow said during an appearance on "The Sean Hannity Show," a nationally syndicated radio program. "Most voters, when they see stories like this come out, they're pretty cynical about it."

Syndicated columnist Jill Stewart, a former Times reporter, repeated that charge during an appearance on Fox's "The O'Reilly Factor," saying Times reporters had told her that the story was being held.

"They had the story done two weeks ago," she said.

Carroll called that allegation completely false.

"We were working day and night, reporting the story all the way through Wednesday, and it was in the paper Thursday," he said. "It couldn't have been published even a day earlier."

*

Times staff writers Peter Nicholas and Jean Pasco contributed to this report.

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